It's been a long year. On May 4, 2004, Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin provided a keynote address at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2004 (see my show report), during which he demonstrated Longhorn builds 4067 and 4069 and discussed such Longhorn features as Avalon, Indigo, and Aero. The company then provided build 4074 to show goers, and to MSDN subscribers. It looked like Longhorn was finally on track.

Not quite. Unbeknownst to those outside of Microsoft, Longhorn was about to take a major detour. The 4000-series builds that Microsoft had just shown off and handed out had already run their course and were destined for the technological dustbin. The problem, I was told recently, was that the underpinnings of Longhorn--then based on the Windows XP code base--were struggling under the weight of all of the technologies that Microsoft planed to implement in this release.

I'll make available an exclusive write-up about what happened next sometime in June 2005, but for now let's just say that Longhorn's architects went back to the drawing board. The 4000-series builds were scrapped, and the company started building Longhorn again from scratch, using the Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1, see my preview) code base (as it did for the x64 version of Windows XP (see my preview). The idea is that Longhorn needed to be better componentized from the start, so that the company could offer more discrete versions of the product to customers and more easily add-on the many disparate technologies it was developing. These versions of Longhorn are identified by their 5000-series build numbers.

Late last month, Microsoft finally issued its first public build of Longhorn, build 5048. Also known cryptically as the Longhorn Developer Preview, Longhorn build 5048 was actually created on April 1, 2005 and does not reflect some of the advancements Microsoft has recently made. That was by design: Longhorn build 5048 is designed largely for device driver writers and, as such, does not include many of the user interface niceties we're expect from Longhorn. Furthermore, it actually represents a usability back-step from last year's build 4074. That's because some features, like the Sidebar and the new system-wide Contacts utility, are missing in action in 5048. There are reasons for these omissions. None of them are particularly good.

In any event, Longhorn build 5048 was issued at WinHEC 2005 (see my show report). Between WinHEC 2004 and WinHEC 2005, and while Longhorn was silently being re-engineered, Microsoft publicly revealed that Longhorn was changing somewhat. First, the WinFS data storage engine would be delayed until after Longhorn shipped, though Microsoft promised a beta version of WinFS around the same time that Longhorn was completed and vowed to include most of the instant desktop search functionality in Longhorn regardless. Second, key Longhorn technologies, such as Avalon and Indigo, would be ported to Windows XP with SP2, Windows Server 2003 with SP1, and the x64 versions of XP and 2003, to ensure developers that they would have a big enough market to target. Microsoft also vowed to ship Longhorn in 2006. (I've written about these developments extensively on this site. Check out my Road to Windows Longhorn 2004 and Road to Windows Longhorn 2005 showcases for details).

Um, you're joking, right?

I have to be honest here. After a year without a single new Longhorn build and very little concrete information about what was going on with the project, I had high expectations for build 5048. And a pre-WinHEC briefing with the software giant did nothing to assuage those hopes. Plus, I've seen advanced Longhorn UI work and I knew how cool this thing was going to be.

Build 5048 communicates none of that. And that's a shame, because Microsoft had a chance to ramp up the momentum of a product that, quite frankly, could use a little momentum. On the one hand, we have Windows XP with SP2, which many people describe as "good enough," a phrase that will haunt Microsoft for years to come as it tries to foist new Windows and Microsoft Office versions on them with decreasing success. On the other hand, I present the competition, Linux and Mac OS X. The Linux market may be convoluted and disjointed, but Linux, too, is "good enough," and it's free, along with "good enough" applications like OpenOffice.org and better Web browsers, like Firefox.

It gets worse. Apple's Mac OS X, recently upgrade to version 10.4 ("Tiger," see my review) is more than "good enough." In many ways, OS X is simply better than Windows, especially for experienced computer users, and Tiger rubs Microsoft's nose in the embarrassment of shipping a key Longhorn feature--instant desktop search--a full year ahead of the software giant. That's right folks. We already knew that Microsoft was facing smaller, nimbler competitors. But those competitors are now starting to outperform Microsoft in the feature department too. It's time for Redmond to stop pretending Linux and OS X don't exist.

Anyway, Longhorn build 5048 is pretty boring. That it's boring by design doesn't make me much happier. I do know that the company will add back major new functionality in time for Beta 1 (currently scheduled for June 30, 2005, but you know how those release dates have a way of slipping) and then again for Beta 2 (a nebulous release that Microsoft will not commit a date to). But sitting here in early May 2005, surveying the state of Longhorn, it's not pretty. Longhorn build 5048 is a disappointment. Here's what I found out about this build during a busy week of testing.

