UPDATE. On August 19, 2003, I obtained the first legitimate depictions of Microsoft's planned Longhorn "Aero" user interface! Jump ahead to see what it looks like...

At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003 trade show in New Orleans in May 2003, Microsoft finally revealed its roadmap for Longhorn, the next major Windows desktop version, and the successor to Windows XP. Longhorn, as readers of this site know, will be the most dramatic and exciting release of Windows ever, and the most important update to the product since Windows 95. As I noted in my first Longhorn preview, published almost a year and a half ago, Longhorn has long been wrapped in mystery, with conflicting reports about the product's features and an unprecedented number of purposefully forged screenshots, video clips, and technical documents. In that first preview, I played the role of debunker, forced to document the many Longhorn fakes out there, explain why they weren't real, and then detail the information about Longhorn I knew to be correct. This year, things are becoming more clear, thanks to a suddenly open and communicative Microsoft, and the all-to-obvious fakes are fewer. So here's what we know about Longhorn, circa mid-2003.

How we get there, when it happens

During his WinHEC keynote address on May 7, 2003, Will Poole, the Senior Vice President of the Windows Client Division at Microsoft, revealed the roadmap for Longhorn, setting the final release date of the product firmly in 2005, two years from now. "I'm sure you're wondering, when does all this stuff come to the market and how does it fit into our roadmap?" Poole asked during his keynote address. "Longhorn is the big goal for us from an operating system perspective that we are putting all of our effort behind. This is a huge, big, bet-the-company move, and it's one that we are very enthusiastic about what we're able to do here. The breakthrough work that we're going to do in Longhorn is going to really change the landscape of what consumers, what businesspeople see when they look at a new PC. So the road between now and Longhorn is not super short. We've got some work to do. It's going to take us a while to get there. And what you'll see is there are a couple of major milestones, a couple big road signs there." Here's how we get to Windows Longhorn.

2003

We entered 2003 with a variety of products and technologies that point the way to Longhorn, including Windows XP Home Edition, Windows XP Professional Edition, Windows XP Media Center Edition, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, Windows XP Service Pack 1, Windows XP 64-Bit Edition 2003, and Windows CE for Smart Displays. In March 2003, Microsoft held a developer preview of Longhorn at its Redmond campus. "We went through the developer preview in March," Poole said, "[and] we got some great feedback to understand what people want to see from a pure development perspective in the Longhorn platform." This is actually a crucial distinction and explains why all of the three major Longhorn milestones in 2003 (the March developer preview, WinHEC, and the Professional Developers Conference) are developer-oriented. Unlike other post-Windows 95 releases, Longhorn will be important to all of Microsoft's customer segments--consumers, businesses, and developers--and not just one or two of them. (By contrast, Windows XP was largely a consumer update only and Windows 2000 was largely a business update only).

After the developer preview, the next major milestone was WinHEC, held last week in New Orleans. At WinHEC, Microsoft publicly revealed for the first time various aspects of the Longhorn infrastructure, including graphics, drivers, and other low-level technology. This document is largely the result of my week-long sojourn to WinHEC, during which time I attended private demos, numerous meetings with Microsoft and its partners, and several Longhorn-oriented sessions.

Next up is the October 2003 Professional Developer Conference (PDC), though I was told to expect various Longhorn-related announcements over the summer as well. "I urge you all to make sure that the right people from your companies are attending the PDC and getting fully wired into the program as we begin the path to getting the product completed, which will really be kicked off in depth at the PDC in October," Poole said. Sources at the software giant told me that PDC attendees will receive a late alpha build of Longhorn, the first to include the new Longhorn user interface (code-named Aero). More on that in a bit.

Around or soon after the PDC, Microsoft will ship three important XP-related updates, including Windows XP Media Center Edition Version 2 (code-named Harmony), which will add guide data for European markets, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition Version 2, which will support additional international marketplaces with new handwriting recognition, and Windows XP Service Pack 2, which will support at least two concurrent users, so that Smart Display customers can remotely access the machine while a second users accesses the machine locally. A second revision to the Smart Display products is also due in late 2003, as is the first 64-bit version of Windows XP that runs on AMD Athlon 64 and Opteron chips. Note that Windows XP Media Center Edition is incorrectly identified as having a 2004 ship date on Will Poole's Windows Client Roadmap slide (Figure 01); I've verified that this release will indeed ship in late 2003.

2004

In 2004, the long-awaited Longhorn beta will finally kick off. "Over the course of 2004 you'll see a couple of releases in the betas for Longhorn," Poole noted, and his presentation specifically mentions Longhorn Beta 1 and Longhorn Beta 2 occurring in 2004. This scheduled was corroborated at Microsoft's annual Financial Analysts Meeting in July 2003.

