Microsoft to reveal more Longhorn details

At its Professional Developers Conference next month, the software giant will detail a revamped graphics system and other features of the next release of Windows.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
Microsoft is expected next month to disclose more details on Longhorn, its planned upgrade to Windows, as the company looks to drive demand for the forthcoming operating system.

At its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, the Redmond, Wash., software maker will detail Longhorn's underlying graphics and user interface technology, code-named Avalon. Details on Avalon, a database update code-named Yukon, and a new Web services development framework called Indigo are expected to be the highlights of the conference, according to sources familiar with the company's plans.


What's new:
Microsoft next month will provide more details on the Longhorn version of Windows, which is due as early as 2005. Longhorn will include a new graphics and user interface technology called "Avalon."

Bottom line:
Microsoft is trying to generate interest in Longhorn and give its customers compelling reasons to upgrade. Avalon will appeal to gamers and graphics designers, but businesses likely will be interested in improvements for using digital media in Windows.

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Microsoft describes Avalon as "a brand-new client platform for building smart, connected, media-rich applications in Longhorn." Avalon will introduce the ability to create applications with a new style of user interface and greater resolution than Windows currently supports, according to the company. Microsoft in May said Longhorn would support a screen resolution of 120 dots per inch or higher. With Windows XP, typical 17-inch displays support a resolution of about 95 dots per inch.

Avalon is the graphics and media plumbing within Longhorn that software developers use to build applications. "Aero" is the company's name for the actual graphical user interface (GUI) in Longhorn that the end user sees.

Microsoft will be giving out an early preview, or developers' edition of Longhorn, at the conference. Microsoft executives have called Longhorn, which isn't expected to make its debut until 2005 at the earliest, a "bet the company" release of Windows. The software maker is readying Longhorn-related updates across much of its product lineup.

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. The software maker plans to introduce the new file system as part of Longhorn and of Yukon, the next version of its SQL Server database software.

Longhorn applications will sport a 3D appearance and will fully support digital media, which will make PC-based games more vivid. At the same time, Microsoft is beefing up the tools used by developers and administrators to install business applications on a corporate network.

Business benefits?
Although a sharp, new look may be reason enough for some people to adopt the new operating system, Microsoft has yet to describe in detail the benefits of Longhorn to its business customers.

Some of the graphics enhancements on tap for Longhorn will likely appeal more to niche users, including gamers and graphics designers, rather than mainstream business customers, said Kerry Gerontianos, president of Incremax Technologies, which builds custom corporate applications using Microsoft software.

Still, software tools that allow companies to integrate media capabilities into desktop applications could be a big draw for some Windows users in big companies, Gerontianos said.

"For the last few years, companies have been cutting back on travel and doing more with videoconferencing systems, which they set up specifically for that," he said. "Microsoft has been trying to push that out more onto the desktop."

But Microsoft will still need to explain to corporate information technology managers and professional software developers how Avalon can go beyond sprucing up existing Windows applications to contribute to the bottom line, analysts said.

That's especially important given recurring problems with Windows security and Microsoft's ability to effectively distribute software patches.

"People want to know how I get from here to there and at what cost," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft. "Do I have to retrain people again, throw away source code, and start from scratch?

"Cool doesn't matter anymore. Give me the background on why it's important to me, not the 'gee whiz' factor."

Microsoft representatives were not immediately available to comment on Avalon.

Also on tap at the conference are more details on forthcoming improvements to Microsoft's development tools, including the Whidbey version of Visual Studio.Net. Both Whidbey and Yukon are due for completion in the second half of next year, with broad testing programs scheduled for early next year. Microsoft also is expected to detail several enhancements to development languages Visual Basic.Net, C# and C++ to improve developer productivity and application security.

Long road to Avalon
Microsoft will likely pitch Avalon to application developers, because it's really a collection of application programming interfaces, or APIs, which developers write to tap into the graphics capabilities of Longhorn.

According to the descriptions of the conference sessions, Microsoft plans to simplify the creation of applications that use media including audio, video and animation. Windows applications will mimic "Web style navigation" to guide people through specific tasks or find information. By tying Avalon to Microsoft's Indigo back-end Web services software, developers can more easily connect data from a corporate database to GUI elements, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft plans to introduce its own applications, including its Office desktop suite and its "Jupiter" suite of server applications, to help drive demand for Longhorn. But convincing independent software developers of the value of Longhorn's graphics capabilities through Avalon is essential in driving sales of the operating system, Cherry noted.

"You need to have application developers that can take the raw graphics engine and API and transform that into great applications," Cherry said. "As a developer, I don't want to make it hard for people to move forward."

To take advantage of Longhorn's graphics and higher resolution, companies and consumers will have to upgrade their existing hardware. One tester who had gained access to an early version of Longhorn said systems will require a 3D video card with a minimum of 64 megabytes of memory.

Other enhancements include the introduction of new interface elements such as a "Windows sidebar," which developers can use to present information to end users. The programming interface, or "hardware abstraction layer," for presenting media from video and audio cards will be Microsoft's Direct3D, which is used for entertainment and gaming applications.

Microsoft will introduce a feature for corporate IT managers, called ClickOnce, which will be part of Longhorn and the Whidbey version of Visual Studio.Net. The goal of ClickOnce is to streamline desktop application installation. With ClickOnce, developers can schedule automatic updates to Windows applications and control security when installing applications over the Web, according to the company.

Since the introduction of Windows 2000, Microsoft has been introducing features aimed at lowering the cost of desktop administration, which remains a large portion of the costs associated with PCs.

Other topics related to Avalon that Microsoft plans to cover at the conference include improved search capabilities using WinFS, Longhorn's new file system. Avalon also will allow developers to build applications that use pen input for handheld devices such as Microsoft's Tablet PC.