A couple of days ago I promised to respond to some of the comments on my (brief) post about Longhorn, and why it’s important for Mac users. Sadly, work prevented me from doing anything before today – well actually, it’s not that sad as it means I was busy and therefore getting paid!
But before I go into why it’s important for Mac users, it’s useful to have a look at what Longhorn actually is, because the comments in my last post showed a little bit of a lack of knowledge. For example, there was a lot of talk about how major features for Longhorn (and particularly WinFS) had already been dropped, which really isn’t the case. There was also a lot of “Longhorn is just playing catch up with OS X”, which isn’t completely true either. Parts of Longhorn are just replicating in Windows what Apple was able to do when moving from Mac OS 9 to OS X. But parts of it go beyond anything that Apple has now.
So what is Longhorn? On the most simple level, it’s Microsoft’s next-generation of Windows. It’s as much of a jump for Microsoft as Windows NT was, although thankfully it doesn’t require a complete rebuild of all of the Windows code base as far as I know. That alone, of course, makes it worth keeping an eye on.
There are four core parts to Longhorn, which I’ll look at in turn. These are Fundamentals, Avalon, Indigo, and WinFS.
This is a catch-all category that includes some very important core elements of Longhorn, aimed largely at administrators. One such is Manageable Apps: tools allowing developers to build applications that can more easily be managed by system administrators. Another core fundamental is the much mooted Next Generation Secure Computing Base, designed to make it much more difficult to write viruses and much more. And, of course, there’s enhancements to the identity system, and to Tablet PC.
Avalon is the codename for the presentation system in Longhorn – the code that allows developers to draw on screen. It includes quite a few bits of “catch-up” with OS X, for example by providing native hardware acceleration, just as Quartz Extreme does. Like Quartz Extreme, thought, there’s a lot more to Avalon than simply a toolkit for drawing pretty windows. One key part is XAML – Extensible Applicaton Markup – which is a markup scheme for .NET objects, and something that aims in part to bring designers closer to the code when creating interfaces. Conceptually, what XAML does is put code and interface on the same level in Windows – something that’s not been true in the past. Avalon also streamlines using media in applications,
Indigo is a set of .NET technologies for building connected systems, including a new communications infrastructure built around Web services. It brings together features like .NET remoting, ASMX and others into one consisten and unifed whole. That means that, in part, it’s a tidying up excercise. but it also makes it a lot easier for developers to build applications that communicate over the Internet, including peer-to-peer.
The most misunderstood part of Longhorn is probably WinFS. WinFS is the storage subsystem of Longhorn, allowing users to search, organise, and share data. Essentially, it’s a database of what’s on your machine, allowing you to find files by author, title, properties, or whatever. For end users, this model makes a lot of sense in a world where users work with thousands of files, from music to images to Word documents, and need to be able to find and categorise them in a way that makes sense to them. For developers, it gives them the chance to build applications which share data from common stores far more easily.
What WinFS isn’t is a replacement for NTFS, the file system that’s currently the standard on Windows. WinFS sits on top of NTFS, but it’s file-system independent at least in theory: the documents that WinFS accesses could be sitting anywhere on a network, accessed via WebDAV or some other method. However, the “feature cut” that got so much coverage recently wasn’t, really a feature cut at all: from what I can gather, WinFS will not be a part of Windows Longhorn Server. But, and this is the important bit, WInFS is still part of Longhorn. It’s not going away.
One more thing…
The last thing about Longhorn, and the one that’s probably stirred up more ire from Mac users than anything else, is its new user interface: Aero. Note that Aero isn’t part of the core of Longhorn, and it’s the part that’s in flux more than any other. It wasn’t part of the developer release of Longhorn given out at this year’s developer conference. And yes, the screens that have been released are remarkably Mac-like. There are, however, some nice little touches – RSS integration, for example – but so far the best thing to do with Aero is wait and see.
So… the point is…?
If you’re with me so far, you’re likely to be asking a simple question: so what? All this stuff sounds interesting, but it’s not the kind of thing that will shake the world of any end user. It doesn’t sound as cool as Rendezvous, or iSync, both of which are great technologies that it’s easy to get to grips with.
And that’s kind of the point. At the moment, Microsoft isn’t interested in end users with Longhorn: everything it’s announced and released is aimed towards developers. In particular, it’s aimed at exciting developers and allowing them to build fantastic net-enabled applications. And this answers one of the key points that many people made in the comments to my last post, which was that Longhorn is at least two years away so why care about it? The answer is that, for developers, Longhorn is real, now: you can already begin working with it to plan new applications for release after its final launch. Of course, as a developer you’re not going to pitch totally into Longhorn development alone now: but you can begin to plan and work out what it’s capable of.
Developers, developers, developers!
And that’s where Longhorn is a challenge already to Apple, because the mind share that Mac OS X has with developers is vital to the platform’s future. Apple has to regain the high-ground in terms of developer excitement, something that it did very effectively when OS X was launched. Can it do it? Of course. But in order to do so, it must treat Longhorn as a real threat, and act now to counter it.