Microsoft: Longhorn beta unlikely this year

Efforts to shore up security on Windows XP pull developers away from the update effort, setting back the release, and probably causing some planned features to be cut.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
6 min read
REDMOND, Wash.--Microsoft's efforts to bolster security in Windows XP will likely delay the release of a widespread test version of its forthcoming operating system until next year, Microsoft's top executives told CNET News.com.


What's new:
Work on Windows XP will likely cause Microsoft to delay the release of a test version of Longhorn until next year, executives tell CNET News.com.

Bottom line:
Microsoft has made the security of Windows its top priority. New security features are planned for updates, or service packs, for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 later this year.

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Microsoft had said it planned to ship the test version of Longhorn, a major update to the company's Windows operating system, this summer. The company has reassigned a large number of developers working on Longhorn to build updates to the existing versions of Windows to bolster security, said Jim Allchin, vice president of Microsoft's platforms group.

Asked whether the company would make its self-imposed deadline for delivering a Longhorn beta by summer, Allchin said, "I don't believe it will be this year." He also said that some minor features planned for Longhorn will be cut to accelerate development, then rolled into a future Windows release. "If we don't really know how to do something by now, it's probably time that we think about not putting it into the product," Allchin said.

Underscoring the growing pressure from customers, the company has made the security of Windows its top priority. New security features are planned for updates, or service packs, for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 debuting later this year, Allchin said. Microsoft plans to ship Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) by summer, and Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 in the second half of the year. Allchin also said that, despite speculation, there will be no interim releases of Windows before Longhorn. A potential update to Windows, called XP Reloaded, is just a bundling of existing features and tools intended to drive greater adoption of Windows XP, he said.

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"Windows XP SP2 is a big darn release," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told CNET News.com. "We made a huge prioritization step to say, even if we need to take things out of Longhorn or we need to push Longhorn back, or some mix of those two, we will do that to prioritize XP SP2...to provide additional help on the security front. There were plenty of people who were working on Longhorn who are now working on XP SP2 for the time being," Ballmer said. "If you want to count that as a cost, it's a very large cost."

Allchin said he refocused many developers that were working on Longhorn to build the Windows updates. "For SP2, I personally grabbed a large part of the organization because I consider that we need to approach security in a different way," Allchin said. But he didn't rule out shipping a Longhorn beta this year. "We might do it. It depends on how it all goes with (Windows Server 2003) SP1 and the 64-bit work we are doing."

Earlier this month, Microsoft said it had delayed other major product releases, including the next version of SQL Server, known as Yukon, as well as updated developer tools, known as Whidbey. Those products, originally expected later this year, won't come until sometime next year.

A Longhorn delay has been widely expected. But the slowdown raises additional questions about Microsoft's ability to deliver on its ambitious plans for the operating system.

"It's not all that surprising, given that the feedback we usually hear is that security it still a big problem, and that it's a major selling point for the Linux desktop proponents," said Steve O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk. "While pushing out Longhorn may be a reasonable tactical move, it's difficult for customers in particular because it hasn't been done with any context--'When is Longhorn coming out?'" he said.

Adding to the complexity for Microsoft is a decision last week by the European Union to force the software maker to supply a version of its Windows operating system without the company's Media Player software. Microsoft has appealed the ruling and a final decision could be years away. But it could set a precedent on how Microsoft builds its software that could affect Longhorn, which will introduce many new features. Allchin said the company is still poring through more than 300 pages of documentation related to the decision that the company received last week.

Allchin said the software maker will distribute a new developer's preview of Longhorn at WinHEC (the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference), May 4 to May 7 in Seattle. Microsoft released a developers' preview of the software at its Professional Developers Conference last fall.

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The WinHEC release is both a refresh of new code and new features, Allchin said. "The performance of the release at the PDC (Professional Developers Conference) was not good," he said. "We're driving to where we can self-host, so we can foist it onto every developer's desk so they have to live it, and we couldn't do that on the PDC builds. So that's really the next target. We still have a lot of intermediate milestones to reach before we get there."

The company has not said when a final version of Longhorn will arrive, but analysts now expect that it will likely be 2006 or later. Allchin would not pin a date on when Longhorn will be completed, or at the release to manufacturing (RTM) stage in Microsoft parlance.

"I'm not going to get into a prediction about how this thing is going to RTM, I'm just not. I do know that we got a lot of feedback from the PDC," Allchin said. "My opinion is that we still have a long way to go, based on the feedback from the PDC.

In an interview at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in San Diego earlier this week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates suggested that the 2006 time frame was legitimate, adding that the company was not holding to a specific schedule for Longhorn as developers worked to make sure "the fundamentals are exactly right."

"People are speculating that we're out in 2006 sometime, and that's probably valid speculation," Gates said. "But this is not a date-driven release."

Deja vu all over again?
The company has billed Longhorn as the biggest advance of Windows since Windows 95. The operating system features three major upgrades--a new graphics and presentation engine known as Avalon, a new communications architecture called Indigo and a new file search and retrieval system known as WinFS.

However, Allchin also said that some features originally planned for Longhorn will be cut to accelerate the product's delivery. Those features--which Allchin said are minor--will likely be included in a future version of Windows, code-named Blackcomb. Microsoft has said little about Blackcomb's design goals.

"We certainly know we're going to end up looking at all of the features and deciding some of those features don't have to be in Longhorn--they can wait. I don't think we have it totally worked out," he said. "WinFS is going to be there, Indigo is going to be there, Avalon is going to be there. But there are subtleties within all of that that we can tweak and cut out."

The recent delays and uncertainly around Longhorn have given rise to comparisons to an ill-fated Windows update, code-named Cairo, first discussed more than 12 years ago. Cairo, which was planned to include a file system that would have functioned much like WinFS, languished in development for more than five years before Microsoft shelved the project.

"This is going to raise as many questions as it answers," O'Grady said. "What does this do to Longhorn's timeframe? If they were hazy on the release date before, I can't imagine this will do anything to clear that up."

Still, O'Grady said that while Microsoft may have been too ambitious with Longhorn's original design, its new features will be worth the wait. "It does sound as if the planning horizon was a bit ambitious," he said. "I can't really fault them for that, however, if they deliver on the major feature and functions."

CNET News.com's Ina Fried and ZDNet's Dan Farber contributed to this report.