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Gates trots out Longhorn

Microsoft's chairman tries to win over developers as he offers the first look at the next version of Windows, which he reiterated is the company's biggest effort since Windows 95.

LOS ANGELES--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates tried to win over developers here Monday as he offered the first look at Longhorn, the next version of Windows.

Longhorn is built around three major advances--a new graphics and presentation engine known as Avalon, a new communications architecture known as Indigo, and a new file system known as WinFS that borrows from Microsoft's relational database technology.


What's new:
Microsoft's chairman takes the stage to show off features of the Longhorn operating system, with the desktop getting the most attention.

Bottom line:
Even with all the work that's been done so far, Gates is still looking for developer feedback to make sure that Microsoft is headed in the right direction with Longhorn, which he calls the company's biggest effort since Windows 95.

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Gates did not offer a time frame for delivery of the new operating system, but he said it still represents "years of work." Analysts have said they expect it could be 2006 before the new software is released.

Instead of providing an estimate of when the final release will ship, Microsoft said only that a beta, or test version, of the software is slated for next summer.

It was Longhorn's desktop that got the most thorough preview during Gates' keynote address at the company's Professional Developers Conference, taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Among the features shown off were transparent windows, animated windows that pop open and a new taskbar on the righthand side of the screen that displayed a clock, buddy list, and news and other information streamed onto the desktop via an RSS feed.

Using the relational database built into the file system, information can be viewed in new ways, such as in "stacks" based on a single common attribute. Although the concept is similar to that of folders, it is more ad hoc than the folder design and is meant to facilitate having one piece of information in several stacks.

The graphics are powered by a new XML-based graphics and presentation engine known as Avalon that builds into the operating system and expands some of Microsoft's existing technologies like DirectX and ClearType.

The graphical look of Longhorn--particularly its transparency and animated windows--are reminiscent of Apple's Mac OS X. Other features, such as the thumbnail image that pops up while users are scrolling through a long document, appear to be all-new ideas.

The file system has already been well described, but Gates said it will fulfill a long-held vision of his that will pave the way for better searching as well as ways of grouping together e-mail, Web pages and documents that have previously been held in separate "silos."

"That's been a holy grail for me for some time," Gates told developers Monday.

Although the event was miles away from the fires that have been ravaging much of Southern California, the morning's crowd was somewhat smaller than the sell-out numbers still expected here. Some people were still having trouble getting into Los Angeles, with many flights cancelled or delayed for hours.

Back to the future
Trying to show off both Longhorn's backward compatibility and its possibilities for the future, Microsoft product unit manager Hillel Cooperman presented the operating system running VisiCalc, the 20-year-old spreadsheet program, as well as a demo application that drew on all of the operating system's new features to grab and display content from the Internet and video, drawing on the operating system's search, graphics and Web services engines.

Gates also tried to stress that Microsoft is still looking for developer feedback to make sure that the company is headed in the right direction with Longhorn, which he reiterated is the company's biggest effort since Windows 95.

Advances in hardware will make the features of Longhorn both possible and necessary, Gates said, predicting that PCs by 2006 will have a processor of between 4GHz and 6GHz, more than 2GB of memory, a terabyte or more of storage, and graphics chips three times as powerful as today's.

"None of these things are the constraints," Gates said. "It's software."

In addition to the major advances that Microsoft is planning with Longhorn, Gates and Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin underscored the effort that Microsoft is placing on the fundamentals--increasing both the security and reliability of Windows.

Following Gates on stage, Allchin showed off more of Longhorn's technical features, including a reporting feature that he said offers developers the equivalent of a "flight data recorder" to track the operation of their applications.

Gates said the new technologies inside Longhorn should be used to make applications that are at once both more powerful and more simple to run--another longtime goal. He expressed hope that future programs might have "less commands despite the new richness that's there."

With that goal in mind, Microsoft highlighted some new tools for developers, most notably WinFX, which the company described as a new application programming model and an evolution of its .Net Framework, as well as "XAML" (pronounced "zamel"), a new language that Allchin said would allow developers to create Longhorn applications in a "declarative" way.

The company also wanted to show that some developers are already committed to its efforts, tapping representatives from Adobe Systems, and elsewhere to show some of the possibilites for Longhorn applications.