Longhorn Leak Offers Peek at Windows Future

UPDATED An internal alpha build of Microsoft's next Windows release, code-named Longhorn, has slipped out of Redmond labs for the second time in four months. Build 4008 began appearing on Internet sites late last week, following a path similar to last November's leak of build 3683.

To the casual observer, build 4008 shows little progress over 3683. Longhorn's "Plex" visual style (screenshot) has been slightly polished, sporting new graphics for buttons and tabs. The oft-discussed Longhorn Sidebar is also visually cleaner and less prone to crash.

Microsoft has added an optional new taskbar, which can be enabled via the Sidebar, featuring a slimmer design and modern clock display.

But a look beneath the surface reveals that build 4008 contains more than simple tweaks, and hints at what the future of Windows may hold.

Microsoft has finally replaced the text-based Windows installation with an entirely graphical setup. In order to achieve this, Longhorn makes use of the Windows Preinstallation Environment. WinPE is a small operating system that sits on the Longhorn CD and contains the minimum functionality needed to install Windows.

WinPE occupies 40MB of RAM when active, providing a full Windows environment in which the Longhorn setup runs. The change is a marked improvement for build 4008, which installs without user interaction in less than half the time required by Windows XP.

Beginning to emerge in build 4008 are services based on Windows Future Storage – the new file system built upon next-generation SQL technology code-named Yukon.

With WinFS and Yukon, Microsoft aims to abstract the user from the data storage process, making the physical location of a file irrelevant. The file system will instead work like a SQL database and reference files as they are needed for certain tasks.

Early WinFS functionality is already present in build 4008 when browsing digital media.

Rather than opening a specific folder as in Windows XP, My Pictures (screenshot) and My Music (screenshot) in Longhorn bring up "virtual folders" that display appropriate files indexed from various physical locations. Although pictures and music may be spread out across multiple folders or drives, they can be accessed using a single interface (screenshot).

Such a system has numerous advantages for transparently organizing media or documents. For example, Longhorn creates a virtual folder hierarchy using file attributes such as image date, or composer of a song. A user can customize the view and effortlessly retrieve specific files that match certain criteria.

Longhorn also has the ability to "stack" (screenshot) files into groups. Stacking files creates pseudo-directories namely to simplify organization of documents.

While far from complete, searching in Longhorn will eventually connect to variety of resources using an extremely simple interface. Search results will be pulled from content in WinFS, along with the Internet. A new "Filter by" option in build 4008 additionally helps to quickly search within an Explorer window.

WinFS is not light on the system, however. A background indexing service is running at all times to make sure file listings are kept up to date. If the WinFS service is stopped, the contents of all virtual folders, including My Contacts (screenshot), seemingly disappear until it is restarted.

With a focus shift away from file location, Microsoft is phasing out the address bar with what it calls a "breadcrumb bar." The breadcrumb bar covers the address bar in Explorer and creates a button for each window opened. A user can instantly jump back to previous windows or perform a task within that window using the breadcrumb dropdown menu.

Digital media is set to receive a boost in Longhorn and an incomplete "My TV" application in build 4008 (screenshot) indicates plans to include features similar to those found in Windows XP Media Center Edition. Windows Media Player has also been more deeply integrated into the Windows shell, along with native support for creating photo albums (screenshot) and image slideshows akin to Apple's iPhoto.

Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing effort has not been left out of the alpha build. New application level security warns a user (screenshot) when a potentially harmful program is going to run. In addition, an administrator can configure login security (screenshot) to prohibit access from certain users at specified times.

Although notable progress is being made in its alpha stage, Longhorn is not expected to hit beta for months and any current plans or features could drastically change as development progresses. Microsoft has not announced a release timeframe, but Longhorn is expected to be complete by late 2004 or early 2005.

Microsoft acknowledged the leak, but refused to comment on build 4008 due to its development state. "Yes, something was posted to the Web, but you know I can't get into the specific details," Microsoft spokesperson Jim Cullinan told BetaNews. "It's just too early to discuss."

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