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 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."


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

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