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Sun 2 May 2004 04:00 AM

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Lifting the lid on Longhorn

Longhorn has been touted as being the future of the IT industry as much as the next generation of Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Windows Middle East takes a look at where our namesake is going.

Introduction|~|longhorn_final-copy.jpg|~||~|Looking around the room it was clear the audience was getting more excited and the noise levels were steadily creeping higher. For many of the people in this room this was going to be not just their first, but quite probably their only chance to see the great man himself. This was William H Gates III’s first visit to the Middle East and everybody present wanted to make sure they made the most of it.

The occasion was Microsoft’s Middle East Developers Conference in Cairo in January this year, and the company’s chairman and chief software architect was in town, speaking at this conference, as well as another event (the Government Leadership Forum Arabia) happening across the city at the same time. While everybody present was sure the event was going to be worthwhile, few would have expected him to say anything radical.

And yet that’s just what Gates did do, as he gave what amounted at the time, to the clearest indication that Longhorn wasn’t going to happen until 2006 at the earliest. It’s launch, he told a rapt audience, “will be a few years from now, we’re not sure when, because we’re still inventing it.” Later, he was even more specific, saying it would be “two years or more” before the product was released.

Last month Microsoft executives confirmed that the company’s internal timetable is geared towards a launch date in the first half of 2006, but nobody is willing to be any more specific than Gates himself: the product is still some way away from shipping, and the company is still working on it, hard.

Ordinarily, the news that a product isn’t even close to shipping would be met with yawns, after all vaporware has long been a problem in the industry, and somebody talking up yet another product launch so far in advance is fairly meaningless. However, this isn’t the case with Longhorn, and that’s because whenever Longhorn ships it is not going to be yet another product: Longhorn is the codename for the next generation of the Windows operating system, and Windows is arguably the most important product family in the IT industry.

Longhorn is one of Microsoft’s most important product launches ever, at least as important as Windows 95. “We’re really betting the future of the company on a new approach,” Gates told the audience in Cairo. “The power of Longhorn will make a lot of different experiences easier on the computer,” he claimed. ||**||Late launching|~|gates.jpg|~||~|The issue now is just how powerful Longhorn is going to be? Company executives have conceded that in order to hit the 2006 date, some of the original ambitions for the OS are going to have to be scaled back, if not dropped altogether. In an e-mail obtained by Business Week, Microsoft vice-president Joe Peterson said “We are going to focus on doing fewer things, and doing them well.” Microsoft executives have since conceded that some of the ambitions for Longhorn won’t now happen until yet another Windows release, code-named Blackcomb, which is even further away still, perhaps the end of this decade.

Central to what Microsoft has said Longhorn will contain are three key elements: WinFS, which is being touted by the company as a database as much as it is a file system; Avalon, the presentation layer; and Indigo, which dictates how programs work together. While WinFS has so far attracted a lot of the hype around Longhorn, it is now looking most likely to be the feature that is going to be scaled back. WinFS will overhaul the way information is stored, so that users could more easily find documents by how they relate to each other.

While analyst house Gartner Group had in 2001 discussed the possibility of Longhorn shipping as early as this year, Microsoft has always previously been much more cautious about publicly committing itself to a launch date for Longhorn. When one executive last year said it would be launched in 2005, it was quickly rebutted, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer last year described it as the company’s “big bet…even bigger perhaps than the first generation Windows release” in a memo to all Microsoft staffers. In the same memo he said “we will do the work and take the time required to get it right.”

By avoiding setting a deadline date Microsoft was hoping to avoid the pressure it had put itself under for previous releases of Windows, most notably Windows 95 and Windows 98 where it had tied the release date into the product name. “Windows 95 and 98 we all know had a lot of problems in terms of stability and so on,” says Nasser Khan Ghazi, DPE director for Microsoft Middle East and Africa. While stopping short of acknowledging that Microsoft had done a “rush job” on releasing these products, Ghazi talked of the “tremendous pressure” the company had found itself under to ship them on time. “I think we’ve always been under pressure from the market and the channel,” he says. “If we had the chance then yes, I think we’d focus on reliability more.”

While the idea that a company should work at a product until it gets it right sounds acceptable, the reality for Microsoft is that “tremendous pressure” to get out into the marketplace. If anything, that pressure is even worse today than ever before. While it’s become commonplace to say that Microsoft has a monopoly on the desktop, the growing threat of Linux means that contention is starting to look a little shaky.

||**||Linux looming|~|A3-1.jpg|~||~|“If you’d asked me two years ago if Microsoft was secure on the desktop here in the Middle East, I’d have said yes without question,” says Christoph Schell, general manager of HP Middle East’s personal systems group. “Now I’m not so sure, Linux has really ramped up here.”

