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Microsoft: Longhorn goes to pieces

Microsoft retools its next release of Windows to streamline and lower the cost of building and distributing the software.

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Microsoft is designing its ever-present Windows operating system to streamline and lower the cost of building and distributing the software.

The next major client version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will be designed as a series of components that Microsoft can easily combine and tailor for different markets and computing hardware, according to company executives. That's a break from the company's long-held strategy of building several similar, yet distinct, operating systems positioned for specific purposes and geographic areas.

The change will simplify the process, and hence cut the costs associated with building Windows PCs or issuing software patches, according to Mark Myers, OEM manufacturing program manager at Microsoft.

Longhorn is expected to debut in 2005, and will be the successor to Windows XP. It is expected to include better graphics, a redesigned storage system and a new look and feel.

Microsoft will also ship the same version of the OS to PC manufacturers and one to retail. Currently, the Windows CD that Microsoft includes in boxes sold at retail differs, albeit only slightly, from the one that PC makers receive.

Having two versions "causes on the back end a lot more time and resources" at Microsoft, Myers said at a speech at a company-sponsored conference last month.

In a way, Longhorn, due in 2005, can be thought of as the Mr. Potato Head of operating systems: About 95 percent of the key functions of the operating system will exist in a basic software core. To make a Longhorn PC for export to France, for instance, PC makers will bolt the French language module onto the basic Longhorn core through the Multi-Lingual User Interface (MUI), a new subsystem within the operating system.

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Similarly, manufacturers will take the Longhorn core and add select modules to tailor it for a tablet PC, for example, or a media center PC destined for the Philippines. This process will be managed through the Component Management Interface (CMI), a new feature that can be used to upgrade the operating system over its functional life.

CMI will function like the add/remove applications function in the control panel of PCs today, according to Microsoft. Likewise, people will also be able to flip a given computer from English to another language fairly easily.

Apple Computer already uses modularity on its Mac OS X operating system to make it easier and cheaper to localize the operating system for different languages; Microsoft has also introduced some MUI functionality with Windows XP, although localization, the process of translating the software to accommodate a foreign language, is still the norm. With Longhorn, Microsoft will attempt to make modularity more useful and profitable for the company.

The age of specialization
Part of the reason for the move to a modular Windows is the growing number of Windows versions. Microsoft sells four different versions of Windows XP for PCs--Windows XP Home, Windows XP Professional, Tablet PC and Windows XP Media Center--with additional versions for embedded devices and 64-bit workstations. In turn, each of these is localized into several European and Asian languages.

The specialization then continues at the computer manufacturer's factory. The software bundle, or image, put on each PC varies model by model: A Dell Dimension 4600 has a different image than does a Dimension 4550, which means that from a manufacturing perspective, the version of Windows is different.

Additionally, PC makers and some corporate buyers also customize the image on top of that for branding or other purposes, further expanding the number of images.

All of these tweaks mean that PC makers, in the end, are juggling a wide spectrum of different versions of Windows. Longhorn will allow the same core image to be used on a wider variety of PC models or family.

Modularity could "eliminate hardware dependencies," said Jeff Ford, manager of software development in IBM's personal client division. "A 15-minute load--that is the goal," Myers said, adding that the process of transferring a client software image onto a PC can take substantially longer today. The quicker the load, the more PCs can come off the factory line in a single day, which in turn leads to cheaper PCs. Ideally, capital spending for manufacturers could be spread out, too.

"The more and more we can increase velocity in the factory, the fewer factories that have to be built," Myers said.

Issuing bug patches will also be easier. "Ninety-five percent of the bugs will hit the single international core," he added. "One service pack for those bugs will work on all OSes."

Longhorn's launch isn't due for quite a while, and the tools for loading operating systems in a modular fashion are still being created.

"We haven't had time to evaluate it yet," said Ford. Language switching could also create problems, he added. If someone switches the operating system from English to German, the applications might still be in English. Also, keyboards vary by geography.

Still, the concept holds promise, especially since there is now a wider variety of Windows. An interim tool, called WinPE (Windows Preinstallation Environment) for Windows XP, will introduce to manufacturers the concepts intended to debut with Longhorn.

"You're looking at five different versions of Windows that you are going to have to manage in the manufacturing area," said Mike Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "It is kind of interesting and sort of extends the work done by the guys doing Windows XP Embedded" who are already shoehorning Windows XP into a panoply of different computers, Cherry added.