2005

According to Poole, Longhorn will RTM (be released to manufacturing) and, presumably, given to customers in 2005. This settles a long-standing question about whether Microsoft would shoot for a late 2004 release or simply let the product slip into the next year. The 2005 RTM date is interesting for a number of reasons, as is what I'm calling Longhorn's "tiered rollout." Let me explain what I mean by this.

A long-term strategy

First, given the fact that Longhorn is still three years away from release, it's now clear that Windows XP, which shipped in October 2001, has some serious legs. "I'm sure that many of you have heard about or wonder about the possibility of whether we're going to do something before Longhorn," Poole said. "Is there an interim release? That's something that I don't expect us to do. Currently we have some additional releases that are coming out as follow-ons to the XP Media Center Edition and the Tablet PC Edition so we've got some great advances and fit and finish ... and so on. You'll see some good incremental [changes] there but really the weight of the company, the weight of all the people in the Windows client division and across the platform's division, the weight of that effort that we're doing is around Longhorn and that's what we're focused on and we hope to get you all really pulling the same way so we can come out with a huge wave of excitement for the industry when Longhorn ships in 2005." As a result of Longhorn's extended development time, XP will be the Windows client of choice for an unprecedented amount of time. Thankfully, XP is a full-featured and likeable product, and certainly Microsoft has faithfully updated it numerous times already with various technologies (USB 2.0 and Bluetooth support, for example), new digital media features (Windows Media Player 9 Series and Windows Movie Maker 2, for example), service packs, and other updates.

Second, Longhorn is being very deliberately phased into our consciousness over time. Starting with Bill Gates' first public comments about the project last year, the leaked alpha builds and developer preview in March, moving to the WinHEC and PDC shows this year, and then rolling into the public beta program next year, one thing is very clear: Microsoft is very specifically controlling how information about Longhorn is released. But there's a reason behind the madness, and if you look at the target audiences for each of the Longhorn milestones, it all starts to make sense. WinHEC is geared toward hardware and driver developers, and clearly this audience needs the most lead-time to ensure that their products are in the channel by the time Longhorn ships. The next most time sensitive audience is composed of third party application and Web service developers, and these people will get the information they need to write to the new Longhorn APIs at the PDC. After that come the end users--IT administrators, business users, consumers, and gamers--who will be exposed to Longhorn through the public beta program in 2004. As you can see, the timing of information about Longhorn starts to make sense when you understand the audiences Microsoft has to reach.

Third, Longhorn is huge. I discuss Longhorn primarily as Windows client release, because that's the part that is most important to most readers, and to myself. But Longhorn is really a technology wave, or generation, at Microsoft that will include updates to Windows Server, .NET, and Microsoft Office in addition to the Windows client products. In other words, Longhorn is a lot of work. It's going to take a while to create all this stuff and sync it together.

So what's in Longhorn?

According to Poole, Longhorn will deliver on a concept called Life Immersion, which will "embrace human factors like [Microsoft has] never done before, to really understand how to make that emotional connection to [its] customers to address all of the product requirements that I talked about, making it just work, making it something that you can invite and live with every day in new and profound ways from a technological perspective both at the hardware and with the software to deliver that immersive experience." That's all very exciting, but it's also pretty vague. At this point in May 2003 (updated in August 2003), here are the concrete details I can report about Longhorn.

A new componentized architecture for creating product editions

Like Windows XP Embedded, but unlike previous desktop and server Windows versions, Longhorn will be completely componentized, a feature I've been clamoring for over the years, for both Windows and Office. Componentization has numerous benefits over the current "thing on a thing" development approach, where new features are simply heaped on top of the previous code-base with each new product revision, until the whole house of cards is precariously shifting in the breeze. With a componentized approach, for example, end users and IT administrators will be able to easily specify exactly which applications and services get installed with Windows, although Mark Myers, an OEM Manufacturing Program Manager at Microsoft, tells me this feature won't be as "fine-grained" as it is in XP Embedded where device makers can literally specify ever single feature. The reason is that desktop OSes have more dependencies than embedded devices, which are generally created once and then never changed; desktop OSes, however, are often upgraded and changed by end users and applications.

