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'Whidbey' Paving Path For Microsoft's Longhorn

Paving a path toward its next-generation Longhorn operating system, Microsoft next month will seed the developer community with an updated pre-release version of its next Visual Studio .NET platform , code-named Whidbey.

Though Longhorn, the code-name for Microsoft's next version of Windows, isn't expected to hit the market before 2006, Whidbey's reception in the meantime could help mold expectations for the next-generation operating system.

That's because Whidbey will bring into public view both a new runtime model and the first of a host of new APIs , which will be at the heart of all applications running with Longhorn.

With so much riding on Whidbey, Microsoft appears to be moving it into public view gingerly. Microsoft unveiled what it called an "early preview release" of Whidbey last fall to attendees at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.

Ari Bixhorn, Microsoft's product manager for Visual Studio .NET, said a more mature build is slated for release at the company's upcoming Visual Studio conference slated for March in San Francisco. Bill Gates is scheduled to deliver a keynote on Whidbey.

"At VSLive, we'll release," Bixhorn told internetnews.com. "I don't have an official name for it. It will be an updated version." The release pattern marks a more incremental approach than Microsoft's traditional beta-and-release model. "Over the course of the product cycle, we're trying to release builds to customers on a more frequent basis," Bixhorn said. The idea is to enable developers to uncover bugs and help Microsoft ensure that Whidbey is ready for prime time when it hits the streets.

"We're planning to go to a full public beta in mid-2004 and release-to-manufacturing (RTM) by the end of the year," Bixhorn added.

The Path to Managed Code

Whidbey has two main components: the Visual Studio development environment, and the underlying software model, called the .NET Framework.

The latter serves as the enabling technology for building and running Windows applications and hooking them into the operating system and the Web services environments.

"The biggest thing in terms of Whidbey on the road to Longhorn is the concept of managed code," said Bixhorn. Managed code is implemented via the common-language runtime, or CLR, supported in Whidbey. Conceptually, the CLR encapsulates an application. For one, it supplies the many software libraries required to access Windows functions. But more importantly, it handles low-level details such as memory management and security functions in order to avoid crashes and prevent the execution of malicious code respectively.

"CLR is the whole underpinning of .NET," said Visual Studio expert Andrew Brust, president of Progressive Systems, a software development consultancy in New York. "It's the central infrastructure of the platform."

The CLR brings together languages and APIs which heretofore had to be handled separately. "If you were successfully programming before .NET, much of the stuff you had to do involved separate APIs for databases, for multimedia and for other things," explained Brust.

"Doing low-level stuff involved calls to the operating system, and when things got complicated with memory management, you could try to build the plumbing yourself or rely on the [programming] language. With CLR, it does everything itself."

The CLR is effectively the nuts-and-bolts mechanism that enables Whidbey to play with the operating system, database, and Web-services elements of Microsoft's interconnected software platform.

"When I think of Whidbey, I think integration, integration, integration," said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. (Jupiter Research and internetnews.com have the same corporate parent.)

"It brings a level of integration between the toolset and the database we've never had before," agreed Microsoft's Bixhorn. "In Whidbey, because SQL Server [Microsoft's database application] integrates the CLR into its core database engine, developers can write stored procedures and functions in the languages they already know."

Four languages are supported: Visual Basic , C++ , and Microsoft's home-grown C# and J# .

Microsoft also touts tight integration between Whidbey and its Office Suite. Word documents or Excel spreadsheets can be hosted directly within Visual Studio .NET.

However, there may currently be some confusion about exactly which database platform Whidbey is going to exploit.