In the early morning hours of October 26, an hour before sunrise, I woke up in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, ready to start what promised to be one of the most frenetic work-related weeks of my life. Logging on to my email, I received the news I had been waiting for: The Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 build of Windows Longhorn, build 4051, was finally available for the taking, if I wanted it. Other PDC 2003 attendees would be receiving it over a day later, after Bill Gates and Jim Allchin introduced Longhorn to over 7000 geeks in an epic 3 hour-long keynote address. I could wait to get the official bits. I or I could get started on a build I had expected to get weeks earlier. Naturally, I started downloading Longhorn immediately.

Various Microsoft contacts had assured me that Longhorn build 4051 would be extremely stable and usable, a far cry from the poor quality alpha builds I've reviewed here previously. Furthermore, I was told, Longhorn build 4051 would be of such high quality that Microsoft would make it available to MSDN Universal customers and, via a Web order form, any individual that wanted to test it and provide feedback to the software giant. Still two years from completing the project, I was told, Microsoft was eager for some feedback.

Pumped up with the possibilities, I stewed while the painfully long download progressed. Night turned to dawn, then to day, and I tried to get some work done to pass the time. In the back of my mind was the unspoken reality of my situation: This show, the PDC, would be the most important event of the next two years for Microsoft followers, an unforgettable mind meld with the people at Microsoft who had already been slaving over Longhorn for years. What if it sucked? What if, after all this time, all this work, there was precious little to get excited about?

I had joked with Microsofties and coworkers that the PDC almost had to be a letdown after all the pre-show hype. And as the Longhorn build 4051 download completed, I thought back on what I'd been told to expect from this build, poured over my experience with previous builds, and came to a simple conclusion. There was no way this build was going to be anything less than excellent. It would kick the pony out of the recently released Mac OS X "Panther" and quiet the doubters. Longhorn build 4051 was The Promised Land (tm) and it would not just meet, but exceed, my expectations.

Reality sets in

Of course, we had to get it installed first. Contributing news editor Keith Furman and I eventually headed over to the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC) for our pre-show press briefings, which mostly consisted of background technical information for the largely uneducated media types who probably had no business being at a developer-oriented show anyway. Bored and not learning anything, Keith worked on figuring out how to get the Longhorn 4051 ISO to install without blank CDs, which we had forgotten to bring. It didn't take long, and Keith was soon installing the build on his Compaq Presario X1010, a widescreen notebook with sufficient muscle to handle the build. By mid-afternoon, I had also installed the build on an IBM ThinkPad R50 and a Dell Latitude D800, and was starting my first install to a Virtual PC-based virtual machine.

And it was horrible. Longhorn build 4051 features a new Luna-like visual style called Slate, which basically takes the Aero user interface (revealed first on the SuperSite) and back-ports it to Windows XP, and it's decent looking, if only half-realized. In other words, it looks like XP. Worse, it performs horribly. Most damning, build 4051 doesn't appear to offer any dramatic changes over previous alpha builds, the most recent of which came out way back in June, and the much-vaunted WinFS (Windows Future Storage) stuff is broken. Hardware detection lasts an eternity, especially on the notebooks we had at the show. A memory leak in explorer.exe quickly killed whatever performance the systems had left. It was almost heartbreaking.

At 1:45 pm, Keith and I finally provided an update about the new build to our daily live posts to WinInfo Daily UPDATE. "At the risk of sounding a bit negative, Longhorn build 4051 is, sorry, boring," we wrote. "Once you get over the mildly amusing Slate theme, and the slow and painful hardware detection, it's basically the same as previous alpha builds, albeit in more usable form. Explorer windows feature the Aero-like look that I first revealed on the SuperSite for Windows and ... well, that's about it. There really isn't that much more to say, at least not yet. We've installed 4051 on three machines so far and we're not that impressed." Later that night, after spending a few hours playing with the build, we updated the posting with some more thoughts. "While we're still not overly impressed--tomorrow's Gates keynote better kill or these guys have some explaining to do--we have at least gotten the gist of what's going on in this build. First, it's a dog on any system with less than 512 MB of RAM, so consider that a base amount (up from 256 in Windows XP). The new content aggregator Libraries are more usable in this build than in previous alphas, and it's clear that a lot of the graphical elements we're seeing now are just placeholders for future Aero-based versions. For example, you can dynamic scale the icons in any Explorer window, like you can in Mac OS X: There's just one difference: Longhorn's icons are currently the junky old bitmapped versions we've all used before and they don't scale well at all. We think the new Aero UI will fix that. Contacts are now integrated directly into the file system, which makes sense when you consider the file system's new database capabilities. The digital image stuff is very much enhanced with simple image red eye removal and quick fix features in Image Preview, and a new zooming mode in Paint (yes Paint) that makes that app truly usable. Oddly, Outlook Express 7 has been dramatically improved to more closely resemble MSN 8.5, and Internet Explorer 6.05 (which will surely be at least version 7 in the final build) includes pop-up ad blocking and a download manager."

Still, we were palpably disappointed. And we looked forward to a Gates keynote which promised to show off, for the first time, the Aero user interface Microsoft planned for the final release of Longhorn, but had purposefully left out of the PDC build we received. But our expectations had been decidedly dashed: Rather than wondering why the company needed two more years to deliver Longhorn, we wondered how the company could possibly finish this dog in such a short amount of time.

