On Longhorn

Salon (Scott Rosenberg) has a view:

Microsoft is presenting Longhorn to the world as a series of nicknamed projects with bold promises: A new presentation layer named Avalon will feast on the unused processing power of today’s hypertrophied graphics cards to give Longhorn a jazzy look-and-feel and advanced media capabilities (like video in any window). A new file system named WinFS will transform the mountains of files stored on our hard drives into a smarter, more database-like store (think of the difference between organizing your music tracks by file name or sorting them, using their “tags,” through iTunes, MusicMatch or your favorite music software). A new communications system named Indigo will enable a new generation of easy-to-build, easy-to-connect, easy-to-use e-commerce. (Microsoft has been demonstrating a revamped Amazon.com store that does instant resorting of vast product categories.) All this, plus security and reliability (no reboots!).

There is no telling at this early date how many of these promises will be delivered on when Longhorn finally ships, and how many of them will be tossed overboard in an effort to keep the shipping date from receding toward an infinite horizon. But however Longhorn finally shapes up, it’s clear that Microsoft intends for it to be a big sea change in the Windows world la Windows 95. If it’s not, the company will have a multibillion-dollar egg on its face. As Microsoft’s “general manager of evangelism” Vic Gundotra put it earlier this month at a Longhorn pitch for Silicon Valley developers, “This is a bet-the-company strategy. It’s the biggest bet we’ve ever made, and there’s no guarantee of success.”

One of Microsoft’s great strengths in the past has been its ability to carry customers across “platform transitions” by religiously maintaining backwards compatibility. It promises more of the same with Longhorn: Microsoft’s demos show off a 20-year-old DOS version of the Visicalc spreadsheet running inside a Longhorn window.

But if Longhorn is too radical a break with the past there’s always a chance that Microsoft’s two key constituencies — “end users” like you and me and the “ISVs” (independent software vendors) who produce the programs that run on top of Windows — will balk. The years between now and Longhorn’s due date will provide Microsoft’s only remaining competitors, at Apple and in the Linux universe, with a real chance to seize the high ground and capture more customers.

Longhorn will come sometime in 2005-6. That still seems quite some way off. This is the opportunity for Linux to come in and build out the next-generation computing platform.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.