Installing Longhorn build 5048

If you're familiar with the Longhorn 4000-series setup procedure (see my Windows Longhorn Build 4074 Gallery 1 for details), Longhorn build 5048 holds no surprises, and still offers none of the amazing corporate deployment tools I first wrote about two long years ago.

First, build 5048 is available on DVD only, and that might be true of the final product as well. When you boot from the DVD, you're presented with a new Longhorn boot logo (Figure), and then a Welcome to Windows Setup screen (Figure). After that, you enter your Product Key, agree to the Software License Terms, and are presented with an oddly non-customizable Settings screen (Figure). Here, you can change the installation location and the computer name, but none of the other options. Presumably, setting up user accounts, regional settings, and the time zone will come in a later build.

When I originally tried to install build 5048, I ran into a lot of problems. My first attempt was in a Virtual PC 2004-based virtual machine, but Setup couldn't see the unformatted virtual drive (Figure). This same problem cropped up in VMWare Workstation 4.5 and 5.0, so I gave up and partitioned my laptop and then installed the system on its new partition. That install went fine--albeit slowly--and I later discovered that there is a bug in the build 5048 setup application that prevents it from seeing unformatted virtual disks. If you want to install Longhorn build 5048 in either Virtual PC or VMWare, you'll need to copy over a formatted virtual disk from another virtual machine first. Then, Setup can see, format, and use that disk.

In any event, once you present Setup with a disk it knows how to use, sit back and wait, because Longhorn build 5048 takes well over an hour to install. Microsoft still insists it will get clean installs of Longhorn below 15 minutes, but it's hard to imagine at this stage.

Once Longhorn build 5048 is done installing, you boot directly in the desktop of the Administrator account (Figure), which is a little disconcerting. And if you try to do the right thing, security-wise, and add a password to the Administrator account and then create your own user account, build 5048 actually complains that it can't log you on: The auto-logon is hard-coded in some way. Nice work, guys.

First looks at the Longhorn build 5048 desktop

Not surprisingly, Longhorn build 5048 is visually a mix of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, tossed together with a new Aero theme that is rendered, in this build, using XP-era technology and not the advanced Avalon-based UI we'll see in later builds (Figure).

Some small visual niceties are available, however. Some icons have been updated to approximate the vector-based icons that Longhorn will eventually use (Figure), and the Start Menu is barely translucent. You can also enable a pseudo-Aero Glass mode using a Registry hack (Figure), but the results are buggy and performance challenged, so I soon lost interest.

The 4000-series Sidebar is gone in build 5048 and Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Peterson said it's probably gone for good. That's a shame, as the Sidebar was one of the best Longhorn features, in my opinion, and something that I use today, roughly, with the MSN Premium Dashboard.

There is a new Search Administrator icon in the tray area. It brings up the Indexing Options dialog (Figure) for Longhorn's instant search functionality.

Desktop Properties is unchanged from XP.

Start Menu

Microsoft has changed the Start Menu fairly radically in this build, though the results are visually challenging. Instead of a pop-up All Programs sub-menu the All Program entry now triggers a visual change where the All Programs menu items replace the left side of the Start Menu (Figure). If you open a folder from there, the menu expands, causing a (gasp) scroll bar to appear (Figure). Ugly.

There is also an unmarked search box in the Start Menu, below All Programs. Here, you can actually type in the name of an application (yes, seriously), and the left half of the Start Menu will change to display any applications that match what you're typing, as you type (Figure). I seriously doubt the utility of this feature, but whatever: Anyone who uses the mouse to select a search box, then types in an application name, and then once again uses the mouse to select the correct application from the search results list has long ago given up any semblance of trying to be efficient.

Microsoft says that it is moving away from the "My" naming convention in Explorer, and that is partially implemented in build 5048. My Computer is now Computer, and My Network Places is now simply Network, followed by the name of your workgroup or domain in parenthesis. Mine is identified as Network (THURROTT), for example.

The Taskbar and Start Menu Properties are virtually identical to those in XP or 2003. However, a new System Tray tab (Figure), while largely useless today, will someday let you configure various System controls, which appear to be somewhat separated from the old tray icon way of doing things. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Explorer

Fire up an Explorer window like My Computer (Figure) and you'll see that Microsoft is edging ever closer to the "visualize and organize" scheme that they've been planning for Longhorn. The file preview area has been moved to the bottom of the window, creating a more streamlined look than that of the 4000-series builds. And task-oriented options now appear under the menu.