But componentization goes far beyond allowing users to select what gets installed, especially when you do it right, as Microsoft appears to be with Longhorn. With this release, Windows is being logically broken down into several building blocks, which will give Microsoft and its partners new functionality when creating various Windows versions. At the lowest level is what Myers calls the "base OS" component, which is about 95 percent of the total Longhorn code base. This base OS component is completely language independent and is a subset of all of the editions of Longhorn Microsoft will create. Thus, Microsoft and its hardware partners will be able to use this base OS to create actual Longhorn editions (referred to as Longhorn "SKUs" after a retailing term). To create SKU #1, for example, which is called XP Home Edition today (though the name will likely change, I'm told), Microsoft or a hardware partner simply has to add a set of components to the base OS and--voila!--Longhorn SKU # 1 created. To create Longhorn SKU #2--what we call XP Professional Edition today (though, again, that name will likely change)--one simply adds the SKU #2 components to the base OS (SKU #2 contains everything in SKU #1 plus SKU #2-specific features); Because SKU #2 is a true superset of SKU #1, it actually builds off SKU #1 from a logical standpoint. This is, of course, the case with XP Home and Pro today as well.

The remaining two Longhorn editions are familiar, and both build off of Longhorn SKU #2 (Pro). These include Longhorn Tablet PC Edition and Longhorn Media Center Edition and, yes, this represents the first official verification that these product editions will exist in Longhorn. So there you have it: Longhorn will definitely include Home, Pro, Tablet PC, and Media Center editions, though the Home and Pro editions could be renamed.


Image courtesy Microsoft Corporation

New deployment and Setup tools

Longhorn's new modular architecture will have sweeping ramifications for how Longhorn is created, installed by end users, deployed in corporate settings, and updated over time with service packs and hot-fixes (QFEs). Interestingly, Microsoft actually went the distance with the componentization approach and created a bootable image of the Longhorn base OS. This bootable image will allow users to install Longhorn much more quickly than was possible in the past, as it eliminates a lot of the time-consuming file copy and Registry population phases that were present in previous Windows versions. In Longhorn, the first phase of setup simply copies this single image file--referred to as the WinPE (Windows pre-installation environment)--to the hard drive, and then reboots the system. Then your system boots into WinPE, which is basically a miniature operating system consisting of the core Longhorn features, it boots immediately, because the image ships already "installed." Then, the mini-OS runs a totally rewritten PnP routine that quickly identifies your exact hardware configuration, installs the correct drivers, and ... that's it. You're up and running. Myers says the goal is for an unattended setup of Longhorn to take less than 15 minutes from start to finish. Compared to the 45- to 60-minute install time for Windows XP, that's amazing.

So let's look at some of the many ways this new architecture changes things. First, the Longhorn retail and OEM CDs will be identical (the OEM CDs are the ones you get with new PCs from PC makers like Dell, Gateway, and IBM). In the past, Microsoft maintained separate builds for each version, but that practice is obsolete in Longhorn, because it caused delays in getting product out to certain countries. "We call this CD unification," Myers said. "We will ship one RTM CD in 2005 for Longhorn, to retail and OEMs. Our OEM partners can brand and extend the OS as they did before. The retail version will ship at same time branded with Microsoft's stuff. But the two products will be the same."

To work with the Longhorn-era version of WinPE, Microsoft will supply a new version of Sysprep, its OS deployment technology. Unattended installations will utilize a new XML-based version of the unattend.txt file named, appropriately enough, unattend.xml. "With setup.exe and unattend.xml, you can build any customized version of Longhorn you want," Myers noted. This will be a huge boon for companies that implement build-to-order systems, like Dell. Imagine Dell's Web site in two years: You customize the system you want online and click the "Buy now" button or whatever. Behind the scenes, a Web service on Dell's Web site constructs the customized unattend.xml file that will build your exact system. Fifteen minutes after the physical PC is completed, the system is loaded with your exact Longhorn configuration: No need for PnP, no lengthy entering of user data, and no after-boot hardware detection. Exciting stuff, sure. But wait, there's more.

Internationalization is another area that will see dramatic improvements, thanks to the new modular Longhorn architecture. In the past, international versions of Windows were basically built off of the US English version, causing a certain amount of code redundancy. But in Longhorn, the core OS code and data is entirely language-neutral, so US English is added to the base OS as any other language would be. So creating, say, the French version of Longhorn Tablet PC Edition will simply involve scripting an install that includes the base Longhorn OS, the Longhorn SKU #2 components, the Longhorn Tablet PC Edition components, and the French language component. In the past, PC companies would often ship Windows versions in Europe that contained various languages; during Setup, the user would choose which language to use, and then Setup would delete all of the support files for the other languages, a time consuming process, and one that involved shipping a lot of extraneous code to customers. Those issues are gone with Longhorn.

For maintaining Longhorn, the new componentization work will reap benefits well into the future. Let's say it's time to ship Longhorn Service Pack 1. In the past, this would have meant different SP1 versions for all the international and special product versions of Windows. But in Longhorn, there will be only one SP1 release for every single edition, though I'd imagine that language- or SKU-specific updates will still be released separately. Having just a single update target simplifies things dramatically for Microsoft, of course, but it also makes life easier for IT administrators trying to roll out updates across an enterprise. It doesn't get any easier than having just a single software target.

