In the early morning hours of March 1, 2003, some interesting news was broadcast around the dark corners of the Internet: A new Longhorn alpha build had leaked out of Microsoft and it appeared genuine. Since the publication of my original Longhorn alpha preview back in November, Longhorn development has been rather quiet, though news of a new build showed promise. At the risk of being sounding like a wet blanket, however, there isn't much to get excited about here.

Instead, Longhorn build 4008 shows numerous evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, improvements over build 3683, which was the focus of my Longhorn alpha preview. This tells me two things: First, the most exciting bits in Longhorn, including the new 3D video-based user interface, the SQL Server-based file system, and a new breed of exciting digital media-oriented applications and services, have yet to be introduced into the core Longhorn code, creating a bizarre pseudo-update to XP with an ugly, seemingly unfocused user interface. Second, there's a bit of subterfuge going on here. Looking over build 4008, I'm constantly struck by the fact that this leak seems somewhat convenient. I almost suspect it was released on purpose, to throw fans off of the real work that's coming down the road. Whether this second point is real or imagined matters little: If you think the final release of Longhorn will even slightly resemble these early alpha builds, then you have a pleasant surprise coming.

That said, some of minute changes in build 4008 at least hint at what's coming, in the same way that the introduction of icon tiles in early Whistler builds (Figure) previewed enhancement to the Windows XP shell. With your expectations suitably dimmed, let's take a look at what's new in Longhorn build 4008.

How it works: Setting up Longhorn build 4008

The following interactive image describes the new Longhorn Setup in detail.

Feature drill-down

OK, let's take a closer look at the new features in Longhorn build 4008.

Fast new Setup

It's ugly in build 4008, but Longhorn's setup routine (Figure) has been completely overhauled. In fact, most people will be able to install Longhorn from a dead stop--either a CD-based boot or by launching Setup from a pre-existing Windows OS--in less than 20 minutes. Compared to the 60 minutes it takes to install Windows 2000 or XP, that's almost miraculous, and for someone like me who constantly installs and reinstalls Windows for various reasons, it's going to make a huge difference.

Though I'm sure customization features will be added in some capacity, at least for the corporate crowd, the current version is a simple three-step feature that will have Apple's ad makers seeing red ("Step three. There is no step three."). After the Setup Welcome Screen (Figure), you type in your product key (Figure), select the installation partition (Figure), and then Setup collects information about your system and copies files needed for setup to your hard drive (Figure). Then the system reboots and you're present with a simple Welcome screen (Figure), which presents you with a way to configure user names (Figure). And that's it, you're done. There is no step three.

Start menu, taskbar and sidebar

The Longhorn Start menu, taskbar, and sidebar haven't change much in this release, though there have been a few small improvements (Figure). You can hide the sidebar as before, or use it as a taskbar, which moves the Start Menu over to the sidebar. However, build 4008 does include a "new taskbar," which is enabled in Taskbar properties. This new taskbar is thinner than the old version, with no graphical borders between the Start button, active window button area, the tray notification/clock area, and any other enabled toolbars (Figure). It's unclear what benefits the new taskbar delivers.

Desktop

The Longhorn desktop hasn't change appreciably since 3683. There's a new desktop wallpaper in this so-called M4 ("milestone 4") release, and a new Longhorn screensaver, both of which will likely be short-lived.

Longhorn shell

The Longhorn shell is the one area in build 4008 in which you can see steady improvements. My suspicion is that Microsoft is working slowly toward the inclusion in Longhorn of WinFS (Windows Future Storage), the new file system that's based on SQL Server "Yukon" technology. The goal is that the file system will abstract storage for the user, so we no longer need to worry about where data is stored. This change will provide two obvious improvements: First, it will be possible to search contextually ("Show me all of my vacation photos" rather than a search by file name, which is often pointless in the context of digital photos). Secondly, WinFS will unify all of today's disparate data stores. In the future, we won't need separate containers for email, corporate data, Word documents and other data files, and so on. If you search for "Paul Thurrott" in Longhorn, you will retrieve email I've sent to you, documents that contain my name, my Contacts listing, relevant photographs, music I like, and so forth, all in a single, fell swoop. Supposedly.

OK, that sounds wonderful. But WinFS isn't in Longhorn yet. What is there, in build 4008, are the earliest user interface-related steps to this future.

Peaks at future WinFS-related functionality pop up in a number of places. The new Search tool (Figure) will eventually offer a wide range of functionality, using an almost laughable simple interface. In My Computer and other Explorer windows, a new Filter by area replaces the task pane from XP (Figure). This feature lets you filter the current file and folder view by name, type, comments, and other filters that are view-specific. For example, a folder of images provides filters for camera model, company, product name, and product versions (Figure).

In special shell folders such as Document Library (formerly My Documents), Music Library (formerly My Music), Picture & Video Library (formerly My Pictures and My Videos), and My Contacts (formerly Windows Address Book), the top-mounted Details pane is used to supply information about media and data files. For example, when you select a music file, the details pane displays the song title, album title, genre, and year, supplies a link to get more information, and provides buttons right in the user interface to play and pause the song (Figure). When you select an image file, Longhorn displays an image preview, and file size, category, and comments information, while providing XP-like links such as View as slide show, order prints online and so forth (Figure).

The shell also features a number of pointless tweaks to the bogus "Plex" user interface, which I'm sure will have even less of a shelf life than the Watercolor theme did during the Whistler beta. There are new color-coded tabs (Figure); slightly modified soft blocks to protected folders (Figure); hints at future, more elaborate Properties dialogs (Figure); and so forth. The Details pane, which is the dark area at the top of shell folders, can be toggled on and off (Figure) and thumbnails can be dynamically resized (Figure), giving a much larger presentation of images directly in the shell (Figure). There are also fewer shell view styles than in XP: You get Icons and Details only, with Preview being a toggle-able option.

Conclusions

Admittedly, three days isn't a lot of time to spend with a product as complicated as the Longhorn alpha, but as I noted earlier, I really don't think this build is particularly indicative of what we'll eventually see in Longhorn. If I do find additional features of note in the days ahead, I'll add them to this review, but my current take on Longhorn build 4008 is that it's just a work in progress, and a rough look at a work in progress at that. Don't worry folks, Longhorn is going to be an exciting Windows release, possibly the most exciting ever. But don't get your hopes up with this early alpha release. There just isn't a lot there yet.