HolidayBuyer's Guide

An early peek at Longhorn

Advanced search and file-organization features reflect the shift in computing since XP's debut in 2001.

After months of keeping its prized cow in the barn, Microsoft is beginning to let Longhorn out of the stall for public viewing.

Beginning with brief demonstrations to reporters this week, the software maker is starting to shed light on just what the next version of Windows will offer when it hits the market next year. High on the list of features are security enhancements, improved desktop searching and organizing, and better methods for laptops to roam from one network to another.

"This is going to be a big deal," Jim Allchin, Microsoft group vice president, told CNET News.com on Thursday. While he acknowledged that Microsoft is unlikely to get throngs of people to show up outside retail stores on launch day as happened with Windows 95, he did say the company expects Longhorn to drive PC sales. "This product has something for everybody."

News.context

What's new:
After staying relatively mum on what the next version of Windows will look like, Microsoft is offering a peek at how the new OS will look, work and feel.

Bottom line:
Windows, the OS used by more than 90 percent of the world's computers, hasn't had a full revamp in five years. Computer makers are counting on Redmond to produce an upgrade that will make people run out to nab a new PC.

More stories on Longhorn

In a brief demonstration, Allchin showed off several key features that make the new OS stand out from prior versions. A "quick search pane," for example, allows users to type queries and instantly see matching files.

In both look and form, the search mechanism is similar to the Spotlight feature in Apple Computer's Mac OS X Tiger, which goes on sale later this month. Search results can be saved as virtual folders that are automatically updated to include all items that fit a particular query, such as "authored by Mary" or "containing the word 'Cleveland.'" Documents, pictures, music and even applications can also be given a rating or keywords to add further criteria for searching.

But while the OS bears plenty of similarities to Tiger, Allchin stressed that Microsoft has broken new ground in Longhorn. For example, document icons are no longer a hint of the type of file, but rather a small picture of the file itself. The icon for a Word document, for example, is a tiny iteration of the first page of the file. Folders, too, show glimpses of what's inside. Such images can be rather small, but they offer a visual cue that aids in the searching process, Allchin said.

Allchin said that Longhorn also goes further than Tiger when it comes to what one can do with search results, saying it offers new ways to organize and view the information. While the look of the OS hasn't been finalized, the translucent windows and other graphics tricks are expected to find their way into the finished software.

Microsoft clearly has a lot of work to do with Longhorn. Although the company has added Tablet and Media Center versions, as well as the Service Pack 2 security enhancements, a lot has changed since XP debuted five years ago.

What's in a name?
As for timing, Allchin said development is basically on track for the schedule outlined by the company last fall. An updated developer preview version will be given out at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC, set to take place at month's end in Seattle. The company is still shooting for an initial beta around midyear, though it could be July, as the new official schedule is "early summer." A second beta is planned, though no final date has been given, with the goal of having the OS broadly available on PCs by next year's holiday season. Longhorn will come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, Allchin said.

While many details about Longhorn have been nailed down, others, including its name, are still up in the air. The company is close to deciding which different versions will be available, but it's not ready to announce that yet. It is too soon to say, for example, whether there will be separate Media Center or Tablet PC editions, Allchin said.

"We are moving features around," he said.

Microsoft talked fairly early about Longhorn, with company Chairman Bill Gates first demonstrating it at a developer conference in October 2003. At the time, the company focused largely on the "under the hood" features of the OS--in particular, a new file system, Web services architecture and the presentation system.

Since then, Microsoft has significantly reshaped the OS. Last year, the company announced that it would pull out the new file system and that the Web services and presentation pieces would also be made available for Windows XP.

Got to know when to hold 'em
Allchin said his priority is making sure Longhorn meets quality standards, followed by getting the product out on schedule. Packing it full of features is a third priority, and the one most likely to give. As a result, Microsoft would delay Longhorn over quality concerns, but is unlikely to let individual features hold up its release. That could mean some further trimming around the edges if things fall behind.

As with Windows XP Service Pack 2, security remains at the forefront of Microsoft's development efforts. With Longhorn, Microsoft isn't focusing as much on building in antivirus software as it is changing the behaviors that leave computer systems vulnerable to attack. For example, most computers today are run in administrator mode, making it easy to add new programs and make other changes, but also allowing major fundamental changes to a computer to be made by malicious software.

With Longhorn, Microsoft is trying to change that so a computer runs with the least possible permission level. Only those programs that truly need administrator privileges would run at that level. Microsoft plans a similar change to Internet Explorer that would reduce the level of access given to external Web sites in an attempt to lessen the possibility of malicious attacks.

Microsoft also has focused on improving the experience when using a laptop computer. A fast-start option, combined with support for external displays, will make it easier to create computers that can display calendar information or play music without having to start up the whole PC, including the OS. Another change will make it easier for a person's PC to join a network at work or at home, while remaining invisible to other machines when getting Wi-Fi at a coffee shop.

In the category of making sure things "just work," Allchin cited enhancements such as making sure that a laptop that connects to a projector displays correctly without having to press any keys. In addition, he said, are settings tailored for specific tasks, such as watching a DVD. The computer will just assume that the user doesn't want the movie muted and probably wants to watch it full-screen.

Getting down to business
If there is more than one PC in a home network, Allchin said, it will be easy to allow sharing of files and easy to get at those files. For example, a PC with Longhorn might show all the music files together, whether they are on the local PC or another machine on the network.

There are also features designed to make it easier on businesses that use large numbers of Longhorn machines. Microsoft has created a new way for companies to put their custom installation of the OS onto a group of new machines.

Allchin said those enhancements--along with a reduction in the number of times customers have to reboot their machines and other features--will mean that companies that move to Longhorn will be able to cut their operating costs. Of course, he added, "that's up to us to prove."

Microsoft is also crafting its preliminary list of which capabilities a computer will need to run Longhorn. Allchin said the company is recommending that systems have 512MB of memory, as well as "today's level" of processor. There will be different levels of display quality depending on how much graphics horsepower a computer has.

The richest view, code-named Aero Glass, sports the fanciest bells and whistles, such as translucent windows that come to life when opened or maximized. That's where the heftiest graphics requirements come in, but Allchin said recent tests show it might not require as much horsepower as originally thought.

Another view, Aero, will have slightly lower requirements and offer many, but not all, of the features. Finally, a minimal user interface will look fairly similar to current versions of Windows.

Allchin said the company is continuing to tinker with different interfaces and their requirements, "but clearly we want as many machines as possible to have Aero Glass because there is a lot more we can do in that."

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