With Windows Server 2003 behind us, it's time to turn our attention to the more exciting world of desktop computing, where Microsoft is slowly plowing through pre-beta milestones of Longhorn, it's follow-up to Windows XP. Due in late 2004 or early 2005, Windows Longhorn will offer sweeping changes over its predecessors and be the most significant release of Microsoft's desktop operating system since Windows 95. For developers, consumers, and business users alike, Longhorn is going to be huge. I've written a lot about this intriguing release (see my original Longhorn alpha preview and Longhorn alpha preview 2 for more information) but I present this third Longhorn alpha preview with some reluctance. Frankly, Longhorn hasn't changed much since the last alpha build I examined, and it's unclear what all the excitement is about. But 2003 is going to be a big year for Longhorn information, starting with an interesting little trade show next week in New Orleans. So here, at last, is my look at Longhorn build 4015. Suffice to say, things are going to start picking up soon.

WinHEC Preview: A new Longhorn shell is on the way

Since I first revealed the true nature of the new 3D video architecture in Longhorn, I've been besieged by requests for more information. Early in May, we may finally get that information, if the following technical content teaser for the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003 is any indication. Note that the following text was provided by Microsoft to potential WinHEC attendees and is completely unedited. And yes, I am going to WinHEC.

WinHEC 2003 Tech Content Teaser: 3D Graphics Enhancements in the Next Version of Microsoft Windows The following extract is from "Graphics Hardware and Drivers for Windows Codenamed 'Longhorn'," an exclusive publication for WinHEC 2003 attendees which describes the enhancements to graphics capabilities and driver functionality in the next version of Microsoft Windows "Codenamed Longhorn."

3D Graphics Enhancements in Windows Longhorn Windows Longhorn will foster a major step forward in terms of how graphics hardware is used by mainstream Windows-based applications, from the Windows desktop to consumer and line-of-business applications. To achieve this enhanced desktop experience, a new Windows Longhorn Display Driver model has been designed to radically advance functionality, stability, and reliability. Coupled with acceleration provided by current and future graphics hardware, this new graphics driver model enables Windows Longhorn to deliver a higher level of performance, quality, and a new desktop experience.

In the past, the OS desktop has been a single graphics surface, and each window was defined as a region on this shared surface. Each application was responsible for drawing to only its window regions of the shared surface. Visually, windows appear to overlap and usually only the front-most window at any pixel is actually drawn.

The Microsoft Windows Longhorn desktop is being drawn in a completely different way than all previous versions. Every window will have its own, full window-sized surface to draw to. The desktop will be dynamically composed many times a second from the contents of each window. The goal for desktop composition is to enable compelling new visual effects for both the Windows user interface and for applications created by third-party developers shown on increasingly affordable high-density displays.

Examples of visual effects that will be enabled in Windows Longhorn include:

  • Windows tumbling onto the screen.
  • Rotating windows.
  • Warped windows.
  • Alpha blending between windows.
  • Threads.
  • Events and other synchronization objects.

The Windows Longhorn Driver Model allows for the visual effects seen on a user's desktop to scale relative to the available graphics hardware. For example, the experience of viewing Windows Longhorn on hardware with capabilities equivalent to a high end DirectX 9-compliant graphics chip will be much richer than Windows Longhorn displayed on baseline legacy graphics hardware.

More at WinHEC 2003
Come to WinHEC 2003 and witness demonstrations of the new graphics capabilities available in Windows Longhorn. WinHEC 2003 is your opportunity to learn more about how the new graphics infrastructure of Windows Longhorn will enable:

  • Sub-pixel Microsoft ClearType text display technology with anti-aliasing.
  • Hardware accelerated and resolution independent anti-aliased 2D graphics.
  • Rich 3D graphics using a higher level API, integrated with 2D API and controls infrastructure.
  • Glitch-free video playback.
  • Greater than 8 bits per component color pipeline.
  • All graphical elements can be arbitrarily combined within applications and across the desktop using the Desktop Compositor.
  • Support for higher pixel density on both LCD and CRT displays.

What it all means

Here's my executive summary of the preceding information. According to this teaser, and based on information I've received separately, Longhorn will include...

  • an enhanced desktop experience that includes advanced 3D graphics capabilities and driver functionality.
  • a new display driver model that will feature radically advanced functionality, stability, and reliability.
  • a radically redesigned user interface with a dynamically composed desktop featuring compelling new visual effects like graphically tumbling, rotating, and warped windows.
  • hardware accelerated and resolution independent anti-aliased 2D scalable graphics that will expose functionality based on the capabilities of your system's 3D video hardware.
  • a rich 3D graphics architecture that is integrated directly into the Windows UI.

