A Closer Look

Windows Again Chasing Mac OS to Shelves

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 1, 2005

With its new operating system ready to ship, Apple felt justified in kicking some sand in Microsoft's face. Its marketers crowed about how its new Mac OS X release included features that Microsoft could only talk about while it continued to work on its own long-delayed successor to Windows XP.

That was a problem for Microsoft -- in 2003, when Apple was talking up Mac OS X 10.3, a k a Panther. Now, two years later, things haven't changed much.

A new Apple update, OS X 10.4, or Tiger, is on store shelves while that XP replacement -- nicknamed Longhorn for now -- is still, well, not here.

Longhorn is now scheduled to arrive during the 2006 holiday season. Originally, it was to show up sometime in 2004.

It was also supposed to have a lot more features in its original incarnation. The most important of these were to be an improved, faster file system, the Windows File System (WinFS). WinFS would turn today's static lists of files and folders into a searchable database, allowing users to find files in a snap and quickly build their own custom folders on the fly.

A second core Longhorn component was Palladium, Microsoft's nickname for a special chip and a new layer of software to ensure that only trusted programs, not viruses or spyware, were afoot on a PC.

Now, WinFS has been dropped entirely (although Microsoft says it will still build in the sort of desktop-search capabilities that users now get only with add-on software. Palladium's reach has been downgraded, allowing this technology to regulate only what software runs right after the computer boots up.

Instead of the biggest, baddest operating system ever, skeptics see Longhorn as Windows XP Service Pack 3.

But it should certainly look better than XP as we know it. Longhorn's graphics architecture, called Avalon, will allow for some of the same slick graphics effects as in Mac OS X, but it's not just a pretty new Windows face. (Microsoft calls those interface graphics Aero.)

Avalon also can work with properly written applications to adjust their appearance, making the best use of display hardware. For example, it would allow a desktop-publishing program to tap every pixel of the higher resolution of a future display instead of crudely scaling up its graphics.

A second Longhorn technology, Indigo, may be of less relevance to home users. It's more of an office feature that will help programmers write applications that run across local networks.

A third change, however, should benefit anybody anxious about security. Microsoft plans to reduce the authority Windows grants to individual programs to operate as they see fit, which should reduce the amount of damage any one virus can do.

Longhorn's system requirements are still somewhat up in the air. Microsoft has been cagey about saying exactly what users will need to run Longhorn, but so far it seems clear that they'll need at least 512 megabytes of memory. Its fanciest 3-D graphics will, in turn, require a high-end video card, along the lines of what is needed to run a fast-paced video game today.

Microsoft representatives have also said that Longhorn will run best on dual-core processors, which put the guts of two processors on a single chip. AMD and Intel are both hard at work producing dual-core chips, but none are sold in home PCs.

But Microsoft also insists that users will be able to run Longhorn on older machines with 128 or 256 megabytes of memory and today's graphic cards. It just won't be a great experience, they admit, and may not look much different from XP today. (Microsoft offers some information on Longhorn, though mostly oriented toward developers, at http://msdn.microsoft.com/longhorn .)

To make the most of Longhorn, users will also need to upgrade their applications, although XP-capable programs, such as Microsoft Office and Intuit's Quicken, should still run just fine.

Microsoft reaffirmed the holiday 2006 timetable for Longhorn at last week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle, but that will take some quick work. It has yet to release a beta of Longhorn, although it plans to do so this summer. If that test release should slip, watch out -- it took Microsoft a year to go from its first beta of XP to the shipping product. And Longhorn incorporates many more changes than XP did.

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