Another related change is that the old OEM Preinstallation Kit (OPK) is being replaced by the Longhorn Deployment Toolkit (LDT). This new toolkit will provide system makers with an end-to-end solution for creating the OS images and modifications described above. OS images created with the LDT are dynamic, in that they can be updated with new drivers, OS updates, and other components after they are created. So a PC maker might make an image for a specific PC configuration running Longhorn SKU #1 (Home Edition) and then simply add the SKU #2 components and create a second image for what might be called Professional Edition. When the inevitable QFEs and service packs ship, it's simply a matter of adding those components to the OS images.

Because Microsoft wants to get system builders going on the new LDT as soon as possible, the company will ship an interim version of WinPE that targets Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 later this year. The interim WinPE version will help Microsoft's OEMs get familiar with the new tools and imaging technology, and help bridge the gap between the past and the future: The interim version will help companies do away with DOS-based tools dependencies, and work with adding software applications directly into OS images. The next version of Microsoft Office, now known only as Office 12, will use this technology and, I'm told, ship concurrently with Longhorn.

New graphics with the Desktop Composition Engine

Some of the biggest news out of WinHEC concerned Longhorn's new graphics architecture, which does away with the legacy GDI and GDI+ past and blazes into new areas of performance and visual acuity. Naturally, Longhorn will support legacy Windows applications, which rely on the old GDI and GDI+ graphics engines. But even legacy applications will be able to take advantage of many of the new Longhorn graphics features seamlessly, without having to be rewritten. And new applications, written specifically for Longhorn, will offer even more exciting features because they will be able to take advantage of user-mode features of the Longhorn Graphical User Interface (GUI), code-named Aero, which has yet to be revealed. However, here's what we do know so far.

Longhorn's low-level graphics engine--the bits that replace GDI and GDI+--is called the Desktop Composition Engine, or DCE (code-named Avalon). The Longhorn DCE supports a number of hardware initiatives that Microsoft feels will be mainstream or near mainstream by the time this OS ships, including wide aspect ratio high-density LCD displays (that is, displays that feature resolutions of over 120 dots-per-inch, or dpi, compared to 96 dpi for most of today's displays, Figure), and advanced hardware-accelerated 3D graphics processors. To ensure this happens, Microsoft is taking the unprecedented step of working with hardware companies now to ensure that compatible hardware is available before or simultaneously with Longhorn. That way, consumers have the hardware needed to take advantage of Longhorn's more visually compelling features and Microsoft won't have to write to the lowest-common denominator, hardware-wise, as it has with previous Windows versions.

This means Longhorn is going to have some heady requirements, at least compared with today's Windows. The bare minimum Longhorn system will have to be able to display at least 1024 x 768 with 32-bit color, and it must include a hardware accelerated 3D video card with at least 64 MB of RAM. But this is the base requirement: To take advantage of the fun eye candy Microsoft has planned, you'll need advanced video hardware with at least 128 MB of RAM. Kerry Hammil, a Program Manager with the Windows Client Platform, abstracted this somewhat by stating that the lower-end requirements were roughly analogous to the kind of system needed to run DirectX 7-level technologies. The upper-end requirements are more akin to DirectX 9, she said.

To handle the differences in various systems' capabilities, Microsoft is working on a three-tiered user experience model. In the simplest mode, Longhorn will emulate the Windows 2000 user experience, complete with the Classic Windows display. This mode will be provided solely for compatibility reasons only, and Hammil noted that enterprises not wishing to retrain employees on the new Longhorn Aero user interface would likely find this mode helpful. The other two tiers are currently called the Tier 1 Experience and the Tier 2 Experience, those Hammil says those names will change, probably by the summer. "The Longhorn user experience is entirely new and distinct from Windows XP or any previous version of Windows," Hammil told me, though the company refrained from offering any details about how this interface might look. Information about the much-anticipated are expected this year, at or before the PDC, I'm told.