In other words, the visual display in Longhorn will be awesome, simply awesome. Put another way, it will look nothing like the dredge we see in Longhorn alpha build 4015. Still interested? Let's look at the improvements we can find in this interim build.

So what's new in Build 4015?

Despite its complete lack of exciting visual elements, Longhorn build 4015 (Milestone 5, or M5) does hint at future improvements and includes a few interesting new features when compared to build 4008. Here's what I've seen examining this build.

Setup improvements

Setup, as with build 4008, is streamlined and much quicker than that of Windows XP. I suspect most Longhorn installs will take about 20 minutes, or about half the time, or less, that it takes to install XP, though it does take a bit longer to install than 4008. One interesting note in Setup is that "non image-based installs cannot be upgraded. Build 4000 and higher is required for upgrades." For this reason, I performed a clean install of Longhorn 4015 over an existing Windows XP set up.

Longhorn 4015 includes a new boot screen (Figure) and a new first boot screen similar to what you see in XP (Figure).

New Welcome screen

Longhorn's new Welcome screen is a combination of the full-screen approach used in XP and the logon window seen in previous Windows versions (Figure). Technically, it's a full screen display made to look like a floating window. There's a weird new option called "Log on as..." that lets you type in a username/password combination (Figure), suggesting that Microsoft truly is trying to combine the best of the old logon window with the Welcome screen. Presumably, you will eventually be able to limit which user names appear on the Welcome screen and then manually enter user information if desired.

Desktop, Taskbar, and Sidebar

On first boot, there are a few changes from previous builds. The so-called thinner "new taskbar" is on, and the taskbar and sidebar are both locked by default (Figure). Build 4015 introduces a new style of notification (Figure), or "slice of toast," as it's called internally at Microsoft. (These notifications, like several other features in Longhorn 4015, appear to be culled directly from work done previous on MSN. I find this functional combination interesting.) These notifications appear for such things as activating the product, finding new hardware, and the like.

As before, you can unlock the taskbar and sidebar (Figure), hide the sidebar (Figure), and almost infinitely configure which each UI element appears on-screen (Figure). Some of the combinations are awkward (Figure), but after messing with it a bit, I ended up putting everything back where it was in the beginning.

To configure the sidebar with new functionality, you can right-click anywhere on the sidebar and choose Add a Tile to see a list of available tiles. These include:

Synchronize

While I'm guessing this will eventually incorporate functionality from ActiveSync as well, currently the Synchronize choice (Figure) provides a link only to IE's Offline Web Pages feature. This will be an area to watch over time.

Basket

It's not clear what the Basket tile does (Figure), but it appears to be either a replacement for the Recycle Bin or a multi-item Clipboard (Figure). Future builds should reveal more.

Most Frequent Apps

The Most Frequent Apps tile displays the Programs List, which is identical to the most recently used applications list in the XP Start Menu (Figure).

User

The User tile displays your user name and logon photo, but appears to do little else (Figure).

Slide Show

The Slide Show tile is unchanged from previous builds (Figure). The Properties dialog for this tile, however, appears to be written in .NET managed code and crashes repeatedly (Figure).

Windows Media Player

As with MSN 8.x's Dashboard, you can display Windows Media Player directly in the Longhorn sidebar.

Clock

As with previous builds, the Longhorn Clock tile is graphically rich and includes a one-click Calendar (Figure) that doesn't do much quite yet.

Quick Launch

The Quick Launch tile replaces the Quick Launch taskbar toolbar (Figure). By default, it provides shortcuts to Launch Internet Explorer Browser and Show Desktop.

Search

The Search tile provides you with a sidebar-based method of "finding your stuff" (Figure). Again, you can filter the results and search for just about anything (Figure). And, again, it crashes repeatedly (Figure). I'm sure this will get better over time.

Legacy Notifications

Small applications that were written to live in Windows' tray notification area now display in the Legacy Notification (Tray Icons) tile (Figure). The old XP-style Activation icon shows up there, for example.

Shell improvements

As expected, the Longhorn shell is still a disaster. After turning off Windows Future Storage (WinFS) to speed things up, I was still astonished by how poorly the system performed. Most Windows include a preview pane that is slow to display, and even when it does display, it's nasty looking and incomplete (Figure). For the first time, in this build, taskbar buttons for open windows are actually centered in the taskbar; I don't have an opinion yet whether this is a good idea.