HP will begin shipping in the Middle East desktop PCs and notebooks loaded with Novell’s SuSe flavour of Linux this autumn. While the company says it is expecting Linux-based machines to make up less than 10% of its business sales in the region, that is still more than might have been expected. Thomas Greve, desktops and workstations category manager for HP Middle East PSG, believes that increasing Arabic support for Linux will bolster its support in the region. “What has been holding it back is the lack of applications and the Arabic support,” he says. “This is less of an issue as things like StarOffice become Arabised so we will perhaps see greater uptake. With an Arabic interface and Arabic applications coming out for it, the demand is going to go up and sales will increase.”

The threat of Linux is also believed to have convinced Microsoft to dramatically ditch plans to end support for its Windows 98 operating system earlier this year. Paid-for support was supposed to have come to an end in the middle of January, however that has now been extended to 2006. While Microsoft had said that Windows 98 had reached the end of its lifecycle, it is still a very popular OS with a massive installed base. In the Middle East, as many as 40% of users were still on the platform last year, according to the Windows Middle East reader survey of 2003.

The company said the decision was in response to customer needs “especially in smaller and emerging markets.” However, Gartner put the decision down to a desire to ward off the threat of Linux: “At this point, most of the population still running Windows 98 may be less motivated to make, and less able to afford, a quick move to XP and may be more interested in Linux,” it said in a report in January this year.

So Microsoft has found itself in a position of needing to clarify its roadmap to stop customers defecting to a rival OS. Since Windows sales underpin so many other sales for Microsoft, that prospect is commercially unacceptable. It also needs to give hardware makers a clearer idea of just what they will need to provide if they want to sell machines running Longhorn. While making software entails extensive development efforts, hardware needs good old-fashioned factories to make it and it’s not so easy to produce at short notice.||**||Security|~|Nasserg_21-0101.jpg|~||~|Of course, Microsoft knew all of this back in 2001 when it launched XP and there’s no doubt that it would have wanted to get Longhorn out the door as quickly as possible anyway. One thing that has changed in the meantime is that an issue the company had not previously focused on as a core priority has now taken centre stage in the industry: security.

In 2002, Microsoft embarked on one of the most massive initiatives it has ever undertaken, its much vaunted Trustworthy Computing programme, which involved anywhere up to 11,000 developers in rewriting code to make it more secure. “Two, three years ago, people did focus on security, but let’s be honest, it wasn’t such a big issue,” says Ghazi. “Now we know that if we don’t address security then we are dead as a company,” he explains.

While Longhorn is expected to address a lot of security concerns, Microsoft knows it can’t wait too long to allay user concerns, so it is going to release Service Pack 2 for the XP operating system later this year. Service packs are collections of fixes for a software product and normally attract comparatively little attention, however XP SP2 is likely to be different. So important is this release to Microsoft that earlier this year it pulled off developers from Longhorn to work on SP2, thus of course ensuring that development on Longhorn features would be delayed even further than they already were.

“Over the last three or four months you’ve seen notices from us saying we’re delaying Longhorn because we’ve diverted a lot of focus in the Windows development group to ensure we’re doing the right things on the desktop and server from a security perspective,” says Neil Holloway, corporate vice president for Microsoft EMEA. SP2 itself was originally pencilled in to ship last year, but has been held up by this desire to increase the security functions it contains.

Among other improvements, SP2 contains a new tool, Windows Security Center, which simplifies access to security settings in Internet Explorer, Windows Update and other tools for XP users. It also features enhancements to the Windows Update service to make it easier for users to automatically install critical updates for the operating system.

Having failed to coerce users in moving to XP by removing support for Windows 98, Microsoft will be hoping to win them to the platform with the security improvements in SP2. While Microsoft had also considered plans for an interim version of XP (dubbed XP Reloaded) this seems to have been put on the backburner, and the company is now putting all its effort into SP2.

Microsoft has also let it be known that the next version of Office, its office productivity suite, won’t be tied so tightly to Longhorn. While the company had indicated that the next Office, which is expected to arrive at around the same time as Longhorn, would only work on Longhorn systems, it will now be able to work on prior versions of Windows.

This of course means that Microsoft will still find itself in competition with one of its greatest threats: its own installed base. As Gates pointed out recently, if the company doesn’t continue to give users a compelling reason to upgrade they just won’t.

So what is the next step for Longhorn? This month, Microsoft is expected to release an updated preview version of the software at WinHec, the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle. This will build on the code that was released to developers at last year’s professional developers conference in Los Angeles (this is believed to be the software that was pirated and sold in places such as Malaysia last year). An alpha version should ship later this year while the first beta is expected in February next year, although a second beta will also have to happen. While the 2006 date can be met, it is still in the air.

Which of course is proving to be true about a lot of things about Longhorn. Addressing developers at the conference in Cairo in January, Ghazi told them at the very beginning of his session that “All of the things that you are seeing today are subject to change.” A few months down the line and it seems that has proven to be all too true.||**||

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