Microsoft Pares Longhorn Features

Microsoft is sacrificing some features it planned for Longhorn as it works to deliver its first beta of the next Windows client next year, a company spokesperson says.

Microsoft set out an ambitious vision for Longhorn last October at its Professional Developers Conference. The company said the operating system would offer major improvements over Windows XP in the way it handles graphics, files, and communications. Microsoft forecast a 2006 release.

"What we told developers at PDC is the essence of Longhorn," says Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows. "We are now determining the core work that we absolutely need to do and what the areas are where we can do some shaping around the edges so we do get the product in the hands of customers."

Microsoft is not cutting back on its vision, Sullivan says. Instead, it is clipping features and functionality, without removing core improvements it promised, so the product can ship in a reasonable time frame. "We're determining the work that will enable us to deliver that vision and figuring out what is not core," Sullivan says.

Longhorn is a major new Windows release, a "big bet" for Microsoft, Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said last year. Gates has described Longhorn as a "big breakthrough release" and the most significant release of Windows since Windows 95.

Sullivan declines to detail which parts of the Longhorn plans won't make it to the final product.

"We don't have any specific details to share about the current plan or which features are in or out," Sullivan says. More details will be available before the release of the first Longhorn beta, which is planned for early 2005, he adds.

What's Expendable?

Microsoft has to trim the Longhorn feature set to be able to deliver the product, says Michael Cherry, a lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"Microsoft has talked about a lot of features and functionality for Longhorn, and as it starts to talk about shipping the product it is quite natural that some features get postponed or cut," Cherry says. "In fact, it is almost a good sign that they are starting to be realistic about the amount of work they can get done in a defined period of time."

Until today, Microsoft basically said it could do almost anything with Longhorn and presented it as a panacea for all Windows headaches, Cherry says.

"You could almost joke that anything you did not like about the existing Windows was going to be fixed by Longhorn. Although that was a good and glorious goal, it was not realistic," Cherry says.

One part of Longhorn where Microsoft might trim its ambitions is WinFS, the new unified storage system that Gates referred to at PDC as a "holy grail." WinFS promises to make it easier for users to find data such as documents and e-mail messages.

Microsoft may decide to limit the functionality of WinFS to users' computers and not extend it to file-sharing servers in a corporate network, according to sources familiar with Microsoft's development plans. Details on the changes to Longhorn were first reported earlier on Friday by BusinessWeek Online.

WinFS is one of three core components of Longhorn. The other two are Avalon and Indigo, code names for a presentation subsystem and communication technologies, respectively. The components sit on top of a layer of "fundamentals" that includes security and technology to make sure applications and drivers don't conflict.

All those components and the fundamentals will be in Longhorn when it ships, Sullivan says. However, he notes the operating system may not support as broad a range of scenarios as Microsoft once envisioned.

Product Previews

Software developers have already had a first look at Longhorn. Microsoft released a special preview version of the software at PDC. An updated developer preview will be distributed at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle in May, Sullivan says. Also at WinHEC, Microsoft will update attendees on the Longhorn road map.

Although last year's PDC attracted thousands of developers eager to hear about Longhorn, not all developers want to deal with details of an operating system that is two years out.

"We have real-world applications that must be written using today's technology. As developers who get paid to provide solutions for our companies and our clients, Longhorn is essentially a lot of background noise," says Dave Burke, a senior software developer at LLI Technologies, a Pittsburgh engineering and construction firm.

"Our policy at LLI is to jump in with both feet when a Microsoft product hits beta two. This approach has allowed us to remain relatively cutting edge while enabling us to remain focused on productivity. We've done that with .Net and with Windows Server 2003, and we'll do it with Longhorn," Burke says.

Related Delays

Longhorn and its beta release have slipped since they were first discussed. Microsoft last year set 2005 as Longhorn's release year and planned a beta for 2004, but the company has backed away from that timeline.

In March, Gates said speculation that Longhorn will ship in 2006 is "probably valid speculation." Earlier in April, Microsoft said the first Longhorn beta is likely to slip to early 2005.

Microsoft has a spotty record in meeting release targets. In March, the company delayed the release of two major updates, its SQL Server 2005 database and Visual Studio 2005 developer tools, until 2005. Both were due in the second half of 2004, and both products are tied to the new technologies coming in Longhorn.

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