The long and short of Longhorn

LOS ANGELES — Fundamental changes to next-generation Windows code will improve the way developers write applications for the platform, according to two Quebec companies.

The next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn, won’t be available for several years, but developers were granted

a glimpse of what the OS will look like at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference.

Aesthetically, Longhorn will change Windows convention by adding an extra toolbar(or “”sidebar””) to the right-hand edge of the screen and will feature improved animation by relying more heavily on the PC’s GPU. But more significantly, XML will be ingrained into the source code. A new Microsoft-created language called XAML (extensible application mark-up language) will change the way developers design applications. Longhorn will split user interface code from application code, which will separate the tasks of graphics-based development from application development.

The way code is currently written can be a laborious job, because those approaches are intertwined. “”That has been a huge problem for developer shops,”” said Sylvain Duford, chief technical architect with Cactus, a Gatineau, Que.-based Microsoft developer.

“”The separation of logic from presentation gives us tremendous value,”” added Sungsoo Kang, director of product management with Nakisa Inc., a developer in Montreal. Development is made more complex by variety within the user base, he added. Information must be presented differently depending on whether it is intended for a C-level executive or an employee further down the company hierarchy.

It costs a lot to develop a piece of software that requires multiple employee-based views, he said. Using a Longhorn architecture, “”we can easily create those different views . . . and our resellers can modify the technology very easily.””

The integration of XML and Web services — or .Net — architecture will change the way data is organized in Windows. Associations between files from different applications (including those that are Web-based) will allow a greater degree of cross-referencing and simplified searching capabilities for all data that is stored under Longhorn. (Microsoft introduced native XML to the desktop with elements of Office 2003, like OneNote and Infopath. The suite was released last week.)

Longhorn’s data engine, called WinFS, is a unified storage approach. Microsoft chief software architect Bill Gates, during his PDC keynote address on Monday, described the approach as getting database management into the file system. “”That’s been the Holy Grail for me for quite some time,”” he said.

The way files are currently organized – statically and in separate folders – can be confusing for users who are searching their hard drives for information, said Duford. “”The new storage system is going to radically change that.””

By having files dynamically related to each other is “”ultimately reducing this complexity crisis (in IT),”” said IDC Canada Ltd. analyst David Senf. Through a Web services model, those connections can be made across organizations, he added. He cited the example of a health-care provider and an insurance company sharing information more easily.

This type of connectivity won’t come overnight, though. At the moment, users aren’t exploiting the potential of XML as a data-sharing tool. “”They’re not grasping it can be used at higher levels to integrate the software,”” said Senf.

In the business-to-business world, enterprises are eager to move away from EDI technology to a Web services approach, according to Duford. “”The only thing that’s holding things back a bit is security in terms of Web services.””

Microsoft is addressing security concerns in Windows with a “”focus on the fundamentals”” approach to Longhorn. Security technologies developed for the XP operating system will be improved and extended into Longhorn, according to the company, and should be able to bridge different applications and services.

A release date for Longhorn is years away, but Microsoft, through an unprecedented display of openness, is providing developers with pieces of the code so they can tinker with it on their own.

“”This is the earliest I’ve ever seen information given out. Some of this is the first time Microsoft Canada is hearing this too,”” said Elliot Katz, a product manager with the corporation’s Canadian arm.

It’s important that developers get their hands on the code now, added Senf, since it’s a departure from the way Windows has traditionally been built and presented. “”It requires time to wrap your head around.””

Microsoft is also keeping hardware vendors in the loop on Longhorn developments. But hardware doesn’t present a barrier to the evolution of the PC. “”I think it’s simple to say what the constraint is,”” said Gates, “”it’s software.”” He added that Longhorn will be Microsoft’s most important release since Windows 95.

Microsoft PDC 2003 continues through Thursday.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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