The Tier 1 User Experience is a baseline experience that all machines with Longhorn-capable hardware can use, Hammil said. It features entirely new visuals, though the rendering complexity of those visuals is similar to what you'd see now in Windows XP. Don't misunderstand that point, however: The Longhorn Tier 1 User Experience will not visually resemble Windows XP; instead, it will be a scaled back version of the full Longhorn user experience, which is available in Tier 2, which means it won't use the full DCE (basically, it just supplies just scaling effects). In any event, Tier 1 uses hardware accelerated graphics, supports high DPI scaling (more on this in a bit) and offers transparency graphics effects. However, with Longhorn, Microsoft is trying to convince consumers and even business users to adopt more powerful hardware, and those that do so will see an improvement in Longhorn's user experience. The so-called Tier 2 User Experience is the full meal deal, a superset of Tier 1 with a "graphically stunning user interface," advanced composition services which will be available to Longhorn-specific applications through a new set of APIs; this version requires the DCE and advanced 3D hardware support. "Tier 2 will very clearly be the experience you will want," Hammil said. "It includes desktop quality features and productivity features not found in Tier 1."

To understand why this is such a huge change, consider the way graphics are rendered in Windows today: Graphics are rendered to a single desktop buffer, and every application renders to the desktop. "There's no record of what's been drawn, and no buffering, resulting in visual tearing," Hammil said. "Consider the classic example: When you move one window quickly over another, you will see tearing, where the underlying window goes white briefly," creating a disconcerting and unintended visual effect. With today's GDI-based display technology, it's difficult to do animation in a smooth, consistent way. Windows must ask each application to render on very frame, and that makes transparency very difficult to implement. "We've gotten to a point where the [GDI graphics architecture] is limiting us from innovating."

To fix these problems, Microsoft has created the Desktop Composition Engine, a new low-level graphics engine that works in an entirely different way than GDI/GDI+. In the DCE, each application renders Each application renders to a back buffer instead of directly onscreen. Windows then composes the desktop on every frame using these back buffers, and effects are applied to some windows where appropriate; these effects include, but are not limited to transparency, 3D transforms, and visual effects like re-coloring (which will be nice for the high contrast modes used for accessibility). "We use DirectX to render the desktop," Hammil noted, "and it will run on the version of DirectX that is included in Longhorn." This version is currently code-named DirectX/LH.

The DCE dramatically improves the visual quality of the desktop, even in the WinHEC demonstrations, which featured the old Windows XP user interface, and not the beautiful new Longhorn shell we're all still waiting to see. These new effects will feature completely flicker-free animation and video, and they will be available to application developers targeting Longhorn. "One major tenet of the DCE is that it's not just about pretty visuals," Hammil said. "The desktop it just higher quality [than before]."

Hammil's demos have been published around the Net in various ways, and though I'm not going to offer anything new in the way of visuals here, I will be able to provide context for these demos that I've not seen communicated elsewhere. Using the Windows XP user interface and several legacy Windows applications, Hammil demonstrated the following new features of the Longhorn DCE:

Smooth animation and prototype window effects

In the infamous windows transition effect demo, in which a window being dragged across the screen visually resembles a curtain moving around in the breeze (Figure), Hammil showed off how windows could be arbitrarily animated. Let me be clear here: This effect most likely won't be in Longhorn as-is. Instead, the demo shows how windows can be animated. Over the next several months, Microsoft will work with various shell animation effects to determine which will be included in the final product. Some things we can expect to see, thanks to the advanced graphics architecture, are non-jaggy rounded and non-standard shaped windows, smooth shadows, motion blur on windows that are moved quickly or being minimized, and the like. "We want to give the user more cues when windows are moved around and provide a better visual of where the window is going," Hammil said as the window she controlled fluttered around on-screen. "There isn't a lot of that cueing today, because animations on the desktop aren't practical [with GDI]."

Window scaling

One of the other more impressive demos, especially on a high DPI display, involves window scaling, where the user can arbitrarily rescale--not resize--a window, causing its on-screen text and graphics to smoothly redisplay properly regardless of the size of the window (Figure). "We're using 3D hardware to apply a stretch and bilinear filter to the display," Hammil said. "There's a bit of work to map the mouse coordinates from the scaled coordinate system to unscaled coordinate system so it still works." This capability will finally do away with the problem of today's pixel-based applications, where scaling windows up causes them to be blocky, like the large icon view option in the Office toolbars. In Longhorn, everything, including text, remains smoothly scaled and readable. And yes, this features works with legacy applications. Indeed, all of the applications Hammil demonstrated are available today in Windows XP and are unchanged (Figure).

"There are some cool UI uses for window scaling," Hammil noted. "We could have live but iconified versions of windows that appear when you're searching for windows. Windows can be grouped, and minimized together, where windows are represented as shrunken versions of the original window."

Window transparency

In Longhorn, windows can be provided with virtually unlimited levels of transparency (Figure), and naturally, this effect can be applied in tandem with other effects. "Transparency is possible in Windows XP using the layered windows function," Hammil admitted. "But a lot of apps don't use those services because the performance is bad. GDI doesn't support hardware acceleration for the most part. But now, because of DCE and its support of 3D hardware acceleration, we can deliver transparency at literally no performance penalty. We can take this window and flip it around like a flag [and the CPU usage meter barely moves]" (Figure).