The view style options are similar to that of the 4000-series builds. A slider lets you switch between Details, Tiles, Large Icons, Medium Icons, and Small Icons (Figure). Large Icons are actually pretty decent looking and, dare I say it, almost OS X-like (Figure). Picture icons, naturally, are thumbnails, regardless of the view style. And the Address Bar has been replaced by a breadcrumb bar that makes it easier to jump to locations that are higher in the shell hierarchy than the current view.

In the My Documents folder--which, remember, will eventually be replaced by a virtual folder called Documents--we can see the beginnings of visualize and organize. In addition to standard shell folders like My Pictures, the My Documents folder also contains special smart folders, called Auto Lists, that aggregate certain kinds of data. There are five Auto Lists for documents in build 5048: All Documents, Authors, Keywords, Recent Documents, and Types (Figure). However, there are others in other folders. For example, the My Music folder has Auto Lists for Album Artists, Albums, Favorite Albums, Favorite Music, Genre, Music, and Ratings. My Pictures has Events, Locations, and People.

You can construct search queries in a fairly simple way using a visual query builder that looks like it was lifted straight out of Windows Media Player (Figure). Here's how it works: You specify a search term in the Search For field and then select a location to search, and the types of files you'd like to include in the search. Then, you hone the search by using any number of filters (both AND and OR based). For example, you might filter where the Author is Paul (Figure). The list of items by which you can filter a query is quite long. However, until you can save these kinds of searches, it's a pretty laborious way to find stuff. Curiously, you create your own Lists. To do so, right-click on any folder or the desktop and choose New and then List. Then, give the List a name. However, there's no way to determine what constitutes the List. At least not that I can determine. The preview pane is empty, and offers no clear configuration operations.

Control Panel has been overhauled with a new style of Category view (Figure), though the Classic view is still available and visually resembles Classic view in XP. Most of the individual Control Panel applets appear to be lifted straight out of XP as well, and there are no longer any of the new-and-improved applets like the Contacts utility from build 4074. However, there are some more hints of things to come here, including empty or non-functional OS and Application Updates and Sync Manager applets. The Portable Media Devices applet triggers a wizard when launched (Figure) that tries to find a compatible portable media player or related device (like a USB key). I haven't gotten it to work yet, on a real PC or from within a virtual machine.

There's also an interesting Add/Remove Networked Device applet that is launched from an icon called Networked Device Installation (Figure). This applet discovered network-attached devices and then information about their capabilities. Clearly, it's the first look at what will be some sort of UPnP/Windows Connect front-end.

Bundled applications

Longhorn build 5048 comes with the complete suite of bundled applications you're used to from XP, so no big news there. Internet Explorer looks like a standard shell window but uses a normal Address bar (Figure) and identifies itself as version 6.0. Windows Media Player 10 and Outlook Express are all familiar, as are all of the other applications.

I've only installed a few external applications and have nothing brilliant to report. Microsoft Office 2003 and Windows AntiSpyware install just fine, while applications like Zone Alarm Security Suite, Microsoft Photo Story 3, and Tweak UI refuse to install at all.

Now what?

Frankly, there's not a lot to report about build 5048. The new Print, Imaging, Fax, and Color features are not included. Nor is Windows File Protection (WFP), an EFS-like security feature that will debut in Beta 1. The Limited User security features, too, are missing in action. From an end user perspective, most of the new and interesting stuff we saw in the 4000-series builds has been removed, leaving us with a painfully familiar XP-like experience.

I understand that this build is for developers, however, and sure enough, the DVDs that Microsoft handed out at WinHEC 2005 do include a Software Development Kit (SDK) and Windows Driver Kit (WDK), both of which require the Visual Studio 2005 beta. I'll install these tools and delve further into build 5048. However, my guess is that I won't have much more to report until I see Beta 1 or another pre-Beta 1 interim. Time will tell.

Conclusions

Longhorn build 5048 is hugely disappointing from an end user perspective because it shows how far behind Microsoft is in delivering the next client version of Windows. Also, expectations were high that Microsoft would hit a home run with this build, because it was the first public Longhorn release in a year. With my enthusiasm firmly in check now, I can look forward to some June briefings and the expected July release of Longhorn Beta 1. I do expect that things will indeed improve over time. However, that's not saying much, as things can only improve.