April 14, 2005 10:00 PM PDT

An early peek at Longhorn

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in October 2003. At the time, the company focused largely on the "under the hood" features of the OS--in particular, a new file system, Web services architecture and the presentation system.

Since then, Microsoft has significantly reshaped the OS. Last year, the company announced that it would pull out the new file system and that the Web services and presentation pieces would also be made available for Windows XP.

Got to know when to hold 'em
Allchin said his priority is making sure Longhorn meets quality standards, followed by getting the product out on schedule. Packing it full of features is a third priority, and the one most likely to give. As a result, Microsoft would delay Longhorn over quality concerns, but is unlikely to let individual features hold up its release. That could mean some further trimming around the edges if things fall behind.

As with Windows XP Service Pack 2, security remains at the forefront of Microsoft's development efforts. With Longhorn, Microsoft isn't focusing as much on building in antivirus software as it is changing the behaviors that leave computer systems vulnerable to attack. For example, most computers today are run in administrator mode, making it easy to add new programs and make other changes, but also allowing major fundamental changes to a computer to be made by malicious software.

With Longhorn, Microsoft is trying to change that so a computer runs with the least possible permission level. Only those programs that truly need administrator privileges would run at that level. Microsoft plans a similar change to Internet Explorer that would reduce the level of access given to external Web sites in an attempt to lessen the possibility of malicious attacks.

Microsoft also has focused on improving the experience when using a laptop computer. A fast-start option, combined with support for external displays, will make it easier to create computers that can display calendar information or play music without having to start up the whole PC, including the OS. Another change will make it easier for a person's PC to join a network at work or at home, while remaining invisible to other machines when getting Wi-Fi at a coffee shop.

In the category of making sure things "just work," Allchin cited enhancements such as making sure that a laptop that connects to a projector displays correctly without having to press any keys. In addition, he said, are settings tailored for specific tasks, such as watching a DVD. The computer will just assume that the user doesn't want the movie muted and probably wants to watch it full-screen.

Getting down to business
If there is more than one PC in a home network, Allchin said, it will be easy to allow sharing of files and easy to get at those files. For example, a PC with Longhorn might show all the music files together, whether they are on the local PC or another machine on the network.

There are also features designed to make it easier on businesses that use large numbers of Longhorn machines. Microsoft has created a new way for companies to put their custom installation of the OS onto a group of new machines.

Allchin said those enhancements--along with a reduction in the number of times customers have to reboot their machines and other features--will mean that companies that move to Longhorn will be able to cut their operating costs. Of course, he added, "that's up to us to prove."

Microsoft is also crafting its preliminary list of which capabilities a computer will need to run Longhorn. Allchin said the company is recommending that systems have 512MB of memory, as well as "today's level" of processor. There will be different levels of display quality depending on how much graphics horsepower a computer has.

The richest view, code-named Aero Glass, sports the fanciest bells and whistles, such as translucent windows that come to life when opened or maximized. That's where the heftiest graphics requirements come in, but Allchin said recent tests show it might not require as much horsepower as originally thought.

Another view, Aero, will have slightly lower requirements and offer many, but not all, of the features. Finally, a minimal user interface will look fairly similar to current versions of Windows.

Allchin said the company is continuing to tinker with different interfaces and their requirements, "but clearly we want as many machines as possible to have Aero Glass because there is a lot more we can do in that."

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