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New Windows file system enters testing

Microsoft surprises developers with a test release of WinFS, a new file system for Windows.

Microsoft surprised developers on Monday by releasing a test version of a new Windows file system.

The company made the test version of the system, called WinFS, available to Microsoft Developer Network subscribers. The software giant had originally planned to release WinFS--which it said would make for better desktop file searching--as part of the next version of Windows, once called Longhorn but now known as Vista. However, roughly a year ago, Microsoft announced it was pulling WinFS out of Longhorn in order to let the OS ship in 2006. Of WinFS, the company said only that it would be in beta form by the time Longhorn shipped.

That left many with the impression that a test version of the file system would not come until next year. However, a WinFS developer said he would not consider the long-delayed system to be early.

"I would certainly not characterize WinFS as being ahead of schedule," said Quentin Clark, director of program management for the new file system.

Operating systems such as Windows, Unix, Linux and others, use file systems to organize and store information. File systems, such as Windows' current NTFS, make it possible for people and computer programs to find documents, photos and other data.

Originally touting WinFS as the means that would enable better desktop file searching in Longhorn, Microsoft is now focusing on the benefits of the file system as a means for desktop applications to harness information stored in a common repository. For example, rather than entering shipping information in an e-commerce application, with WinFS, someone could simply click on his or her own card in a central address book and the information would be transferred to the appropriate place, Clark said.

In a note to developers on MSDN, Microsoft called WinFS a tool that makes it easier to find information stored on both local PCs and across networks.

The test version is designed to let developers start getting a sense of how the file system will work and start thinking about ways they could use the common repository capability.

Multiple betas planned
"We really believe our audience is anyone that builds applications on the desktop," Clark said.

Clark did not say when a final version of the file system would ship but said "multiple betas" are planned. No additional releases are planned for this year, he said, but several are expected next year, possibly including a new beta version or another type of release, known as a Community Technology Preview.

When it does ship in final form, Clark said WinFS will likely be an add-on to Windows, much as Microsoft ships its .Net Framework today. Developers can write programs that require .Net, but either individual users have to download the necessary framework code or businesses can install it when they give their machines to workers. Clark also said that it is a possibility that some computer makers might decide to offer WinFS preinstalled on new PCs.

The beta version released on Monday works with Windows XP. Both Home and Professional editions are officially supported. It should also work on Tablet PC and Media Center editions of the OS, but Microsoft has done limited testing of WinFS with those flavors.

Clark said Microsoft chose to offer WinFS as an add-on to XP because that's the version of Windows used by most developers. One of the next goals, Clark said, is to get WinFS up and running on Vista, but he said the company did not want to hold back the beta just to add Vista support.

To support XP or not?
"We thought we were at a good point to take a snapshot, stabilize the bits and release a beta," Clark said, adding that the feedback to this test version will determine the next steps for WinFS.

However, he said it has yet to be decided what flavors of the OS will be supported by the time WinFS comes to market. At that point, Microsoft could decide to limit release to Windows Vista, if it decides that there are compelling technical reasons to require the new version or if there are enough Vista PCs on the market.

"By the time we (release WinFS), the market may have sufficiently gone onto Windows Vista that we may not need to support XP," Clark said.

Michael Cherry, an analyst at researcher Directions on Microsoft, said that it makes some sense for Microsoft to release a test version of WinFS, even if it is in far-from-final form.

"At some point they had to get code in the hands of developers," he said. "It kind of make sense that they would want to do that around this time frame," he added, noting that Microsoft has a major developer conference taking place next month in Los Angeles.

However, he said that the fact that it will likely debut as an add-on to Windows is somewhat disappointing, as it makes it harder to convince developers to write software. That's because they cannot count on users already having the required software.

"If you follow the .Net framework analogy, the fact that it requires you to deploy it separately just slows down the rate at which people will want to roll it out."

He also notes that the urgent need for a new file system seems less clear now that Microsoft's MSN unit has released a desktop searching tool and Vista already has a separate means for searching through a hard drive's data.

What is still needed, he said, is a broader tool that can sort through data wherever it lives, whether on a hard drive, a server or some other place. "It's becoming a smaller and smaller amount of my data that is only stored on my desktop," Cherry said.

That's true for businesses, he said, but also for consumers, who not only want to know their music is on their hard drives, but also whether a particular song is on their MP3 player or cell phone.

"Any full solution to this org my data problem has to be able to interact with all of the places where I leave my data," he said.