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Gates Opens Windows' Next Wave

LOS ANGELES -- Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates kicked off the company's developers conference with pre-beta demonstrations of its next-generation Windows operating system featuring advanced graphics, live "broadcasts" from one computer to another and built-in Web services.

"I believe this is the decade where digital devices will be a part of our lives and economy in a very deep fashion," Gates told the Professional Developers Conference in a keynote address at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Key to those devices, he said, will be a radically changed Windows operating system that can interoperate with a range of devices and platforms. In order to do that, developers need to continue extending XML in order for data to interoperate across different platforms and applications, with more meaning.

The developers are gathered to get their hands on pre-builds of the next Windows Longhorn operating system, SQL Server database (Yukon) and developer tools in Visual Studio (Whidbey). But on Monday, the day belonged to the new features in the Longhorn operating system.

Hillel Cooperman, product unit manager for the Windows user experience group showed three key new features in Longhorn: a new UI and graphics rendering system called Avalon; the new data store and file system called WinFS, and a new messaging infrastructure called Indigo, which underpins Microsoft's Web services infrastructure.

In short, the new operating system is chock full of changes in presentation, use and storage of data, and "live" communications within and outside the Longhorn operating system.

The new browser UI has a transparent quality to it that lets the user see the screen saver and the rest of the desktop and features graphics such as thumbnails of live video, instant messaging buddy lists. It also supports video files that play in other file formats, such as in a word file with text wrapped around it, or in thumbnail format during a data search.

Indigo is the Web services infrastructure that would enable a computer user to conduct transactions such as searching the Lexis-Nexus database via the operating system in order to purchase data from the database giant. With the help of Indigo, the secure authentication of transacting with Lexis Nexus for the data search happens in the background of the operating system thanks to .NET platform and the XML that helps the data traverse from one platform to Windows.

Another example of the communications features in Indigo was a demonstration of persistent peer-to-peer connections that ultimately because a "live broadcast" of one computer to another. Cooperman was able to use his computer to render a live look at what his colleague was scribbling on his Tablet PC in digital ink.

The instant-messaging session enabled such instant replication of files from one machine to another to the extent that they became a "live broadcast" while Cooperman at the same time re-sized the screen using the graphics capabilities in Avalon.

The demonstration gave attendees a glimpse of the extent of integration the next-generation operating system represents. After the user pulled the data request from Lexis Nexus, WinFS then enabled the user to click into the data file, to "drill in" to the graphical representation thanks to Avalon.

The demonstration of the much-talked-about WinFS system in action included a search of files on the computer that, once they responded to the search, included graphical thumbnails of the files, some listed in digital ink alongside text.

Because of the features of Microsoft's database product SQL Server are built into Longhorn's WinFS data store feature, a user's searches are more contextual because of the relational database features of SQL Server built in. But beyond the search, the messaging engine of Indigo helped the user automatically enable a search and file share with another user using little more than a drag and drop.

"Viewing items in WinFS is to talk about extending the schema of data files, Cooperman added. A search for relateds in WinFS brought Avalon's graphic abilities back to the fore, as the file search went lower in the stack, Avalon rendered another graphical thumbnail, rather than the usual string of text that a deeper search in Windows might yield.

Even video files are searchable, in WinFS, which were rendered as thumbnails that were playing while other applications were running.

Also taking the stage for a more detailed keynote address at PDC was Jim Allchin, group vice president of the Platforms Group at Microsoft.

Think of Avalon as the new graphics subsystem that serves as a foundation for the Windows "Longhorn" shell, he said. Avalon provides a unified architecture for presenting a new user interface for rendering rich media in documents, file storage and, of course, search, he added.

It also enables developers to deploy graphics hardware and provides native support for declarative, markup-based programming -- two of the main issues behind making Windows-based applications easier to build.

"With WinFS, developers can take advantage of pre-built data structures in their applications, and extend those structures to handle their specific requirements and add unique value to the application by creating new structures," he said.

Allchin and Gates said "Indigo" unifies a broad array of distributed systems capabilities in a composable and extensible way, spanning transports, security systems, messaging patterns, encodings, network topologies and hosting models.

Allchin also introduced "XAML," a declarative markup language for "Avalon," that demonstrates how the Windows user interface subsystem builds on the features available through Amazon Web Services to create an entirely seamless experience for users.

Online retailer Amazon.com helped to demonstrate Web services features, which were deployed with XAML, as well as Avalon and WinFS, with Amazon Chief Technology Officer, who showed off a prototype shopping application for Amazon that included shopping agents.

The PDC is where developers get a sense of Microsoft's future product roadmap: the next-generation Windows operating system (Longhorn), database software SQL Server (Yukon) and its Visual Studio developer tools (Whidbey). All three builds are wrapped up in what Microsoft calls its next-generation Windows programming model, WinFX.

For a company that has built the OS for more than 9 out of 10 PCs on the market, Microsoft's developments at PDC represent the clearest sign yet of how Microsoft executives envision how the OS will evolve -- and how radical a change Longhorn will be. As demonstrated in the Longhorn pre-beta, the operating system offers a new, rich graphical user interface, new 3D rendering, caching abilities, and new abilities that enable users to drill into different sections of the operating layer in order to enable search, file transfer, even building new mini applications on the fly with developer tools baked right into the operating system.

But for now, Microsoft's own customers have been slow to buy into that vision. Even though XP was introduced in 2001, nearly 350 million computer users haven't upgraded to that version, and they will need to be in order to take advantage of the richness of the data interaction and media presentation in Longhorn. The XP operating system essentially introduced users to the building blocks of what is now called Web services . Longhorn puts all the moving parts that go into Web services into motion.

The pre-beta "bits" of Longhorn, Yukon and Whidbey, some of which are being released today and Tuesday, will give developers and the rest of the technology world a glimpse of just how far Microsoft is moving with its .NET platform for building Web Services capabilities into its software lines.

If XP is considered an introduction to the .NET framework, then Longhorn represents Microsoft's plans to prepare developers to write with greater reliance on XML in order to integrate systems with the apps' features and business logic.

That means they need to think about coding for tomorrow's computer options such as digital ink in addition to using a keyboard and mouse; 3D rendering and live video running in text documents and building in new security schemas to a data stack, to name a few.

Despite the advances in graphics processors in chip-makers, the ever-expanding process capabilities on desktop and smart mobile devices, Gates said software has to do its part to keep all the moving parts of the next-generation connected devices running.

The key features of Web services, Gates said, are workflow and process for distributed application and data management. That means building software that lets "end users come in to see state of things," in an application as well as how it is interacting with its operating system.