Finally, the official unveiling

The next morning, excitement overwhelmed PDC 2003 showgoers as they almost trampled each other (VIDEO) to get good seats for the Gates keynote address when the doors opened. Seated dead center in the second row, behind seats reserved for Microsoft employees and partners, Keith and I set up shop, carting out the laptops, cameras, and digital camcorder we'd use to record this historic event. Our first hint that there was more going on with Longhorn than we'd seen in build 4051 came almost immediately: The lights dimmed, and a slick Microsoft promotional video (VIDEO) started up. The video was well-done, and it puts all of the company's post-Windows 95 TV advertising to shame.

Opening to the rocking strains of Oversee's Horndog (Buy it online), the video features themes such as "It's about ideas that inspire," "Make the future happen today," "working smarter not (AND) harder," "we don't see pixels, we see we see pictures," "we're geeks bearing gifts," and "we're just getting ... started," while taking the viewer through various innovative products such as the Tablet PC and the Athens prototype PC, and several advance looks at Aero user experiences in Longhorn, including a new media player, a calendar, a to-do list, the Longhorn Photo Library, integrated video playback features, and Digital Ink. It got the crowd pumped up into a frenzy, and the imagery shown in the video was well more advanced than the garbage visuals in build 4051. Things were looking up.

Then, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates took the stage (VIDEO) and provided attendees with a standard "how we got here" speech that was conspicuously devoid of any Longhorn content. Over thirty minutes into this sleep-inducing talk, Gates finally mentioned that Microsoft "will build speech capabilities into the system--a big advance for that in Longhorn, in both recognition and synthesis, real-time." And that was it. As the speech wore on, we started to figure that the Aero preview--the Big Event, as it were--would happen during the Allchin keynote address, which was scheduled the start as soon as Gates finished.

But then Gates got to some specifics, finally. "Longhorn ... is going to be a very big release--the biggest release of this decade, the biggest since Windows 95. We're tackling three different areas: The fundamentals--that means the security, the auto-installation; applications not interfering with each other. There's a lot in the fundamentals area ... It's an advance for customers, being able to connect up, being able to have your information appear on all your different devices; having that information structured without you doing a lot of work; having less commands despite the new richness that's there, and using capabilities around the agent to take and put you in control, so that understanding your privacy and what mail is coming into you. You feel like you have a few simple things you do that put you back in the driver's seat there, so you have confidence and control."

Then, Gates invited Microsoft Product Unit Manager of the Windows User Experience Team Hillel Cooperman to join him on stage. Hillel provided an animated and exciting demonstration of an Aero-enabled Longhorn build (these were real bits, not a demo) that, frankly, blew us away. Gone was the boring XP-like Slate theme, replaced by a new "glass windows" interface, its name inspired by the fact that all of the window elements were transparent to different degrees, creating an amazing 3D desktop effect. Interrupted frequently by applause, Hillel walked attendees through the Longhorn user experience (VIDEO), with looks at windows, the Sidebar, WinFS, some new collaboration feature, scalable graphics, and Web services. Hillel's demo lasted far longer than expected--we had been told that Aero would only be quickly shown at the PDC--and was quite inspiring, and the obvious high point of the morning (VIDEO). Later, Group Vice President Jim Allchin spoke the software development opportunities and changes in Longhorn, and I'm sure for many people that was the meat of the morning's presentations. But Hillel's demonstration, to us, was a wake-up call. It was time to re-assess Longhorn build 4051. Maybe things weren't as bad as we had imagined.

A look at build 4051

After spending a bunch of time with Longhorn build 4051, a pre-beta or alpha-quality build of Microsoft's next desktop Windows version, I can safely say it isn't much different from previous alpha builds from a usability standpoint. It features a new Windows XP-like visual style, called Slate, that replaces the awful Plex theme from previous alphas but closely resembles Microsoft's latest thinking on the Aero user experience. This has a number of ramifications for the future, but I'll discuss that below. The key point to take away is that 4051 isn't viable for day-to-day use. That is, you can't dump Windows XP and jump to this Longhorn version.

Specifically, Longhorn build 4051 is designed for developers who want to start investigating the Longhorn Software Development Kit (SDK) and the unique new features it exposes, such as the .NET-based WinFX Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), the Avalon graphics engine, the Indigo Web services framework, the WinFS storage engine, and so on. To this end, Longhorn 4051 is a capable system that works well: I've installed the Visual Studio "Whidbey" beta and the Longhorn SDK on all of my Longhorn test systems and have been spelunking into the depths of Longhorn for a few weeks now, interested to see what low-level details I can turn up. It will probably be a while before I have anything to report, but I'll keep digging. It's been a while since I've done this type of coding.

For most people, of course, programming isn't very exciting. And I realize there are those out there who are interested to see how Longhorn 4051 compares to previous alpha builds, so I'll provide that information here. It's important to note, at this early alpha stage, that Longhorn is very much a work in progress. Much will change over the next two years, most notably the bits that end users interact with. So don't get too excited about any of the graphical wins or losses here. None of this is written in stone.

Next: A Quick Look at the Developer Preview Build