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Next Windows leaks onto Net

A test copy of the next version of the Microsoft operating system, code-named Longhorn, offers an unexpected peek at new storage technology and other features.

An early test version of the next major release of Microsoft Windows has been leaked onto the Net, offering a glimpse of the company?s plans for the new software.

The leaked version of the upcoming desktop operating system, code-named Longhorn, hints of major changes under the Windows hood, as Microsoft radically improves file management and searching features in Windows and in Yukon, the code-name for the next version of SQL Server, due out later this year.

In Longhorn, Microsoft plans to introduce a new file system with enhanced storage capabilities. Known as Windows Future Storage (WinFS), the new means for storing, accessing or indexing files will replace NTFS and FAT32, the predecessors used by Windows XP. The file system is intended to make it easier to find information, no matter where it is stored or in what form.

Microsoft did not identify the source of the leak, which is still circulating on the Web and on Internet relay chat. But Jim Cullinan, Microsoft Windows lead product manager, said the leaked version of Longhorn is authentic. Cullinan declined to discuss features of the new operating system, saying that "it's just too early" to discuss features that could "change dramatically before the final product is done."

For Microsoft, creating a new file system, particularly one using modern database technology, is no easy undertaking. The work in progress will be important in prepping Longhorn for its scheduled late 2004 release, say analysts.

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, described Microsoft's transition from FAT to NTFS as "very clean." But Cherry is concerned about the transition to WinFS. Microsoft's biggest challenge will be putting in the new file system without breaking existing applications. In the past, with new file system introductions in the earlier Windows NT operating system and other products, "Microsoft has been bad about this," he said.

At the same time, Microsoft likely will be forced to deliver WinFS in pieces, first in Yukon and then in Longhorn. But the real benefit will come on Windows Server, a place WinFS might not appear until 2006 or 2007.

"Remember, Microsoft said there's not going to be a Longhorn Server," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "So is this going to be an add-on to Windows Server 2003 or will businesses have to wait for 'Blackcomb'? Certainly it's useful in SQL Server but that doesn't extend to all the files on the Windows Server." Blackcomb, the code-name for the next version of Windows Server, isn't expected before 2006.

New search tools

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The leaked version of Longhorn does not yet use WinFS as the native file system. But new features included in the leaked version, such as Windows Future Storage Services and Windows Storage Full-Text Index, hint of what is to come in Yukon. The two new features enable more sophisticated searching and include organization tools not available in earlier versions of Windows. Many of these new capabilities would likely appeal to businesses, say analysts.

An example of the capabilities is seen in the new search feature. In Windows XP, the person begins a search by picking a file type, such as photo or document, and where to look, such as local hard drive or the Internet. Advanced features allow searching of hidden documents.

In the leaked Longhorn version, the search process is much simpler, because of underlying changes to the storage and indexing capabilities. The searcher is asked simply, "What are you looking for?" A list of example searches such as "Pictures from John" or "What is a firewall?" are provided for reference.

"You could do that kind of search with Google on the Web today," Silver said. "It's sort of ironic Microsoft is only getting to this with Longhorn. XP is way behind in that regard, particularly when you think about how big hard drives are getting. People have lots of data and a legitimate need to search it."

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Other changes make it easier to sort existing data. A new My Pictures & Video folder organizes digital images and movies by, among other means, the year. In fact, all folders in the OS come with a "filter by" option for a variety of criteria, such as type, subject, category or comments. Other filter criteria vary based on the folder or contents. Documents, for example, could be filtered by letter of the alphabet, among other means.

These capabilities also can be seen in the Music Library folder, which offers a wide variety of default organizational tools. For example, music can be organized by albums, artists, genres, playlists and tracks. Music can be filtered by a number criteria, including duration of the song. All of the views are available from the folder view, so that people need not open an application.

Microsoft has also added a My Contacts folder that could eventually act as a common database of contact information, in a similar fashion to the Address Book found in Apple Computer's Mac OS X. Customers can import contacts from an Exchange Server, Windows Address Book or a vCard.

Another new feature would let the searcher "stack" files in virtual folders. Digital images, for example, could be stacked by the date a picture was taken, name or type of camera, among other criteria. Similarly, music can be stacked by nine criteria, including track number, duration or genre. Contacts can be stacked by seven criteria, including name, e-mail and address.

Although these new organizational and search capabilities certainly exceed those found in Windows XP, they are a shadow of what Microsoft might deliver with Yukon and WinFS, Silver said.

Silver said that these new Longhorn capabilities will be important additions for businesses. "It's certainly something that's going to make people more productive, but the benefits are kind of hard to measure. These are certainly features sorely lacking in Windows 2000 and XP."

Forward progress
The leaked version, labeled Longhorn Milestone 4, appeared more stable and further developed than the so-called Milestone 3 leaks that circled the Net last year. But Microsoft could be at least six months from reaching a full-fledged beta version, based on the changes necessary to fully support WinFS, .Net Web services and other core features, analysts said.

Still, Microsoft is moving forward with major changes, starting with the installation, which dumps the standard mixed text and graphical process for one that is entirely graphical. Unlike earlier versions of Windows, virtually no user input is required for the installation process. In fact, at one point a message encourages the person to take a break and come back in about 10 minutes.

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The leaked Longhorn also shows some changes for working with software and hardware. Some of the tweaking can be seen in the Control Panel, which now includes controls for Hardware and Devices and for Portable Audio Devices. In this version, at least, Microsoft also has integrated Download Manager, which also can be accessed via the Control Panel. The program has long been available for downloading beta software or programs posted to the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site.

The Windows Component Wizard, which is used for adding or removing OS features, allows further customization based on "platform." The component installer would allow someone to add features that support the Windows Media Center and Tablet PC operating systems, both of which are based on Windows XP Professional. Using Tablet PC as an example, only features such as Sticky Notes and Windows Journal, can be installed on nontablet computers. The addition of Media Center or Tablet PC features would be dependent on having the right hardware.

Windows Media Player 9 Series Player found in the leaked Longhorn is a newer version--2991 vs. 2980 for the one publicly available. Internet Explorer is version 6.05 vs. 6.0 available for Windows XP. Windows Messenger and Windows Movie Maker, on the other hand, are much older versions than those currently available for XP.

The leaked Longhorn also sports security enhancements, as part of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative. A new service called Logon Hours puts restrictions on times when people log on to a computer. In theory, the feature could help prevent unauthorized logons or attempted hacks during nonbusiness hours.

Microsoft plans many other security enhancements to Longhorn, but because the majority of them are tied to the new file system, many won't debut until Longhorn moves to WinFS.