As expected, the company on Friday announced a new road map for Longhorn, its revision to Windows XP. The changes--removing some features and altering others--are designed to let the company have a test version of the software next year and a final release for desktops and notebooks by 2006. A server release is planned for 2007.
To avoid further delays, Microsoft is revising its list of what will appear in Longhorn, the next version of Windows.
The company is pushing some key improvements out of Longhorn, including the WinFS file system, for its release in 2006. The trade-offs are an effort to deliver other desired features on time.
Microsoft's top executives had characterized Longhorn as a major overhaul of the operating system and stressed that its release would not be determined by trying to hit a specific ship date. However, as the project threatened to push out into 2007 or beyond, analysts argued that the software maker needed to scale the project back to something more manageable.
The software maker has not had a full release of its desktop operating system since Windows XP debuted in October 2001, although the company has shipped specialized versions of the operating system, such as the Tablet PC and Media Center editions. Microsoft has also been faced with a strain on its programming resources for Longhorn, with much of the Windows development team commandeered to complete the Service Pack 2 security update to Windows XP, which Microsoft finished earlier this month.
Longhorn was originally supposed to have three major changes: a new file system, WinFS; a new graphics and presentation engine known as Avalon; and Indigo, a Web services and communication architecture.
Microsoft is making changes to all three pillars. WinFS will be available as a beta when the Longhorn release comes out as a client. Avalon and Indigo will be part of Longhorn, but also made available separately for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.
By making Avalon and Indigo work on older machines, Microsoft hopes more developers will want to write software that takes advantage of the new technologies. Had they been Longhorn-only features, the concern is that developers would have held off writing software until there was a critical mass of machines running that operating system.
The changes come, Microsoft executives say, following months of conversations with computer makers, developers and customers. Computer makers were said to be pushing Microsoft for a release that would not take until 2007 to deliver.
Doing that, Allchin said, meant taking WinFS out of Longhorn. The company now believes it can more fully implement the new storage concept and do so simultaneously for both servers and desktop computers, something that would not have been possible had WinFS been part of Longhorn.
The move clouds Gates' longtime vision for a unified storage system, something he has called a "holy grail." Such a system would allow people to easily group all kinds of documents by various categories, such as who created or edited them. Improved search, across multiple kinds of files, will still be a key feature of the revamped Longhorn, Microsoft said.
The company has already demonstrated a prototype of an MSN tool that will allow computer users to quickly search for a keyword from within files, e-mails and even e-mail attachments. Just as Web search has already become a highly competitive field, queries to local hard drives are seen as a key area for Microsoft to do battle against rivals such as Google.
The code base for Longhorn will be the same as Microsoft is using for the Service Pack 1 release of Windows Server 2003, an update slated for the first half of next year. Allchin said the decision to use that code base was made some months ago.
One of the benefits of that code base is that it works with both traditional 32-bit processors and 64-bit chips.
It will all add up to a better product for developers, Microsoft says.
"I personally know that this is the right thing to do. This product will be awesome. There is (still) so much capability in (Longhorn)," Allchin said. "Having us stage all the work that we're doing here...is the right trade-off."
Ahead of Longhorn, Microsoft plans a number of additions to Windows XP, including a new version of its entertainment-oriented Media Center operating system. The company is also readying a new version of its Media Player jukebox software as well as Media Center extender and Portable Media Center products that the company hopes will breathe some new life into the 3-year-old XP. The company plans a "Windows XP Reloaded" ad campaign that touts all of the new products as reasons to move to XP.
The Longhorn changes have been on the table at Microsoft since last month, Allchin said. "The early part of July is when I said to myself that we should change, and we've been working through things since then."
Longhorn had already fallen behind its original schedule. Microsoft earlier this year pushed the date back to the first half of 2006, saying a test version would be delayed until next year.
The revision to the operating system was one of the most complicated ones Microsoft had ever planned for its flagship product.
Gates unveiled Longhorn last October at a developers conference, sending programmers home with very early code, and promised beta versions would follow by this year. Despite the company's enthusiasm for Longhorn, Microsoft shifted a great deal of its Windows development team this year to work on Service Pack 2 as part of a heightened push for more secure software.
Earlier this week, Microsoft confirmed that in the wake of SP2, it would "revisit its priorities" for Longhorn.
Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had long talked about Longhorn as a product that was not driven by a particular date, but analysts say that the time had come for the company to figure out what it could deliver on a reasonable timetable.
"At some point you have to decide on a ship date and a set of features that can hit that ship date," said Mike Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.
Cherry said that in reality, there is no way to speed up a project other than to cut features. In modern software development, increasing the number of people on a project alone won't make enough of a difference. "It's not just a problem for Microsoft. It's a problem for software development in general."
Executives had characterized Longhorn as a big bet but had maintained that such advances were important, even if they took time.