Microsoft Corp. said late in August it will revise some of the key features of its next-generation operating system, but experts said those changes may ease its introduction into the marketplace.

The software giant first provided a glimpse of Longhorn at its Professional Developers Conference

in Los Angeles last year. Aside from a different-looking desktop design, the operating system was to include a file system called WinFS that would increase the number of associations between files, as well as Indigo, a Web services architecture, and Avalon, a graphics and presentation engine.

Avalon and Indigo will still be incorporated into Longhorn, but will be also available separately and compatible with Windows XP and Server 2003. WinFS — one of the most highly touted features, since it would break ground on archive searching — will only be included as a beta release when Longhorn hits shelves. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates described the unified storage system as the “”holy grail”” during his keynote address at PDC.

The main reason Microsoft is now giving for these changes is that it wants to meet its 2006 deadline for a final product.

“”It’s important that Microsoft release Longhorn within the timeframe (it) had set out,”” said Dave Senf, an analyst at IDC Canada Ltd.

Microsoft needs to provide a product in order to forestall the advance of Linux and Java on the desktop, he said, particularly with Sun Microsystems opening portions of Java to the developer community.

The decision to hold back WinFS will come as a disappointment to many, Senf added.

“”For ISVs and developers that were planning on leveraging some functionality of WinFS for richer content searching and

information retrieval . . . this is going to push back their ability to release product,”” he said. “”For them, this delay is fairly critical.””

Ryan Groom, founder and CEO of Fredericton-based CyberSecure, agreed.

“”One of the most exciting features was the ability to search metadata, which I thought was really important, because hard drives and data repositories are getting so big that data’s everywhere in many, many different forms,”” he said.

The decision to reposition Indigo, however, may come as good news to late adopters.

“”I was kind of skeptical about why that would be Longhorn-only,”” said Groom. “”It’s nice to see that they’re actually going to leverage your investment in XP

. . . You might not want to go right to Longhorn, because it’s going to be quite a jump.””

Sungsoo Kang, director of product management for Nakisa Inc., is more interested in the possibilities Avalon presents.

“”The capability of making the user interface more dynamic and flexible to create applications on top of it (is exciting),”” he said.

The Montréal-based firm develops reporting tools, largely for Windows 2003 environments. Working with Avalon will give it more flexibility, said Kang.

“”It will preserve the backwards compatibility of our applications,”” he said.

But by making key Longhorn elements available to older operating systems, Microsoft may only be encouraging its customers to stick with XP — at least until the full version of Longhorn is available.

Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president of system software research with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, said developers could be faced with a difficult choice — write for the curtailed version, but then face possible rewrites further down the line. It depends on what the APIs look like, he said, which won’t be known for some time.

“”Until we see everything, it’s hard to say what it means,”” he said. “”No one but Microsoft knows, and in some cases I suspect even they don’t know.””

The company has a history of revealing grand designs only to cut back on promises when a deadline looms, he said.

Something similar to WinFS, code-named Cairo, was discussed by Microsoft in the early 1990s. The project was put on the back burner and ultimately ended up in Windows 2000 and XP.

“”Microsoft has a history of announcing projects early on very glowing, optimistic terms, then finding that some of the functions were more difficult to implement than they thought,”” he said.

That type of thinking is rife in the technology community and hardly unique to Microsoft, argued Groom. “”I think the industry in general over-promises. I think five years ago they said you’re going to talk to your computer. It doesn’t happen. Pen recognition isn’t really there yet. There are a lot of things that they’ve promised that aren’t there,”” he said.

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