Interview Bill Gates yesterday confirmed that there is no official release date yet for the next version of Windows, named Longhorn. "Longhorn could be 2005 or 2006," Gates told a small group of journalists yesterday at the TechNet/MSDN seminar in The Hague. "This release is going to be driven by technology, not by a release date. Which probably means it is going to be late."
It is not that Microsoft is on vacation or that it reduced its R&D, Gates explained. "But we have to make sure that we really take on something dramatic, like 32 bit computing eight years ago, or the NT kernel in Windows XP. We also have to solve a ton of things in terms of simplicity and management. It has to be a big advance across the board."
One thing that seems to slow down the next release of Windows is the much talked about data storage system WinFS, technology designed to make information easier to find and view. Since it is based on the next version of SQL Server or Yukon, the system will essentially function as a relational database.
Microsoft tried a similar approach with Cairo under Windows NT many years ago, but failed. "We have a lot more understanding of database technology these days," Gates said. "XML is coming in the mainstream and that helps too, but it is still not going to be easy."
Integrating data from other databases could still prove difficult, Gates warned. "We will have pointers in the data like a URL or weblink. URLs are a perfect tool for this, but in previous databases we really had a problem with them. They screwed up the query semantics."
Gates told reporters that Microsoft won't stop the development of its browser Internet Explorer. Critics complain that Microsoft has failed to keep pace with browser standards despite repeated pleadings and that development in general has slowed to a glacial pace.
"How could we ignore the browser?," Gates responded. 'The Explorer is fully integrated with the operating system, take it away and the OS grinds to a halt. When you call up Help, you're using the browser. In Office 2003 instead of going to the local files, the browser will go online and fetch the latest documents."
Without going into details, Gates says he sees opportunities for reading and annotation capabilities in Internet Explorer. However, the industry seems more concerned about software talking to other software, Gates said, than about software talking to the screen. "XML is going to be the key technology here too."
Gates says he isn't aware of Microsoft expanding its relationship with BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies in a deal designed to more closely integrate the basic building blocks of the PC with the Longhorn system, as suggested by ZDNET. Both Microsoft and Phoenix are involved in plans to integrate digital rights management (DRM) technology at the operating system and hardware level, according to sources in the US.
"To be honest, I haven't heard from Phoenix Technologies for over five years," Gates said. "Are they still in business? The BIOS will always be separated from the operating system. Actually, it's gotten out of date. If you run Windows XP, it calls very little of the BIOS."
Gates also doesn't seem to have a lot of faith in 64 bit technologies in the consumer space. "64 bit is coming to desktops, there is no doubt about that," he said. "But apart from Photoshop, I can't think of desktop applications where you would need more than 4 gigabytes of physical memory, which is what you have to have in order to benefit from this technology. Right now, it is costly."
Consumers are confused over 64 bit computing, Gates says. "It appears more magical than it really is. Even with 32 bit computing, I couldn't help noticing a level of enthusiasm that went beyond its technical merit."
What is going to be important, Gates told reporters yesterday, is security. Microsoft invested over $100 million to refocus on building products that strive to be secure by design, by default and by deployment. In the Windows Division development work was put on hold while Microsoft conducted security training, threat modeling, source-code review and penetration testing.
"The truth is that more people are getting after us," Gates said. But Microsoft is making progress. The company writes more secure code, essentially because of tools that show where problems might occur. It is also fixing problems much faster than it used to. Gates: "We've gone from little over 40 hours on average to 24 hours. With Linux, that would be a couple of weeks on average."
Microsoft is also going to make sure that people install firewalls and updates by default. "None of the security problems recently affected people who had their software up to date," Gates said. "But we made it too complex for most people. Critical security patches should be applied with the speed of the internet."
From now on, Microsoft will install these patches automatically. And it will bring the size of the patches down to satisfactory portions. "We used to send megabytes of software to fix a 20 byte file," Gates said.
Gates is optimistic about meeting the challenge of the new security threats, he told reporters. "We have to. We invented personal computing. It is the best tool of empowerment there has ever been. If there is anything that clouds that picture, we need to fix it." ®