By default, the Explorer address bar is hidden (Figure), though it can be toggled on with a simple click (Figure). View styles, as before, are adjustable, though the current XP-style icons don't react well to icon size changes (Figure); this will change dramatically when the new 3D shell is in place. Tiles view appears to be replaced by a new Extended Tiles view (Figure), which supports type collapsing (Figure), while Icon and Details views carry over unchanged. The system still reports the version number as 6.0 (Figure).

A new shell location called Download Manager (Figure) appears to be functionally similar to the Download Manager used by MSN 8.5. The integration of downloading into the shell led me to some speculation about the future of Internet Explorer (IE). You might recall that many people are wondering why IE development has virtually stopped. This might be because IE, the product, is indeed going away and that Longhorn users will simply browse the Web using the Windows shell. The relationship between Web browsing and Longhorn may therefore be similar to the relationship between Web browsing and the MSN 8.x interface, which supplies a Web browser window, sure, but also lots of other functionality. I think the MSN-Longhorn connection runs deeper than previously thought, but this is just speculation at this point.

I'm still not a big fan of the Plex visual style, which is ugly and amateurish, but I was interested to see that the old Classic view style seems to work pretty well with the new UI elements (Figure). The Explorer pieces, especially, are much more attractive in Classic (Figure).

Libraries, pivot views, Carousel view and stacks

In this build, special shell folders have been replaced, sort of, by a new construct called a library. A library is a virtual folder that intelligently gathers information about files on your system and presents them to the users in a collection. So, for example, the My Pictures folder has been replaced (logically) by the Picture & Video Library (Figure), which can collect images and videos from various locations in your system and display them in a single place (I write "logically" here because the My Pictures folder still exists. But it's only one of many locations in which you might have images stored).

Note that libraries don't actually contain anything physically; instead, they are a special collection of shortcuts, similar to the Control Panel in XP. The files themselves could be anywhere on your system, though most libraries are limited to searching particular folders for performance reasons. As I understand it, the objective here is to transparently shield the user from having to worry about physical disk locations, and it seems like a good idea.

In Longhorn, libraries can be filtered to display only certain types of content. When dealing with libraries, a filter (or view) is called a pivot. So, for example, you might display all pictures and videos in the Picture & Video Library, but you might want to filter the view by various criteria as well (size, date, whatever); this view of the data is a pivot. You can also modify the default view, or pivot, for each library (Figure) and determine which physical folders it links to (Figure). Actually, in Longhorn, these locations aren't even called folders for some reason. Instead, they're referred to as machines and volumes, which I find confusing because these terms are used to refer to physical PCs and partitions in XP. Perhaps the terminology will change during the beta: When you attempt to add a location, the standard Browse for Folder dialog appears.

Every Explorer window includes various ways to filter the view (Figure). Generally, there is a context-sensitive drop-down list as well as an edit box into which you can type custom filters. But the Explorer window task pane will also display a set of filters customized to the contents of the folder you're viewing. In 4015, I've seen a variety of things in the task pane, including ways to filter documents by name, size, date of creation, and so on.

Longhorn includes the Document Library, Game Library, Music Library, My Contacts, and Picture & Video Library. We might also include the Control Panel as a library, since that's basically what it is, and it exists at the same level in the shell hierarchy as the other libraries. In the following sections, I'll take a short look at each new library in Longhorn build 4015.

Document Library

The Document Library will logically replace My Documents and is, naturally, a collection of all of the documents on your system. By default, the Document Library collects documents from My Documents, the desktop, and Shared Documents. It does not collect pictures, videos, or images.

Game Library

The Game Library's purpose is unclear, but it will presumably integrate with the Parental Controls feature discussed below and offer game un-installation functionality, game controller configuration, and other related settings. Back in the early Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me) beta releases, Microsoft toyed with including a Gaming Options applet, which was designed to aid users in the installation and management of games. When games that supported the Application Manager were installed, their disk space usage could be managed automatically, so that frequently used games got the space they needed while infrequently used titles could be setup to use a CD-ROM disk instead. This feature was eventually dropped and didn't appear in XP, but it will be interesting to see how it develops going forward. Currently, the Game Library virtual folder in Longhorn is empty.

One interesting side-note about the Game Library: It is the only library that doesn't appear in the list of libraries you see in My Computer.

Music Library

The Music Library logically replaces the My Music folder. By default, the Music Library collects audio files from My Music, the desktop, and Shared Documents (not Shared Music as you'd expect, though this should change). The default pivot for Music Library is All Albums, but you can choose between that and All Artists, All Genres, All Playlists, and All Tracks.

