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
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
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
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
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.
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
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