Longhorn and More: BetaNews PDC 2003 Wrap-Up

The semi-annual Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles serves as an opportunity for Microsoft to showcase its latest and upcoming wares to eager developers and pundits alike. PDC 2003 was no exception, bringing together a record number of attendees for more than 120 technical sessions.

Longhorn was the star of PDC 2003, as Microsoft gave developers their first official taste of the next-generation Windows. In his Monday morning keynote to kick off the conference, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates outlined the new platform on which Longhorn will be built, calling it the company’s largest effort since Windows 95.

Potential final release dates for Longhorn were not discussed at PDC 2003, but current timelines place the operating system's likely launch in 2006. "It's very clear we're at the very beginning of this process," said Gates.

A special Longhorn preview -- build 4051 -- was distributed to PDC attendees to tide developers over until a Beta 1 release in summer 2004. Included in the preview is a Longhorn SDK, as well as sample code and whitepapers.

Perhaps most interesting about Longhorn is what developers did not see. Build 4051 has been stripped of many features Redmond deems "unstable," and is confusingly older than internal Longhorn build 4050, which Microsoft ran on PDC demo machines.

Because this initial Longhorn release is aimed at developers, Microsoft says it wanted to ensure a usable environment that focused on the core platform rather than functionality. For example, many components from the Longhorn sidebar -- including contact integration with Windows Messenger -- have been removed.

Microsoft representatives told BetaNews that a "PDC Refresh" build may follow in the coming months, replenishing Longhorn with features that have had a chance to mature.

Notably missing from even the PDC demo machines was a slick new user interface only displayed during Gates’ keynote and kept under lock and key in Redmond labs. Referred to by Microsoft employees as "glass," the theme utilizes Longhorn’s advanced graphics layer to support transparent window effects and embedded video.

Aero, the new Windows "user experience" concept, will serve as the foundation for Longhorn's user interface. Contrary to early reports, Aero is not an interface design itself, simply a development model and guidelines for creating customer-friendly applications.

Beneath Aero lies a new graphics subsystem dubbed "Avalon." Avalon powers the Longhorn interface, as well as the display of documents and media. Developers will take advantage of a new markup language based on XML – appropriately dubbed "XAML" – to create Avalon interfaces.

Longhorn communicates using "Indigo," the second generation Web services platform that improves security and reliability.

WinFS, first uncovered in leaked alpha builds of Longhorn, was demoed in great detail at PDC 2003. Microsoft clarified to developers the new Windows storage system that sits atop NTFS and utilizes a SQL database to store metadata on files. The goal of WinFS is to give a Windows user more flexibility when searching for and displaying content on their PC.

The SQL engine powering WinFS finds its roots in "Yukon," the next version of Microsoft SQL Server. PDC attendees received an interim beta of Yukon, but the larger public Beta 2 release is not slated until the first half of next year. Microsoft executives said the company is shooting for a final launch of Yukon by the end of 2004.

Whidbey, the forthcoming update to Visual Studio .NET, will also arrive in late 2004 if all goes as planned. Whidbey will play an important role allowing developers to transition to writing applications for Longhorn come 2006.

To additionally help guide developers on the road to Longhorn, Microsoft has created an all-encompassing programming model called WinFX. Mostly theory at this point, WinFX will eventually form the APIs that define Windows.

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