I had hoped to write the first in a series of reviews about wide-screen notebook computers this week, but none of the PC makers I've contacted have shipped anything yet for various reasons (many have new models coming soon and wanted me to wait for those). So this week, I thought I'd take a break from the miserable email virus stuff (have you deleted enough messages with subject lines reading "That Movie," "Wicked screensaver," and "Thank you!" yet?) and talk about something a bit less serious, if only because it's not front and center yet: the Longhorn platform wave of products.

Longhorn, you might recall, is the next major Windows client release and successor to Windows XP. But Longhorn is much more than that, and Microsoft now refers to the OS as a major technology wave that will include a variety of products, released nearly simultaneously, and that (Microsoft hopes) will usher in a new, more technically sophisticated, era of computing. So we'll have Windows Longhorn, as expected, but also Windows Server Longhorn, Microsoft Office Longhorn, Microsoft Visual Studio Longhorn, and a host of other products built to run off the underpinnings of these new platforms.

Ushering in a major technological wave such as this doesn't happen overnight, so analysts are already describing Microsoft's planned 2005 launch date as overambitious, cautioning that a 2006 launch date is more likely. This prediction makes sense, but saying Microsoft won't deliver a major product on schedule is like describing water as "wet": Both are equally descriptive--and equally pointless. In any event, given Longhorn's long-time development cycle and the steady maturing of XP, enthusiasts and other users are anxious for any Longhorn information I can provide. Surprisingly, I have a lot to say, even at this early date.

Most of what I know about Longhorn is available on the SuperSite for Windows ( http://www.winsupersite.com ), which I've recently updated with new screen shots of Longhorn UI prototypes. These shots don't show what the final UI will look like; instead, they show a work in progress and are most interesting for showing the ways in which Microsoft hopes to streamline Windows and make it easier to use. Like XP, Windows Longhorn will include task-based UI elements that guide users through commonly needed activities--such as burning CD-ROMs, transferring data to a portable audio device, or finding specific files. And as with XP, advanced users are already bristling at the notion of an even more dumbed-down Windows UI.

Don't fret; it's still too early to know how the final UI will work. In the meantime, we have a specific development timetable and associated developer-related events. For low-level device driver writers--the folks who'll write the code that will interface hardware with the system--this past April's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003 trade show was the place to be; Microsoft unveiled much information about low-level Longhorn technologies at that show.

Application and service developers will want to attend the eagerly awaited Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 in October. At this show, Microsoft will reveal details about Longhorn, including advanced application input services such as inking and speech, building applications with the new task-based Avalon UI APIs, building secure Longhorn applications, file-system and storage advances, agents and notifications, device synchronization, people and group controls, collaboration and data sharing, rights management, visual theming and styling of applications, and much more. For developers, PDC 2003 will be a dynamic, exciting time, and probably the most Longhorn information we'll get in a week. Microsoft executives have promised that they'll deliver Longhorn code to developers at the show.

Microsoft will launch its Windows Longhorn technical beta and ship two major beta releases in 2004. At that time, businesses should start evaluating not just Windows Longhorn but the other Longhorn products. In the same way that Windows 95 and Office 95 complemented each other and caused a swell of simultaneous upgrades, Microsoft expects Longhorn to do the same, but on several levels, including Windows client and server, Windows-based portable devices, development tools, office productivity suites and other applications, and Microsoft .NET. Microsoft will also introduce a new generation of server-based products that will require Windows Server Longhorn.

Depending on your perspective, Longhorn is either exciting or depressing. To the masses swatting email viruses and worms from their systems, the thought of a newer, better Windows version is rightfully met with both skepticism and faint hope. I'm excited about Longhorn but dismayed that its release will take so long. Although I understand the need to press onward, I'm confused about why Microsoft can't ship regular XP service packs and break the need for users of new XP installations to download 100MB of updates before they can get to work. Surely a middle ground exists between the staleness of the past and the excitement over a new platform.