Longhorn’s Delayed Expectations

The schedule for Longhorn, Microsoft’s revolutionary new operating system, has officially slipped. Now, the cutbacks begin — and WinFS may be on the chopping block.

According to internal e-mails obtained by BusinessWeek, Microsoft executives, Microsoft now plans to cut some functions for Longhorn in order to make sure it ships in 2006. BusinessWeek quoted a March 4 e-mail from Microsoft vice president Joe Peterson that said, “We are going to focus on doing fewer things, and doing them well.”

The WinFS data store and file system for Longhorn is a radical new way to handle file information. Gordon Mangione, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s SQL Server database team, previewed WinFS during the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference last October, saying its storage system’s abilities represent some of the best of 15 years of development of the SQL Server database tools. WinFS will interoperate with Yukon, the next version of SQL Server, to manage data stored on the PC through a SQL database bundled into the operating system. It was to allow the OS to categorize information in multiple ways and relate one item of information to another, letting users search and navigate in a more integrated way not only on the desktop but across networks.

Instead, Microsoft will limit that capability to files on the desktop.

In his blog, The Scobleizer, Microsoft technical evangelist Robert Scoble said that after a hard three months, the Longhorn team, responding to pressure to “ship, ship, ship,” focused on what it would take to ship on time. He wrote that feedback from professional developers “in some cases that didn’t match up to our assumptions.”

According to Scoble, Microsoft isn’t being coy about target dates or features for Longhorn. The team still doesn’t know.

“With a project as ambitious as Longhorn, priorities must be set for things such as timing and features,” a Microsoft spokesperson told internetnews.com. “As work progresses, those priorities need to be reevaluated and adjusted as needed to meet the needs of our customers and ensure the quality of the product. While there may be some minor scaling back of specific scenarios originally envisioned, these fundamental system components remain core to what we will deliver in Longhorn.”

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox told internetnews.com last year that WinFS was very ambitious — so ambitious that it might not be doable in the first version of Longhorn. If that has now come to pass, he thinks that hacking off major features or functionality in Longhorn will exacerbate Microsoft’s current problem.

“People don’t necessarily see a difference between Windows 98 and Windows XP, and understand what the value of one versus the other is,” Wilcox said. “If consumers can’t see that difference, Microsoft’s problem is how will they see a difference in Longhorn. Maybe it won’t be so different now.”

According to Wilcox, as it’s faced with the need to manage its resources, the question Microsoft needs to answer is, “Do you invest in major changes that may not make much difference with respect to sales?”

Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, told internetnews.com, “This is good to see, because it means they’re starting to get serious about schedule.” Cherry, a former Microsoft technical evangelist, pointed out that in the early phases of software design, it’s better not to constrain the designers’ creativity. There comes a time, though, when the team has to determine a reasonable feature set that can be delivered in a reasonable amount of time. Evidently, that time has come.

“Now, as they move forward,” Cherry said, “we’ll start to see much more realistic estimates.”

Earlier this month, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told an audience that the company had pulled resources off Longhorn development to focus on plugging up the holes in Windows XP. Microsoft is now referring to XP Service Pack 2 a release rather than an update.

“The impact of reallocating some resources from Longhorn to Service Pack 2 means that the first beta for Longhorn is now expected in early 2005 instead of late 2004,” a Microsoft spokesperson told internetnews.com.

Gates also confirmed that speculation about Longhorn’s delay until 2006 is “probably valid.” Executives have begun stressing that Longhorn is “not a date-driven project.” They also began talking about trimming some of Longhorn’s features.

At that time, Microsoft spokesperson told internetnews.com that an alpha build of Longhorn will arrive by the end of this year, which would push the beta version into 2005. He also said that only “very minor things” would be cut from Longhorn.

At this writing, Windows XP Service Pack 2, which Microsoft is now calling “a release,” is still expected in June, although Microsoft hasn’t provided a firm release date. ISVs have been warned that the service pack will make significant changes to the operating system in order to boost security. Microsoft provided a training course to help developers tweak their applications to avoid them crashing after the service pack upgrade.

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