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Microsoft makes strides on new Windows

Microsoft has stepped up work on Longhorn, the next version of Windows. A new test version, leaked onto the Web last week, is more advanced than analysts had expected.

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A more advanced test version of Windows XP's successor has leaked onto the Web, and analysts say it indicates that Microsoft has stepped up work to deliver the new operating system.

The operating system, code-named Longhorn, is expected to debut late next year or early in 2005. But analysts who examined the latest test release, dubbed "Milestone 5," which leaked onto the Web last week, said Microsoft appears to be slightly ahead of schedule.

The new test version is more refined than the one that leaked during the last week of February, said analysts. Now that the company has shipped Windows Server 2003, its new server operating system, Microsoft appears to be rapidly shifting development resources to Longhorn, the next major release of Windows for the desktop.

Analysts had not expected this test release until July, with public availability of the next test version--Longhorn M6--seen for October during Microsoft's annual developer conference.

The stepped up Longhorn development efforts could make the difference between Microsoft shipping the operating system in late 2004 rather than early 2005.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with market researcher Directions on Microsoft, predicted that the best case for its release--if Microsoft maintains its current pace--would be the end of October 2004. If, however, Microsoft sticks to its average of 40 months between shipment of new Windows releases, Longhorn would debut in February 2005.

Microsoft has said only that the operating system will debut in late 2004. The company was not immediately available to comment on the latest leaked release of Longhorn.

Longhorn's debut is closely tied to Microsoft's work on a new, underlying file system derived from the company's database development. That system is designed to make it easier for people to find information on PC hard drives and across networks. Microsoft plans to introduce the new file system as part of Longhorn, and also as part of Yukon, the code name for the next version of its SQL Server database software.

Dubbed Windows Future Storage (WinFS), the new means for storing, accessing or indexing files would replace NTFS and FAT32, which are used by Windows XP and earlier versions of Windows.

Creating a new file system, particularly one using modern database technology, is no easy undertaking, say analysts.

The newest release of Longhorn bolsters support for WinFS through client tools. But the new file system itself is not available with this newest leaked version.

In preparation for the file system, Microsoft has reorganized key folders into libraries. For example, from the Start menu, a Longhorn user can access a Picture & Video Library, Game Library and Music Library.

With the libraries concept, Microsoft is introducing new ways for Windows users to organize and find their data. For example, the "My Pictures & Video Library" organizes digital images and movies by, among other criteria, year. In fact, all folders in the operating system come with a "filter by" option for a variety of criteria, such as type, subject, category or comments.

"Game Library" introduces features that Windows users would currently have to look elsewhere to find. Besides filtering or searching for games, it has are options for uninstalling games or adjusting game controllers, audio settings and display properties. Such changes mark the first time Microsoft has brought hardware settings to a folder view; typically a Windows user would have to go to the Control Panel to tweak these settings.

Changes galore
CNET News.com observed the leaked Longhorn, dubbed Build 4015 by Microsoft, running on a Gateway 400XL notebook with 1.5GHz Intel Centrino processor and 512MB of SDRAM.

The latest version of Longhorn includes a more streamlined, graphical installation process, which eliminates older text-based installation tools. Like earlier Longhorn leaks, the Milestone 5 user interface is more refined than Windows XP. Microsoft also appears to be pushing forward with a task pane, or sidebar, that by default adorns about a ruler's width of the right-hand side of the display. Similar task panes, but with different options, are available in Office XP, Office 2003 Beta 2 and MSN 8.

The sidebar is one of the most significant changes to the Windows user interface. In its default setting, the sidebar adds to the Windows desktop a search option, quick access to frequently

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used programs, a rotating slideshow of images and a clock. A new option lets users change the position of the sidebar to the bottom or left-hand side of the screen, as well as adjust the size in position with respect to the traditional task bar.

Microsoft has also increased support for portable storage devices, making it easier to save important data. One of the available options when plugging in a portable USB (universal serial bus) drive lets Windows users create a "Portable User Profile." By default, documents, music, photos, videos, user preferences and settings are synchronized with the USB device.

Microsoft also has added new options for connecting to devices with digital images. When plugging in a USB drive containing digital photos, new option "Silent Transfer" skips Microsoft's typical wizard process and goes to the final step of moving the images to the computer.

Longhorn M5 also features many changes to settings found in the Control Panel. A new Portable Audio Devices control could simplify working with portable music players. Microsoft also added new feature called Parental Controls, which creates user restrictions based on Internet programs, total hours using the computer or specific games. The Internet feature is not enabled in the newest leaked Longhorn, while the others are tied to specific user accounts.

Microsoft also tweaked the User accounts feature, adding more control over login features and managing users who are part of the Administrator's group.

The Windows Component Wizard, which is used for adding or removing OS features, allows further customization based on "platform." The component installer would allow the user to add features supporting Tablet PC, which is based on Windows XP Professional.

Microsoft also updated the Internet Information Services option to version 6.5, which supports FrontPage 2002 server extensions, among other newer options.

As previously reported, Windows Media Player 9 Series Player found in the leaked Longhorn is a newer build, 2991 vs. 2980 for the one publicly available, as is the version of Internet Explorer included with the new operating system. The new test version also contains Windows Messenger 5, which is in separate beta testing.