My Contacts Library

The My Contacts library replaces Windows Address Book (WAB). It has only one pivot, called Personal Contacts, though I expect to see a Shared Contacts feature pop-up eventually. By default, My Contacts points to %SYSTEMROOT%, which is an odd location, but then this feature isn't fully implemented yet. However, there are some interesting hints at what's to come. Here's what I've found out so far: The My Contacts Library features a new Explorer view style called Carousel. Now, there is no way to actually view, add or modify Contacts in Longhorn yet (though I'll get to how that will eventually work in a bit), but I have seen Carousel view, so I can at least describe how it works.

Graphically, an icon representing your user sits at the center of the carousel, and lines, or spokes, branch out from the center towards your contacts. In Carousel view, items can be grouped by various criteria, such as relationships. In the relationships concept, you might have people sorted by family, friends, work, and the like. So you'd see lines radiating out from your icon toward these groups. Items that are logically further away from you (alphabetically, those items that are further from the letter A) will graphically fade as they move further from the center of the carousel (you). Here's a rough mock-up of how this feature might eventually look.

But there's more new to My Contacts than just the Carousel view. In My Contacts, you can arrange contacts by Name, Email, Work Email, Personal Email, Home Phone, Work Phone, or Online Status, but you can also utilizing a new feature called Stacks. Because you can't actually work with stacks in 4015, it's unclear what the feature does, but you can stack contacts by the same list of criteria by which you can arrange them, and you can also unstack them. Stacking and unstacking might be related to the Carousel view but, again, that's unclear right now.

As I noted previously, there is a choice for creating a new contact in the File menu while viewing My Contacts or Personal Contacts, but it doesn't do anything. Another choice, called Add Contacts, launches the new People Picker UI (Figure), which exists but doesn't work. A third option, Import Wizard, indeed launches a wizard called the Import Wizard (Figure), but it failed to import any of the contacts I provided it in a variety of formats. I was able to import contacts into the Windows Address Book in Longhorn, but I suspect this legacy application is on the way out. All attempts to import into Personal Contacts or My Contacts failed, and the option for importing legacy Windows Address Books is marked as NYI (Not Yet Implemented).

Ah well, maybe it will work in build 4018.

Picture & Video Library

The Picture & Video Library logically replaces (and combines) My Pictures and My Videos. Currently, this library defaults to displaying all pictures and videos, and the only other pivot option (for now) is By Year. The Picture & Video Library collections media from the desktop, My Pictures, and Shared Pictures.

Parental controls

Though much of Control Panel appears to be identical to XP, there are a few changes (Figure). A new applet called Parental Controls lets you determine when your children can use the computer and which games they can play (Figure). To test this feature, I created a Limited User named Limited (creative, eh?) and set about limiting his capabilities. Longhorn let me configure the hours in which he could logon to and use the system using a grid (Figure) and determine which games he could play using the industry standard ESRB game rating system (Figure), which is similar to the rating system used by movies.

New hardware capabilities

Another new Control Panel applet, Portable Audio Devices, appears designed to simplify the connection of those popular digital devices (Figure). Like Game Library, however, the applet is currently unfinished.

Like its predecessors, Longhorn 4015 includes an enhanced Hardware and Devices applet (Figure) that lets you view and configure the devices connected to your system.

Searching and Windows Future Storage (WinFS)

In Longhorn 4015, searching has been updated somewhat (Figure). Now, we get a "What are you looking for?" Search Results window (Figure) that can apparently handle anything from documents, email, music, pictures, and tasks, to visited Web sites, people, or the Internet, all in one location. This concept is in keeping with the WinFS functionality I first revealed here on the SuperSite, but the feature is buggy now, resulting in frequent Explorer crashes (Figure) which, incidentally, seems to be written in .NET managed code now. Interesting. You can filter searches by "My Stuff," Help & Tasks, Contacts, and Internet (Figure). This is also very interesting.

Conclusions

So there you go, another slow, buggy, crash-infected Longhorn alpha build, but one which includes a few new pieces of interesting functionality. As ever, this build is not for day-to-day use, and it's certainly not a perfect indication of what's coming down the road. But in these beta-starved times before the official Longhorn Beta Program kicks in, it's better than nothing. We should get more Longhorn information next week at WinHEC, and then again at the TechEd and PDC shows later in the year. Beta 1 is still expected in October, with the final release set for late 2004 or early 2005, depending on who you ask.

Let me know if you have any questions. But no, I don't know where you can download this build.