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New Windows could solve age-old puzzle

special report  Microsoft is tackling the long-elusive goal of easily finding information hidden in computer files, a conquest that would deal a blow to competitors but come at a price.

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
8 min read
Risky business

New Windows could solve age-old format puzzle--at a price

By Mike Ricciuti
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 13, 2002, 4:00 a.m. PT

To achieve the long-elusive goal of easily finding information hidden in computer files, Microsoft is returning to a decade-old idea.

The company is building new file organization software that will begin to form the underpinnings of the next major version of its Windows operating system. The complex data software is meant to address a conundrum as old as the computer industry itself: how to quickly find and work with a piece of information, no matter what its format, from any location.

Searching for simplicity For those using Windows, this will mean easier, faster and more reliable searches for information. Replacing its antiquated file system with modern database technology should also mean a more reliable Windows that's less likely to break and easier to fix when it does, said analysts and software developers familiar with the company's plans.

In the process, the plan could boost Microsoft's high-profile .Net Web services plan and pave the way to enter new markets for document management and portal software, while simultaneously dealing a blow to competitors.

But success won't come overnight. Building a new data store is a massive undertaking, one that will touch virtually every piece of software Microsoft sells. The company plans to include the first pieces of the new data store in next release of Windows, code-named Longhorn, which is scheduled to debut in test form next year.

"We're going to have to redo the Windows shell; we're going to have to redo Office, and Outlook particularly, to take advantage" of the new data store, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "We're working hard on it. It's tough stuff."

Tough indeed. The development of the new file system technology is so difficult that Microsoft may have to market two distinctly different product lines while it completes the work--a move Ballmer concedes would be a huge step backward in the company's long-sought plan to unify its operating systems with Windows XP and Windows .Net Server, which has been delayed until year's end.

For years, Microsoft has sold two operating systems: a consumer version based on the 20-year-old technology DOS, and a corporate version based on the company's newer, built-from-scratch Windows NT kernel. The dual-OS track has frustrated software developers, who needed to support two different operating systems, and has confused customers, who often didn't understand the difference between them.

"Will we have two parallel tracks in the market at once? Not desirable. There are a lot of reasons why that was really a pain in the neck for everybody, and I hope we can avoid that here," Ballmer said. "But it's conceivable that we will wind up with something that will be put on a dual track."

Still, Ballmer and his executive team believe it's a risk well worth taking. Right now, each Windows program includes its own method for storing data, such as the vastly different formats used by Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program and Word document software. Despite advances in Windows' design and networking technology, it's still impossible to search across a corporate network for all e-mails, documents and spreadsheets related to a specific project, for instance. Searching through video, audio and image files is kludgy at best.

Likewise, it's tricky--if not impossible--to build new programs that tap into those files. "If I'm looking for anything where I interacted with one customer in the last 12 months, I need to search for e-mail, Word documents or information in my database," said Chris Pels, president of iDev Technologies, a software consulting and design firm in East Greenwich, R.I. "That kind of stuff is a nightmare from a programming perspective these days."

Other software makers have attempted to solve the same problem. Nearly two years ago, Oracle introduced something called Internet File System, which works with its database server to make storage and retrieval of data--including Microsoft Word and Excel documents--easier and more reliable. "This hasn't been done in a commercial

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operating system, but it has been done with Oracle's database," said Rob Helm, editor in chief of Directions on Microsoft, crediting Oracle CEO Larry Ellison as an early proponent of the idea.

Oracle continues to challenge Microsoft on this front. Last fall, the company announced an e-mail server option for its 9i database management software along with a migration program to move companies from Microsoft Exchange to Oracle's database.

Yet Oracle's efforts amount to more of a jab between long-time adversaries than a serious competitive challenge. Given Windows' enormous market clout, Microsoft's plan could change the competitive landscape of the software business and affect millions of computer users and technology buyers.

"It's a huge risk for Microsoft," Helm said. "They have so much riding on this. If this is late and doesn't work as advertised, it will have effects that will ripple through the entire company and the industry. But the benefits, if they succeed, will be huge."

Microsoft's first--and perhaps largest--challenges will be internal: how to overcome the technical and organizational obstacles it encountered when it set out to solve the very same problem in the early 1990s. At that time, the company launched an ambitious development project to design and build a new technology called the Object File System, or OFS, which was slated to become part of an operating system project code-named Cairo.

"We've been working hard on the next file system for years, and--not that we've made the progress that we've wanted to--we're at it again," Ballmer said.

While the Cairo project eventually resulted in Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system, the file system work was abandoned because of complexity, market forces and internal bickering. "It never went away. We just had other things that needed to be done," Jim Allchin, the group vice president in charge of Windows development, told News.com.

Those other things most likely included battling "Netscape and Java and the challenge of the Internet and the Department of Justice," Gartner Group analyst David Smith said--issues that continue to persist today.

