A new build of Longhorn, Microsoft's follow-up to XP, has leaked, and although it's still an alpha, reports of increased stability make it sound almost worth stealing. Build 4008, also labelled Longhorn M4 Build, doesn't implement the new WinFS file system yet, as you'd expect, but has had a lot of cosmetic and semi-cosmetic work done it. Some of this gives indications of the kinds of functionality Microsoft client operating systems will have when WinFS does roll out.
There's a report and some useful screen shots over at BetaNews. The desktop shot shows something fairly similar to XP, with the addition of Sidebar over on the right, which is all slightly underwhelming. Further bells and whistles such as a task-based, 3D UI are said to be scheduled for inclusion in Longhorn, but we've heard this - the task-based UI, anyway - back in the days when XP/Whistler builds were leaking, and in the end it didn't happen. Sidebar currently seems to function largely as a taskbar/quick launch alternative, which we submit is really not what humanity needs right now. But there is something called Sideshow that Microsoft Research has been showing for a couple of years now, and this seems to us a concept more appropriate for a WinFS, .NET operating system. Says MSR "Sideshow provides regularly updated peripheral awareness of a broad range of information from virtually any accessible web site or database."
To expand on that slightly in the vernacular, the demo we saw two years ago used video quite heavily. It doesn't have to, but it's a good way to help people Get It. So, for example, one of the things you might have in it would be webcam footage of the traffic on your route home. So it (Sideshow, that is) is really a mechanism for anchoring a disparate bunch of stuff, local or network, you want to keep tabs on, which does seem to us to relate to the WinFS notion. You can get more information on Sideshow here. We submit this is a lot cooler than a taskbar, and we hope Sidebar gets to include at least some of it, and indeed that Longhorn stops looking like XP by the time it gets to beta.
As regards WinFS itself, Microsoft seems to be introducing the UI side of it with a view to rolling the file system in at a later date. BetaNews reports that it uses a 'virtual folder' approach, but that this is dependent on a background indexing system, which is heavy on resources. To us, this sounds regrettably like Microsoft getting up to its old tricks of throwing hardware at problems. You will also be able to use much more flexible search terms, but again, this is going to be heavily WinFS-dependent.
There's also something called a "breadcrumb bar," which is part of the drive to stop you worrying about where your stuff actually is that commenced with web style folders. In this case, you get a series of buttons to allow you to switch between stuff (trail of breadcrumbs, presumably), rather than the address bar. This sounds to us a little like what we'd call tabs, but it's possibly useful, although we still don't think it entirely prudent to ever stop worrying about where your stuff actually is.
Overall, the new build seems to consist largely of bells and whistles, as is so common with revs of Microsoft products, but in this case at least some of the cosmetics can be seen to have an underlying purpose over and above eye-candy, in that they're driven by, or related to, the switch to WinFS.
But here's a thought - given that the really big deal as regards WinFS is the server end rollout, first in Yukon, then as an add-on for Server 2003, then Blackcomb, to what extent is it necessary for it to be fitted to Longhorn in this rev? Maybe neat, yes, maybe holds out the prospect of a more stable and efficient OS, yes, but necessary?
It seems to us that, although Longhorn itself isn't due until second half of 2004 at the earliest, Microsoft has left itself the flexibility to put out some form of Yukon-enabled XP Second Edition. We're not saying it's going to, of course, but it could. ®