Going long on Longhorn

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper explains why the upcoming OS is so important to Microsoft and the rest of the tech industry.

Getting time with Microsoft's Jim Allchin used to be as easy as gaining an audience with the pope. But these days Microsoft's No. 3 executive is popping up all over the place--even reworking his busy schedule to sup with (gasp!) bloggers. It's not a role that comes naturally to the normally reclusive Allchin. A brainy but reserved uber-geek, Allchin would much prefer hashing over code questions with developers than sit down with a bunch of infernally annoying reporters . But the company's future depends on his transformation into a veritable Mr. Accessible--and a persuasive Mr. Accessible, at that.

Can he do it? More than Bill Gates, more than Steve Ballmer, it's Allchin who must convince opinion makers and the all-important OEM community that Longhorn, the code name for the next major operating system from Microsoft, is worth the wait. And then the rest of us have to be convinced that Longhorn is the next must-have product in their lives.

Mac owners--yours truly among them--will no doubt chuckle at the audacity of some of the coming claims. Rest assured there will be no paucity of hyperbole in the remaining year-and-a-half run-up to the operating system's debut (assuming Microsoft hits its self-imposed deadline.)

Mac owners--yours truly among them--will no doubt chuckle at the audacity of some of the coming claims.
It's going to be that way because every segment of the PC food chain is desperate for a megahit out of Microsoft. With memories of the go-go days a fading memory, they would like nothing better than a killer operating system that ignites a furious upgrade cycle--if not a mad spree of impulse buying.

The company, which plans to unleash a massive marketing blitz around Longhorn, needs to create a bigger stir than when it last rolled out a "major" OS upgrade in 2001 with Windows XP. Through no fault of its own, Microsoft's launch coincided with a tech spending slowdown and an accompanying economic recession. The bigger problem: XP was only marginally more interesting than Windows 98 and no amount of marketing hoopla could convince otherwise.

Microsoft began publicly discussing the Longhorn project in 2002, but its engineers were already tinkering before then. Work on some parts of the OS (like the recently excised WinFS) actually dates back more than 10 years (roughly coinciding with Allchin's stewardship of Windows).

When Allchin came to town last week, he was in prime demo form. One thing Microsoft does well--Allchin, in particular--is demonstrate its products. (The one time that wasn't the case happened to take place in inconvenient public view at the company's antitrust trial in Washington.)

At this early juncture, Longhorn leaves a positive impression. Groundbreaking? I'll reserve judgment for later.
At this early juncture, Longhorn leaves a positive impression. Groundbreaking? I'll reserve judgment for later. Some of the features bore similarities to Apple Computer's Mac OS X Tiger, which goes on sale later this month. (One critic by the name of Steve Jobs went even further. "They are shamelessly copying us," he declared during the company?s annual meeting on Thursday.) Whatever its intellectual origin, the new OS clearly marks an improvement over XP and, if you believe Allchin, will go a long way toward answer lingering user complaints about ease-of-use and computer security. In the same breath, I should point out that Microsoft has created many of those same ease-of-use and security issues, but better late than never.

Two big challenges remain. Microsoft has rarely shipped its operating systems on time and Longhorn is no exception. Allchin's final legacy at the company rests on his ability to pull this one over the goal line on time. Without getting into details, he suggested that Microsoft would make sure OEMs have copies in hand well before the December 2006 product debut. An entire industry will be planning around that promise. If that date slips, you?re talking about disaster.

Microsoft also needs to turn out a "wow" product with as many useful bells and whistles as it can. This is part computer science, part guesswork, but Microsoft still hasn't produced a "wow" version of Windows. If Longhorn doesn't produce the goods, not even a gazillion dollars in marketing funds will make a difference. This is about more than managing the message.

 

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