With the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 behind us, it's time for a bit of perspective about what happened and a look forward to see the areas in which the industry is heading in the wake of what was arguably the most important event in Windows history. At PDC 2003 last week, Microsoft rolled out its first widespread alpha build of Longhorn, the next major release of its Windows client and the OS that will supplant Windows XP when it debuts in late 2005 or early 2006. The Longhorn PDC release--build 4051--features an XP-style theme that visually resembles the company's current thinking for Longhorn's user experience (UX--code-named Aero), as well as the low-level Avalon graphics-presentation capabilities, a Microsoft .NET-based Web services infrastructure called Indigo, a new storage engine built on NTFS and Microsoft SQL Server called Windows Future Storage (WinFS), and a new .NET-based set of programming interfaces called WinFX. For developers, build 4051 and its associated technologies represent a new starting point, a break with the Win32 past, and the first step toward a more secure, capable, and visually exciting future.
   During PDC 2003, Microsoft executives discussed their road maps for delivering various client, development, and server products. XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) will ship in the first half of 2004, followed by Windows Server 2003 SP1 in late 2004. The company says it will also ship SQL Server (code-named Yukon) and Visual Studio .NET (code-named Whidbey) in the third quarter of 2004. Longhorn beta 1 will ship next summer, according to Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin, and the remainder of Longhorn's schedule will be based on the feedback the company gets from its users. Longhorn will be accompanied by new releases of Visual Studio .NET (code-named Orcas)--the release that follows Whidbey, Microsoft Office, MSN, the Windows .NET Framework, and various other technologies and products. The server version of Longhorn will ship about 1 year after the Windows version, Microsoft says.
   In the short term, developers have a lot of work to do. Longhorn and its WinFX APIs expose a lot of new functionality, including a new optional, declarative programming technique called XML Application Markup Language (XAML--pronounced "zammel") that lets developers more easily code and maintain flowing graphical interfaces. WinFX is a complete replacement for the Win32 API that developers target today, and because it's based on the .NET Framework, WinFX is easier to use, easier to maintain, and structured more logically than Win32 is. WinFX also exposes other new functionality in Longhorn, including the WinFS storage-engine capabilities, the Aero UX, the Avalon graphics engine, and the Indigo Web services. Furthermore, developers will be able to target prebuilt application archetypes, so they'll be able to more easily create certain types of applications, including document editors, databases, production- and development-environment applications, e-commerce applications, information and reference applications, entertainment applications, viewer applications, and utilities. Longhorn also blurs the line between Web and application development and deployment, opening up new possibilities for navigational-style applications that are as powerful as today's Windows applications but as easy to deploy as a Web page.
   I've been working with Longhorn build 4051 for more than a week, and I can say that--from an end-user perspective--the new build is as frustrating as it is exciting. The build isn't a speedy performer, and the WinFS stuff is still buggy. To access the new low-level capabilities, I'll have to write my own applications, so I've installed Whidbey and the Longhorn software development kit (SDK) and have shaken off some long-unused programming skills. In the meantime, Longhorn contains a lot of technology, so I'll start working this week on my Longhorn build 4051 review, several technology showcases, and a new version of the Longhorn FAQ, all of which will appear in the coming days on the SuperSite for Windows. In the meantime, Windows & .NET Magazine News Editor Keith Furman and I have published--and will continue to publish this week--a stunning amount of content on the WinInfo and SuperSite for Windows Web sites, including seven daily updates, 11 photo and screen-shot galleries, and 12 videos. Over the weekend, I annotated all the photo and screen-shot galleries with descriptions; that update will be available later today.
   In short, it's an exciting time to be a Windows user but frustrating when you consider the 2-year lag between what we've just seen and what Longhorn will deliver in its final release. But I also have a lot of information to sort through and a lot of content to deliver, so I'll get busy. Thanks to everyone who followed along with last week's live updates, and thanks for all the great feedback. PDC 2003 was a busy, crazy time I won't soon forget.