Microsoft: Tech future lies in Longhorn

Associated Press and Canadian Press

SEATTLE Microsoft Corp. has been tarred as an illegal monopoly and a copycat. Its flagship Windows operating system gets knocked for its security holes and user-unfriendly quirks.

So what is the world's dominant software company doing? Betting billions that its next generation of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will be the breakthrough technology that quiets its critics.

Still in its early stages, Longhorn represents Microsoft's best assessment of how computing will evolve. And although the operating system won't be ready until 2005 at the earliest, Microsoft is already hard at work trying to get outside programmers to write software that will work with it.

Even with Microsoft's operating systems running on more than 90 per cent of the world's desktop computers, challenges loom for software's goliath.

Microsoft struggles these days to batten down its products against viruses and hackers, and is wrestling a growing open-source movement. On top of that, European regulators could order it next year to decouple its multimedia player from its operating systems.

"Microsoft's control comes from its ownership of the desktop," said Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research. "If it doesn't create energy and excitement in the developer community and the partners and in the people who create tools for the desktop around where they're headed, they're in trouble."

Early plans for Longhorn call for graphics of a quality typically reserved for video games, plus a unified file storage system aimed at making it easier to find files scattered all over a computer. A search engine that quickly scans your entire system ?and the Internet as well if you like ?would locate pertinent data regardless of whether it was housed in an e-mail, spreadsheet or word-processing document.

Longhorn may also have a "sidebar" on the screen that would include information crucial to individual users ?such as time, instant-messaging buddy lists, a display for photos and news feeds.

But the real promise of Longhorn is as a powerful new platform for developers to write "Web services" ?applications that leverage Internet connectivity to automate such tasks as, say, setting up a dentist appointment. Or notifying someone via cellphone when a particular stock price drops.

That vision represents a shift from Microsoft's approach to most of its past Windows upgrades, said Brent Williams, an analyst with McDonald Investments Inc.

The company has generally played it safe, giving its upgrades mostly incremental improvements that didn't push users too far out of their technological comfort zone.

But now, Microsoft is trying to persuade its users to relate to their computers in a vastly different way.

"Microsoft's changing the equation and saying ... our idea is to have stuff that's way better [but] we can't make it pain-free to convert," Mr. Williams said.

Microsoft is, however, well known for its difficulty meeting deadlines. The new version may not be done until 2006 or even 2007, some predict. Microsoft says only that the beta version of Longhorn will be available in the second half of 2004.

That long lead time could benefit competitors and the open-source community, especially if they've got a detailed idea of where Microsoft is heading.

And if Microsoft can't keep to a timeline, it risks losing developers to other platforms, such as Linux, said Richard Doherty, director of Seaford, N.Y.-based research firm Envisioneering Group. Budgets are tight, and software developers are trying to decide when and how much staff and investment to devote to writing applications for Longhorn, Mr. Doherty said.

For now, Microsoft is running high on optimism.

Chairman Bill Gates and other executives showed off elements of Longhorn to more than 7,000 developers in Los Angeles recently, netting enthusiastic feedback. At the time, Microsoft's group vice-president for Windows, Jim Allchin, said that the event proved that "we are bold in our dreams,"

Many developers shared Mr. Allchin's enthusiasm.

"Everything we've seen so far is so amazing," said Igor Odnovorov of Boston-based Phase Forward Inc., which provides data-management programs for pharmaceutical companies and other firms that conduct clinical trials. He liked that the developers' tools and unified file system would provide more freedom in presenting and storing data.

Even those who say very little in Longhorn is truly revolutionary other companies including Apple have already come out with similar ideas are eager to develop software for the platform.

"Microsoft is doing what it's very good at ?taking existing ideas and technologies and implementing them in a way that finally makes them usable by developers and by everyday computer users," said Jim Taylor of Novato, Calif.-based Sonic Solutions, which develops DVD technology. The company already is planning to develop programs based on Longhorn, he said.

Microsoft knows what's at stake. In the 1990s, Microsoft had to play serious catch-up to Netscape in the browser wars after initially failing to recognize the rising popularity of the Internet.

Question is, will Microsoft and Mr. Gates again be playing catch-up by the time Longhorn is finally ready?

"The thing that Bill has been particularly willing to do and good at doing was to place these huge bets," said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief technology officer.

"If you get it right then the whole industry moves forward to another level," he said. "And if you get it wrong, you essentially are pretty much guaranteeing that you'll probably cede your leadership to some other company who will come along at some point in time with something that does capture the imagination."