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Analyst: No Longhorn Before 2006

Microsoft may still be aiming for a 2005 delivery of Longhorn, the next iteration of the Windows operating system, but one analyst says don't hold your breath.

Joe Wilcox, lead Microsoft analyst for Jupiter Research (whose parent company also owns this Web site) said Microsoft's efforts to align all of its products with the Longhorn operating system -- and its new Windows Future Storage (WinFS) file system -- will force it to push public release of the OS back to 2006.

"In mid-2003, Microsoft began making major changes to its development strategy for Longhorn, the next-generation version of Windows," Wilcox wrote in a new report called "Longhorn: Implications of Next Windows' Ship Date."

In addition, he wrote that he believes Longhorn -- once slated for 2004 release, and then pushed back to early 2005 -- won't ship until 2006, when supporting Microsoft applications start reaching the market.

Wilcox told internetnews.com that WinFS will be one of the major reasons for the delay.

"I believe that Microsoft is shooting for autumn of 2005, but I don't believe Microsoft will make that," he said. "That date assumes that Microsoft will deliver the new file system as promised, not a make-shift, but the real deal."

He added, "It's a brand new file system. You change the file system, you create the potential to break [existing] applications. This isn't just a different file system, it's a radically different file system. Microsoft will probably have a very protracted process on the development side to give developers a long time to prepare. Once people begin to move to Longhorn, basically they have to replace all of their applications. I'm sure Microsoft will supply some backward compatibility mechanism, but running the old 'soft will not be as good as running the new 'soft."

WinFS, based on the file system in Yukon, code-name for the forthcoming version of SQL Server, is intended to be the first time server technology that will manage data on a home PC through a relational database, making it context-dependent. This should dramatically cut the length of search times while also offering new searching and navigational features.

Some Microsoft watchers speculate that the file system will not be as radical as Wilcox contends. Paul Thurrott, in his report, "The Road to Windows Longhorn 2003," published at Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows, said NTFS (NT File System) will be the only supported file system in Longhorn. Citing Mark Meyers, an OEM Manufacturing Program manager at Microsoft, Thurrott said WinFS will be a service running on top of NTFS.

Wilcox said early alpha builds of Longhorn, which have been leaked, do indeed have WinFS running on top of NTFS, but said that was unlikely in the public release. "If [WinFS is running on top of NTFS], that's not a radically new file system [which Microsoft has promised]."

However, Wilcox also said that WinFS is not the sole reason for his belief Longhorn will be pushed back to 2006. The date also takes into account Microsoft's desire to refresh all of its products -- including the Office System and its server operating system -- within the Longhorn timeframe.

"If you have a new file system, you have to have applications," he said. "People are not going to buy a new OS without applications. It's a major architectural shift. Microsoft wants to have applications in place."

And since the company just shipped Windows Server 2003 in April, and sent Office 2003 and related products to manufacturers on Tuesday, Wilcox said Microsoft will want to give those offerings a chance in the market before serving up refreshes.

"The earliest Microsoft wants to release the Longhorn version of Office is the end of 2005. The server product shipped in April and you figure that Microsoft doesn't want to release anything earlier than 2006," he said.

Since Microsoft has committed to offering a Longhorn server product, Wilcox said current estimates on Blackcomb, code-name for the server operating system that is supposed to follow Windows Server 2003, should also be considered invalid at this point.

"Microsoft has said there will be a Longhorn server, so you can basically throw out the dates for Blackcomb," he said. "Blackcomb could be a long time out now, if at all."

But while Wilcox said Microsoft will likely get Longhorn out the door several months later than it currently plans, he also argued that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"At first glance, the length of time between the October 2001 shipment of Windows XP and, hypothetically speaking, the October 2005 or February 2006 launch of Longhorn seems too lengthy," Wilcox said in the report. "Microsoft could conceivably see a drop in Windows sales and jeopardize the supporting ecosystem of PC manufacturers and third-party software developers. However, Microsoft's stratification of Windows XP for specific markets and slow XP adoption among businesses are sufficient reasons to expect continued perky sales and a healthy surrounding ecosystem."

Wilcox noted that Windows XP is still just at the beginning of the adoption curve, and is expected to really hit its stride in 2004. Meanwhile, he noted that Microsoft plans upgrades to Windows XP Media Center Edition -- which he argued will increasingly be positioned as the consumer version of Windows -- during the 2003 holiday season, which should give PC manufacturers an opportunity to refresh sales. He also argued that Media Center Edition will see an even more full-featured update before Longhorn ships in 2006.

And expect the release of Office 2003, together with new hardware advances, to spur further the adoption of Windows XP Tablet Edition, he noted.

"For tablet, the refresh that counts isn't Tablet [Edition], it's Office 2003. The applications themselves really take advantage of the inking capabilities. OneNote exploits it to the nth degree."