Microsoft's shiny new (but not entirely finished) Longhorn operating system is a move to reassert and to extend the company's weakening control of the desktop, according to Gartner analyst Michael Silver. He claims, effectively, that Microsoft is using the introduction of new technologies in a decidedly old-fashioned and tried and tested way, using APIs and file formats to outflank, isolate and lock out competition.
recent Windows market share figures do not of course suggest anything like a loss of control - quite the reverse, in fact. But if you consider what Microsoft has lost, in its antitrust actions, as a consequence of the rise of Java and because of the growing visibility and credibility of Linux, you can see what from the company's point of view are worrying signs. Antitrust has, as Silver says, "disrupted Microsoft's efforts to bundle its client OS with other applications". So for example the use of the integration of IE to stop other companies making the browser the platform, although successful, has now run its course, and variations on the theme (e.g. with Media Player, currently a subject of some interest to the European Commission) will prove increasingly difficult.
The response here is to move the API goalposts, which is an old one but a good one. "Microsoft wants enterprises to write browser applications that take advantage of Longhorn APIs, which means they won't work on non-Longhorn browsers", says Silver. This is an overly simplified precis of what's really going on, because the browser's going away, and we're talking about a far broader piece of API gamesmanship with Java as a major target, but you get his point, and Microsoft group VP Jim Allchin reinforced it in his keynote to PDC this week: WinFX "is the next step beyond Win32. And if you've programmed to the .NET Framework, it's going to seem like second nature. It's very well-structured. This is something that we expect to last decades, and so we've spent a lot of time thinking about how the classes, the types, the methods, the properties, the events all fit together so it's a holistic environment."
So to some extent you can see a rerun of the Win32 introduction, and you can certainly see the Longhorn client platform being a key weapon for Microsoft in the war against Java. And yes, you can see the arguments and counter-arguments of antitrust battles yet to come starting to take shape.
Exhibit B, according to Silver, is WinFS. "Microsoft also wants more types of data stored directly in the file system," he says. "It envisions address books, calendar events and e-mail as data replicated directly into the file system. While some vendors may appreciate this, others may not, as it means moving data out of their own proprietary store and into one controlled by Microsoft. Users will benefit via much faster searching and the ability to more easily find related files and items. Enterprises that want to take advantage of the new features will favor applications that comply. Gartner believes that Microsoft's applications will comply early on."
Silver doesn't suggest security and NGSCB as another possible mechanism Microsoft can use to maintain its hold, but he perhaps just didn't have the space, and its a fairly obvious one.
Longhorn itself is still several years down the line, but it would be a mistake to take that as meaning none of this will be important until 2006 and beyond. At the PDC this week Microsoft was pushing hard - as indeed you'd expect it to do at a developer conference - to get its developers up to speed and working hard with the new technologies. These are here now, will have growing importance to the current platforms as Longhorn gets closer, but of course they'll evolve on the way, quite likely presenting one of those moving targets we're so familiar with from platform wars past.
In that sense it's a mistake to view Longhorn, pretty as it will no doubt be, as the centrepiece of the major project Bill Gates is allegedly spending huge quantities of money on. Longhorn, when it arrives, will merely be the packaging of Microsoft's efforts in the meantime into a commercial product. It might look like a revolution, and will certainly be marketed as such, but actually it will just be a stage in a journey we're already embarked on. ®