Power user: Avoiding the Longhorn stampede starts now

John McCormick

Power users are always checking out operating systems still in development. That's because power users are anxious to play with new software, especially if we might get features we really want.

Managers also look ahead, although sometimes with a bit of fear and often with more than a touch of loathing. Many of us at Microsoft shops'power users and managers alike'have focused on Longhorn, the next-generation Windows OS.

A new operating system brings pressure from below and above for an upgrade requiring a big chunk of the already stretched IT budget. Fortunately for them, government IT managers are actually better off than those in the commercial sector.

Bureaucratic inertia can be a good thing, especially when it means saving time and money by skipping an entire OS generation. A lot of agencies still depend on Windows 2000, and those managers are probably thinking they'll wait a little longer and skip XP entirely.

But what does Longhorn have in store for those who skip XP in hopes of an even better upgrade? Things can change, but as of now the short answer is, not much.

Longhorn, touted by Bill Gates at the 2003 Longhorn Professional Developers Conference as the event of the decade and the biggest news since Windows 95, now looks more like a ho-hum upgrade to XP. Managers delaying XP migration in hopes of skipping a generation may want to reconsider.

Coming sooner than expected

With the new version of Internet Explorer being made available for XP, Avalon, Indigo and WinFS are the only exciting new technologies Longhorn has left. And when it comes to Avalon and Indigo, you may not have to wait for Longhorn to use them.

Avalon, a new unified presentation system, is the next-generation graphics architecture for Windows that will be available as an upgrade to XP and Windows Server 2003.

Indigo is a new communication technology now scheduled to be available for both XP and Server 2003. It supports other OS platforms, as well as Java, integrating ASP.NET Web Services, .NET Remoting (enabling application communication), Microsoft Message Queuing, distributed transactions and more.

Together, Avalon and Indigo form the core of WinFX, a new managed application programming interface.

WinFS (not to be confused with WinFX) will apply SQL Server 2005 technology to the Windows file system'eventually. The feature will ship as an update to Longhorn and isn't of much interest to anyone who doesn't feel constrained by the current NTFS file system. And those who've already dumped Microsoft's archaic search tools for something like Google on the desktop or Clusty for the enterprise, may not get too excited about WinFS even when it is available.

So what's going on here? The problem is that Microsoft has come under increasing pressure to innovate from Linux and alternative browsers such as FireFox. Such programs force the software giant to get new tools to the public as soon as possible. For example, the Windows firewall is getting some enhancements for the Longhorn release, but I'm betting that if they're really useful and ready soon, user demand will cause Microsoft to release them for XP.

In short, Microsoft's Longhorn may have more in common with XP than originally thought. Agencies holding out for the new OS might want to start asking what they're waiting for. Better security? Keep waiting. The much-anticipated Next-Generation Secure Computing Base, or Palladium, probably won't be ready for the full-blown release of Longhorn, which goes into beta this summer.

But if you want to see what you're waiting for, Microsoft recently made online and CD preview versions of Avalon, Indigo and the WinFX SDK available. Check out msdn.microsoft.com/longhorn.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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