Murky Windows

Anyone who can recall the hullabaloo surrounding the launch of the 1995 version of Windows, and every subsequent release of Microsoft’s PC and server operating systems, knows these things do not pass off quietly. So the fact that interest in the next version of Windows is getting close to fever pitch should surprise no one – except that its release date remains at least two years off.

The reason for the rather premature buzz is only partly to do with technology, and mostly to do with Microsoft’s business model. The content of the next version of Windows – still more commonly referred to by its original codename of ‘Longhorn’ – will say much about whether Microsoft has been forced to change its approach in the aftermath of anti-monopoly investigations in the US and Europe.

If Longhorn contains yet more newly bundled features, for instance, it will indicate that regulators have failed to rein in the software company’s more controversial practices. It will almost certainly trigger a whole new wave of lawsuits and investigations.

Competition regulators in Europe hope that their current rulings will remain powerful enough to apply to that evolving Microsoft product line. The European Commission recently ordered Microsoft to untie its Media Player application from Windows and disclose certain application programming interfaces to competitors in the server market. (Microsoft is appealing.) The EC also indicated that it wanted the ruling to keep Microsoft in check, as well as a source of punishment for past ‘transgressions’. Mario Monti, the EC commissioner, says the ruling establishes clear principles for Microsoft’s future conduct.

So he will have been particularly interested in the steadily growing body of evidence coming from Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle about Longhorn. There has been no specific announcement of Longhorn’s content, and the official line from Seattle is that there won’t be one for the foreseeable future. But that has not stopped Microsoft executives from revealing tantalising details during the last few weeks.

Their seemingly unsanctioned remarks suggest that Microsoft is pressing ahead with plans to include yet further application and systems functionality in the new features set. At the very least, say some, the server version will contain a new web services application platform, a new file system and additional PC and server management features, as well as enhanced security and support.

Other Microsoft sources reveal that the PC version will likely comprise a new unified messaging feature that manages email, instant messages, phone calls and faxes centrally. It is also expected to contain a number of laptop-specific features.

But the application is likely to be Longhorn’s ‘killer app’ is advanced search. Although Microsoft is expected to release a search engine through its MSN service in 2005, a more advanced XML version will likely be bundled in with both the PC and server versions of the operating system. The technology, called WinFS, is an addition to the Windows file system that aims to make it easier for users to find files, no matter what their format.

Analysts say that Microsoft is releasing an early version of the technology through MSN because it is taking the threat of web search leader Google so seriously: it seems particularly keen to reduce Google’s control of the search advertising market. If Microsoft were to do as it appears to be planning to and bundle search capabilities with Windows, it can expect a frosty reception from Google’s lawyers.

At least Microsoft will be less bothered by the legal teams of its more traditional foes. Since May 2003, Microsoft has buried the hatchet with Sun Microsystems, America Online, InterTrust and various US states that had fought the original ‘monopoly-abuse’ settlement between the US government and the software giant. Its deal with Sun was particularly revealing. Not content with paying Sun almost $2 billion over patent and competition disputes, Microsoft managed to persuade Sun to agree to what amounts to a permanent ceasefire: experts say the terms of the settlement appear to rule out further lawsuits between the two until at least 2014.

But no alliance has yet been struck between Microsoft and Google – nor, for that matter, the content management software industry, which will also be concerned by the development of WinFS. As Microsoft decides what to include – and exclude – from the next version of Windows, one thing seems clear: the names of the protestors to its already-controversial bundling practices might change, but the theme of the protests does not fade away.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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