Animated video sources

Hammil demonstrated an interesting feature that will actually have ramifications to the Longhorn user interface, though few people were probably aware of it. She started up three different versions of a high definition STAR WARS Episode II movie trailer, and set them spinning arbitrarily on the screen. None dropped any frames, and there was no flicker or tearing (Figure). Then, Hammil started interacting with some of the many applications still running onscreen, with no performance hit at all. Though this demo may seem cool but useless, remember that Longhorn's long-awaited UI will include integrated full-motion video capabilities. So this seemingly useless technology demonstration is really a proof-of-concept: If Longhorn can handle massive simultaneous video playback features, it will have little problem with integrated video clips in the shell.

"Video is just one more texture for the DCE," Hammil said. "And any effect can be applied to it. This isn't the most practical way to watch a movie, of course. But we envision using this capability to allow users to watch live news feed on the desktop, while checking email." This feature will be more useful for those with widescreen displays, of course.v

Hundreds of discrete window elements, animating independently

In another demo, Hammil set hundreds of vector objects animating across the desktop, some in front, others behind the various windows that were already on-screen (Figure). "These graphics are not rendered in a single layer," she said. "Instead, they are independently managed and animated. Using the DCE, windows desktop can support a lot more animation than it used to. We can run the animations and interact with applications at the same time, all without sacrificing the quality of the animations or the performance of the applications. This removes a major roadblock."

And finally, something fun

Also in the department of "not a feature but rather a cool technology demonstration," Hammil showed off an interesting effect in which all of the windows on the Longhorn display are turned into vector animations and rotated discretely on-screen (Figure). "It's a crazy effect and not a practical way to use Windows," Lammil said as she typed text into a spinning Notepad window. "You can actually interact with it as it works. This is just a demonstration to show the graphics capabilities."

Interestingly, Longhorn's graphics capabilities will be available on all types of PCs in 2005, including desktops, notebooks, and tablets. However, the Tier 2 experience is obviously resource intensive and highly graphics-driven, two requirements that will hurt battery life and performance when not connected to AC power. For this reason, Microsoft is considering ways in which portable machines could ratchet back to the Tier 1 user experience when running on battery power. But they'd let people control that feature, so they could get the Tier 1 experience at all times if they preferred that over better battery life.

One of the biggest issues with the DCE is stability. Because Longhorn versions will rely much more heavily on graphics than previous Windows versions, Longhorn will not support unstable, unsigned drivers. If you attempt to install an unstable driver on Longhorn, the user experience will step back to Tier 1. "Hardware acceleration and high DPI scaling can not run on an unstable driver," Hammil said. "It must run 24/7/365."

Regarding high DPI displays, new Longhorn applications will be written to new resolution-independent units, and not to pixels, as are most of today's applications (One notable exception: Office 2003 applications are written to resolution-independent units and will thus scale properly on high DPI displays). The DCE will mitigate this problem somewhat on high DPI displays by properly scaling a 96 DPI app to the new resolution on the fly, Hammil said. "There are proven usability benefits to high DPI," she said, "and the crispness of the text increases reading speed, and improves productivity. Longhorn will offer a vastly improved experience on high DPI displays."

From a programmer's perspective, the DCE (code-named Avalon) APIs, or Longhorn Client Platform SDK, will resemble the desktop APIs in GDI and GDI+, and not those in DirectX. That was purposeful, so that developers could move over as quickly as possible, and it mirrors the decision Microsoft made in the early 1990's to make the Win32 API in Windows NT resemble the Windows 3.x APIs. Hammil said the APIs will debut this fall at the PDC and will include 2D vector graphics, 3D graphics, digital imaging, ClearType text, and video capabilities to developers.

And finally, an insider note: All of the Longhorn demonstrations Microsoft provided at WinHEC were performed on the M5 milestone, build 4015, which I previewed a few weeks ago. If 4015 has these features, why hasn't anyone with this build seen them yet? That's because the leaked build came out of Microsoft's main build lab. Only those builds from Lab 6--home of the Avalon graphics team--currently have the DCE bits installed, and even then they require some command line machinations to be enabled. Longhorn, like previous Windows versions, is the result of work from many teams at the software giant, and as is so often the case, much of that work isn't melded into the main builds until it's reached a certain level of stability and functionality. And Longhorn is still very much in the alpha timeframe at this point.

