After years of false starts, Microsoft is finally shipping beta versions of Longhorn, the next Windows version, to the public. The public release schedule started in April with a pre-beta build that Microsoft provided to attendees of the developer-oriented Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2005. The WinHEC Longhorn Developers Preview, as that build was known, reflected the direction Microsoft had taken over the previous year, when it threw out the work it had already done on component-based Longhorn source code and completely restarted development of the project using the Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1) code base. Since then, Microsoft has begun returning to Longhorn key features it had been developing for some time, and some of those features finally showed up in public form in the Beta 1 release. Here's what you need to know about Longhorn Beta 1.

The Security Features We've Always Needed
Although it's easy to highlight the stunning graphics system that Longhorn finally brings to Windows users, the system's new security features are what will make this product compelling to the typical business. In previous versions of Windows, Microsoft supported limited user accounts but made it very difficult to actually manage or use those accounts, which didn't offer administrative access. In Longhorn Beta 1, we're finally beginning to see the start of Microsoft's plans for Longhorn user security. And if you're familiar with systems such as Apple Computer's Mac OS X or Linux, you might be surprised to discover that the new Windows security system is somewhat familiar.

Here's how the new approach will work. In Longhorn, all users—even administrative-level users—will run most tasks at a reduced privilege level. Likewise, legacy Windows applications will be fooled into believing that they're gaining full access to the system when in fact a new virtual registry feature ensures that they're not. When a Longhorn user or administrator needs to change a configuration; install, change, or remove an application; or perform another potentially unsafe action, the user will be required to log on with an administrative account to perform the action. Only that action will occur under the administrator's privilege level. For example, if you access the Windows Firewall configuration dialog, a small Locked button indicates that the firewall features can't be changed. When you click the Locked button, you're offered an opportunity to log on with elevated rights. After a successful logon, you can modify the feature's settings. In Beta 1, these features are only partially implemented.

Visualizing and Organizing Your Data
Many companies are making a big deal of instant desktop search—products such as Google Desktop Search and the Spotlight feature in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger are obvious examples. However, Microsoft believes that it would be better not to have to search for files at all.

"Search is great," Microsoft Lead Product Manager Greg Sullivan told me. "We will have desktop search in Longhorn. But our contention is, if you're searching, you've lost something. We are building an automatically organized system where you don't lose it in the first place. The system is smart enough to understand the data itself and how different types of data relate to each other. What we're doing is much more impressive than the 'Hail Mary pass' of search, which often returns lots of irrelevant results. Don't get me wrong: Search is important. But it's only part of the story. The system we are delivering won't force you to search for your data."

The system Sullivan is referring to is called data visualization and organization, and it appears in Longhorn Explorer as a variety of virtual folders that intelligently aggregate your documents and other data. Rather than have an explicit, hard-coded folder called My Documents that's located in a particular place in the file system, Longhorn has a virtual folder called All Documents. This folder displays all the documents on your system, no matter where they've been saved, letting you quickly access files without having to look through layers of folder hierarchies. Likewise, Longhorn Beta 1 includes several other virtual folders, with names such as Authors, Keywords, Rating, Recent, and Types, that organize your documents in logical and obvious ways.

Naturally, you can create your own virtual folders, perform queries to get at specific document types, then save those queries as dynamic smart folders. And document icons, which will be rendered as scalable vector graphics, visually resemble the actual document, spreadsheet, presentation, graphic, or other file type that they contain, making it even easier to find what you need. If this system works as advertised, searching will be a last-ditch effort in Longhorn, not the first thing you do.

It's worth noting that these features don't require the controversial WinFS storage engine technologies, which Microsoft removed from Longhorn last year. "We can do the vast majority of the \[search\] scenarios we discussed \[at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003\] in the Windows shell without WinFS," Sullivan told me. "The Windows shell is a constrained environment. People are going to be pleasantly surprised by how nice this is."

Some Guidance for PC Purchases
Although Microsoft has to date refused to discuss minimum system requirements for Longhorn, the company is finally providing some guidance about what kinds of PCs customers could buy today that will provide a good Longhorn experience. Today's mainstream PCs with Intel Pentium 4 (or equivalent AMD) processors, 512MB of RAM or more, and a dedicated graphics adapter should run Longhorn just fine, according to Microsoft, and will take advantage of Longhorn's advanced Aero Glass UI. Systems with lower specifications—for example, notebooks with integrated graphics adapters—also will run Longhorn, but will do so using a scaled-back Aero Express UI or an evolved XP-like interface. All the other Longhorn features, such as data visualization and organization, will work just fine in the scaled-back Longhorn user experience.

Microsoft has also given me hardware recommendations for Longhorn. A desktop CPU should have either

  • a 3GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor 530 (or higher) with Hyper-Threading Technology,
  • a 3GHz Intel Xeon processor with 2MB L2 cache,
  • a single- or dual-core AMD Athlon 64,
  • a single- or dual-core Mobile AMD Sempron, or
  • a single- or dual-core AMD Opteron 100, 200, or 800 processor.

Mobile CPUs should contain

  • a 1.86GHz Intel Pentium M processor 750 (or higher),
  • an AMD Turion 64 Mobile Technology processor,
  • a Mobile Sempron processor, or
  • a Mobile AMD Athlon 64 processor.

Microsoft recommends 512MB or more of RAM on all platforms.

What We Don't Know
Microsoft has yet to determine which Longhorn product editions it will ship, and the final Longhorn feature set is also undecided. Microsoft executives I've spoken with have described Longhorn as a fast-moving train: If certain features are deemed not ready, those features will have to catch the next train, meaning a future Windows version. Only a very limited number of features are considered core to the product. At this date, most features are still up in the air. If you're interested in an ongoing look at the ever-evolving Longhorn feature set, visit my showcase "The Road to Windows Longhorn 2005" on the SuperSite for Windows (http://www.winsupersite.com/article/showcase/the-road-to-windows-longhorn-2005.aspx) for more information.

Recommendations
Longhorn won't ship to the public until more than a year from now, but it's time to start evaluating the system and figuring out how and when you intend to roll it out in your own environment. Longhorn's new security and data management features will make it a no-brainer for businesses of all sizes, and given how much time has elapsed since the initial release of Windows XP, my advice is to consider jumping on the Longhorn bandwagon sooner rather than later. Though Microsoft is loath to describe it this way, the Longhorn upgrade will quite obviously be necessitated solely by the security features it contains, none of which will ever be rolled back into previous OS versions. No one wants to be forced into upgrading, but Longhorn is that important. Environments that put off evaluating Longhorn will simply be left behind.