This week in Longhorn

Bill Gates shows off beta of next Windows but acknowledges many key features will not be evident until later test versions.

Microsoft showed off this week some of the beef to expect in Longhorn.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave computer makers a brief look at Longhorn, but acknowledged that many of its key features will not be evident until much later test versions of the new Windows. A fraction of the new features will make it into an initial beta this summer. Microsoft wouldn't say when the subsequent beta with more new features will arrive, but Gates said the company is still focused on trying to release the final version of Longhorn in time to make it into PCs sold for the holiday season in 2006.

The company demonstrated a new XML-based document format, code-named "Metro," that it will use in Longhorn to both print and share documents.

Among other features Gates discussed was the ability of PCs running Longhorn to take advantage of storage that combines traditional hard drives and nonvolatile flash memory. By using flash for frequently accessed information, laptop PCs will be able to get much better battery life given that substantially less power is used accessing flash than is needed to spin a hard drive.

Laptops are also expected to benefit from the addition of a "mobility center" that will serve as a single control panel for all manner of laptop-related settings. The concept is similar to the Security Center that Microsoft added to Windows XP with Service Pack 2. Microsoft also detailed a broader effort to add touch-screen abilities to Longhorn-era laptops. Mitchell demonstrated the way that finger-based input could be added to traditional laptops, as well as to Tablet PC machines that allow for stylus input.

On the responsiveness front, Microsoft is inching toward its goal of replicating the "instant-on" experience customers have become used to with consumer electronics. When a laptop user pushes the power button in Windows XP, it goes into a near-shutdown "hibernate" state in which all information is saved onto the hard drive. With Longhorn, the default will be to keep the same information in memory, a so-called "suspend" state that uses somewhat more battery power, but allows for quicker resume times.

Although Microsoft is recommending that computers be pretty modern to fully run the next version of Windows, Longhorn will probably also run on a good number of older machines. However, Longhorn is going to look and run quite differently on older systems.

Computers with a 3GHz processor and 512MB of memory, for example, will get all of the bells and whistles including fancy graphics and the ability to handle multiple video streams. According to its early testing, Microsoft says that older PCs--probably those with as little as 128MB of memory--will be able to run Longhorn, but the OS may not look like it does on a newer, more powerful machine.

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