New user interface (Aero)

As I mentioned previously, Longhorn's user interface, or presentation layer--code-named Aero--will be revealed later this year. ("It's just not ready for primetime yet," one Microsoft source told me recently.). But there are hints at what's to come. First, it will be graphically rich and full immersive, with stunning photographic-quality graphics and full-motion video overlays. Steve Willet, the Group Manager of the Windows Gaming & Graphics Technology team at Microsoft compared Longhorn to the high-end games shipping this year from id Software, Epic Games, and other companies. "Realistic graphics [are] not just tied to games," he said. "I think there we're really, really close to pulling it into documents and other graphical representations that happen on your PC. In the Longhorn timeframe you'll see us drive this level of immersion and this level of fidelity right into the base level OS. And from there what we really need is gaming graphics level cards shipping in [mainstream PCs] in the Longhorn timeframe."

Will Poole concurred. "[It's] an opportunity for us to leverage that immersive experience beyond just gaining and frankly the quality of experience that gamers have been demanding and that the game companies have been supplying has shamed some of us into saying, hey, we've just got to go and build that into the operating system. We've got to build that into everything we do and make it available so we can deliver that to somebody in whatever environment they're in beyond gaming. So that's really the challenge and, in fact, you'll see some examples of that when you look at some of the combined DirectX and user interface and hardware work that we're doing in ... Longhorn."

WinFS is not a file system

NTFS will be the only supported file system in Longhorn, from a setup and deployment standpoint, though the OS will, of course, continue to support legacy file systems like FAT and FAT32 for dual-boot and upgrade purposes. The oft-misunderstood Windows Future Storage (WinFS), which will include technology from the "Yukon" release of SQL Server, is not a file system, Mark Myers told me. Instead, WinFS is a service that runs on top of--and requires--NTFS. "WinFS sits on top of NTFS," he said. "It sits on top of the file system. NTFS will be a requirement."

Interestingly, when WinFS is enabled, file letters are hidden from the end user, though they're still lurking there under the covers for compatibility with legacy applications. This reminds of when Microsoft added long file name (LFN) support in Windows 95, but kept using short (8.3) file names under the covers so 16-bit applications would still work. Expect this to be the first step toward the wholesale elimination of drive letters in a future Windows version.

WinFS is designed to deliver new file searching and navigational features to end users. One of the big problems with PCs today is that it often takes longer to find a document on your hard drive than it does to find information on the Web via Google. With WinFS, that will no longer be the case. See my Longhorn Alpha Preview 3: Build 4015 review for information about the new Libraries in WinFS that will help users logically collect related documents and other information.

Integrated DVD burning

As I first reported in WinInfo, Microsoft is supporting more than just the DVD+RW recordable DVD format, and at WinHEC the company formally announced that it would support every recordable DVD format in Longhorn. This means you will be able to use DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, and DVD+MR (Mount Rainier) format recordable DVD media with Longhorn, and not just DVD+R and DVD+RW as reported elsewhere. But wait, there's more: The DVD recording support in Longhorn won't be anything like the CD recording functionality in Windows XP; that's because Longhorn's DVD recording eliminates the time-consuming "staging and burning" steps. Instead, when you copy files to a recordable DVD in Longhorn, they're written to the disk immediately, as would happen with a slow hard drive. For record-once media, you can still delete and change data, but you'll lose disk space as you do so.

DVD movie making

While I couldn't drag any details out of the Microsoft representatives at WinhEC, I did confirm that DVD movie making will be provided in Longhorn as well, through an independent application, and not through the shell. An iDVD competitor from Microsoft? It sounds like it.

August 2003 update: Aero user interface revealed!

At the WinHEC trade show in May 2003, Steve Ball, a Program Manager in the Windows Audio Video Devices Group, presented a talk called "Windows Longhorn Audio/Video Devices User Experience (UX)." This talk was notable for a few reasons, but most conspicuously because his slideshow contained imagery depicting the "Aero" user interface in Windows Longhorn. Sadly, when I received the batch of WinHEC slideshows Microsoft provided to the press and other attendees, Ball's Longhorn shots had been purposefully removed.

On August 19, 2003, I finally obtained the unedited version of Ball's presentation with the Windows Longhorn shots intact. Here they are, with an explanation of what you're looking at.

Desktop volume control

Windows Longhorn will include a new desktop volume control, which replaces both the volume icon and Sounds & Audio Devices Control Panel applet in Windows XP. The idea is that users will only access the Longhorn desktop volume control when they have a problem. This UI provides a Sidebar Volume Control and a Sidebar "flyout" window, which provides device-specific volume control (Labtech Spin-70 speakers in this figure), dedicated sub-mix controls for each of the currently running applications that are providing sound (Outlook and Windows Media Player in the figure), and quick access to Hardware & Devices, audio/video troubleshooters, and the new Sound Preferences.