Microsoft executives say the company plans to resurrect the OFS idea with the Longhorn release of Windows. "This will impact Longhorn deeply, and we will create a new API for applications to take advantage of it," Allchin said.

He said bringing the plan back now makes sense because new technologies such as XML (Extensible Markup Language) will make it much easier to put in place. XML is already a standard for exchanging information between programs and a cornerstone of Microsoft's Web services effort, which is still under development. Longhorn and the new data store are the "next frontier" of software design, Allchin said.

In addition, Microsoft has already developed the database technology it needs for a new file system. A future release of its SQL Server database, code-named Yukon, is being designed to store and manage both standard business data, such as columns of numbers and letters, and unstructured data, such as images. Yukon will also form the data storage core of Microsoft's Exchange Server and other future products.

The more important reasons for the renewed development effort, however, are strategic. If the plan succeeds, it will give Microsoft a huge technological advantage over the competition by making its products more attractive to buyers and giving large companies another reason to install Windows-based servers.

"Having multiple data stores makes life harder for the enterprise customer," Helm said. "Search will become much easier, and this should make it cheaper to build new systems because customers only have to learn one database."

Helm said the database capability in Windows will make it a snap to add document management and more advanced portal development tools. Those applications will in essence be built into the operating system, making it more likely that customers will use them.

Moreover, industry veterans note that the new data store will benefit from Microsoft's tried-and-true strategy for entering new markets--leveraging see vision series: Steve Ballmerthe overwhelming market share of Windows. Because Microsoft needs the new data store to make its .Net services plan work, analysts say the company is likely to pressure customers to make the move to the Longhorn release of Windows through licensing incentives or other means.

Nevertheless, widespread acceptance is not a foregone conclusion. For big companies not yet ready to install Microsoft's 3-year-old Windows 2000 operating system--much less Windows XP, released last October--the Longhorn plan may be too much to contemplate right now.

"That's the real issue that I see in the trenches: the rate of change--for programmers, for businesses, in terms of making infrastructure technology decisions," Pels said. "People can't keep up with it, and if they want to keep up with it, is it worthwhile for their business?"

Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Giga Information Group, agrees. "It's a great dream," he said. "But it could be hard to make real." 

Like other secret weapons in the technology business, Microsoft's vision of a unified data store in its Windows operating system has been the source of speculation--and the butt of industry jokes--for a decade. Now, Microsoft wants to resurrect its plan as part of the next version of Windows. But we've heard this all before.

1992: Jim Allchin details a vision for a new version of Windows, code-named Cairo, which would include a revamped user interface and a new data store, called the Object File System (OFS), for storing document files, spreadsheets, multimedia files and other information. The goal is to enable searching not only by file name, but by file content. Cairo would also include a new directory service. The operating system is expected to debut in 1994.

May 1994: Allchin tells the press that Microsoft has reassigned programmers to work on the upcoming Windows 95 desktop operating system, delaying the shipment of Cairo until late 1995.

November 1994: Microsoft says Cairo will slip again, this time until "sometime in 1996" then-executive Vice President Mike Maples told Computerworld.

August 1995: Microsoft ships Windows 95, which includes the revamped user interface originally slated for Cairo. Microsoft says the first test version of Cairo will debut in late 1996, pushing the release date to 1997.

December 1995: Gates launches his "Internet initiative" to make Web technologies a top priority at Microsoft. Work on Cairo is reassessed.

1996: Bill Gates says Cairo is a "vision," not a product, leading many to believe the project is running into a roadblock. Gates tells Computerworld: "Cairo is a futuristic system. It's something we're working on."

March 1996: Microsoft says work on the OFS for a future release of Windows NT has been abandoned in favor of a file system based on its Exchange Server.

August 1996: Gates says some Cairo technologies, including indexing capabilities and a distributed version of Microsoft's Component Object Model software, will be included in Windows NT 4.0, and directory features will be part of NT 5.0. The product jockeying causes Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund to say: "I think Cairo has lost its definition."

1997: Rumors circulate that the OFS will debut by year's end. Gates tells PC Magazine: "The only thing of (the Cairo) vision that's not in the marketplace is the file system and directory. And so later this year that'll go into beta testing." NT 5.0 enters beta testing, but the file system is never seen.

October 1998: Microsoft says it will rename Windows NT 5.0 to be called Windows 2000. The operating system will include Active Directory, technology originally slated for Cairo.

February 2000: Windows 2000 debuts after several delays.

2001: Allchin says he has "not given up" on the OFS concept.

January 2002: CEO Steve Ballmer says, "We want to evolve our storage system." Allchin says the OFS unified storage concept is again in development and will be a major part of Longhorn, the code name for the next version of Windows.

Editors: Mike Yamamoto, Lara Wright, Desiree Everts
Design: Jeff Quan
Production: Mike Markovich