  

Hardware & Devices

The new Hardware & Devices user interface replaces the Device Manager and Hardware Installation Wizard from previous Windows versions. Here, Microsoft continue its task-based work in XP by adding prominent hardware-related, device-specific tasks. This UI will enable easy device configuration, update, and troubleshooting, according to Microsoft, and provide a central location for users to locate their connected device and get information about them.

Device Properties page

Each hardware device will get its own Device Properties page, similar to the property pages we see today in Windows, but more elaborate. This sample shows the Device Properties page for a mock portable digital audio device called "Music Companion." Regardless of the type of device, the page will display rich metadata information, including the device's icons, brand, model, device-specific information, device status, and so on. The goal here is to provide a one-stop location for each device, and provide more task-based UI for completing device-related actions. In the case of the mock Music Companion, for example, you can play music, copy music, setup synchronization, check for software updates, go to the manufacturer's Web site, open the Music Companion folder, and perform other related tasks directly from the Device Properties page. Microsoft is opening up this page to third party vendors as well, making it easy for device makers to add their own tasks directly to the Device Properties page.

Audio and Video Preferences

Stepping back from the somewhat confused interface for configuring multimedia devices, audio, video and other sounds, and AV hardware in Windows XP, Microsoft has created a new Audio and Video Preferences Control Panel applet for Longhorn. This user interface is basically just a front-end for anything AV-related, including Volume Control Preferences (with automatic volume "ducking" or attenuation), Audio Device Assignments (where you might configure, for example, 5.1 surround sound speakers for music, but a headset for real-time communications), Sound Schemes (a replacement for the "Sounds" tab of the Sounds and Audio Devices Control Panel applet in XP), Sound Recorder Preferences (including format and storage location), Video Device Assignments (such as routing video to TV, applications to Monitor), AV Quality and Resource Management Preferences, and Device Installation Preferences (such as silent install preferences and jack-sensing preferences).

Can't get enough? I've got more Aero shots in my Windows Longhorn "Aero" Gallery!

August 2003 update: New video may reveal Longhorn UI

On August 17, 2003, I received an email from an anonymous source offering me a short video of the upcoming Longhorn "Aero" user interface. Based on my earlier private preview of the Longhorn user interface, this video appears to be genuine. However, I need to offer some caveats. First, long-time readers know I've spent a lot of time debunking Longhorn "fakes" and this could definitely be a fake: Given the availability of excellent tools today, it would be relatively easy for someone to fake a high-quality movie. (On the other hand, as I've said, this does resemble the Longhorn UI work I've already seen.) Second, the video doesn't show much, just the first few seconds after a user logs onto the system. Only a new desktop backdrop, taskbar and Start button, My Computer icon, and MSN Messenger window are shown. It is the taskbar area that concerns me most: This is the part that resembles the Longhorn prototype UI I'd already seen, with a hump-like curve over the tray notification area; in the preview I saw previously, the entire taskbar area was curved with three overlapping humps, making it seem more organic than Windows XP. I believe the other humps were actually minimized windows.

So, the obvious question is, "Is it real?" I honestly can't say. But I am offering a collection of still frames from it here because it's so close to what I've already seen. Time, of course, will tell the tale. Enjoy!

Opinions differ

Naturally, opinions differ as to the authenticity of this video. The My Computer icon shown in the video, for example, is readily available on the Microsoft Web site, and here's a version I've cleaned up for comparison. The build number text bears no resemblance to any Microsoft build number I've ever seen. Whether it's real, this is probably an animation, possibly made with Macromedia Director, and not a real OS demo. And so on.

In its favor, the video features a believable fade-in effect. The background is thematically similar to the default Windows XP desktop. The tray icons--ATI, Messenger, AOL IM, and Product Activation, seem believable on a real-world install. The font used on the clock was featured in earlier Longhorn builds. And so on.

Again, the question remains: Is it real? I don't know. But it was professional looking enough that I thought readers would be interested. Let the debates begin!

Jury delivers it's verdict

Since posting these shots, I've received the background image used in this video and determined that the video must be fake. Here's my own desktop, tarted up to look like this supposed Longhorn desktop. A hearty "well done" to whoever submitted this fantastic bit of chicanery. This was the first bit of Longhorn trickery I actually wondered about.

But wait, there's more...

There's more of course, but that will have to wait until next time, as I wanted to get this information out as quickly as possible. Longhorn, as ever, is a work in progress, but given the vast volume of information that came out of WinHEC--only part of which I've relayed here--it's a suddenly exciting work in progress. I'll follow up this report with more information about other aspects of Longhorn, including security, reliability, driver changes, and other features. Hang on to your hats, because it's going to be a busy year!