Longhorn Might Face Long Odds

"Longshot" might be a more appropriate alias for the next Windows OS, at least in the enterprise space. Success of the Longhorn client OS depends on Bill Gates' vision of a future in which one or two 3-GHz processors, 1 GB of RAM, and at least 100 GB drives are standard desktop and laptop issue. Microsoft faces the Sisyphean task of convincing IT management and a legion of Windows developers to move from Web-based to "rich" thick-client apps. Microsoft executives claim to have "bet the company" on the Internet, Microsoft Network (MSN), Windows 2000, Windows XP, XML, the .NET Framework, and Visual Studio .NET. Most of these bets have paid off; MSN turned in its first profit in the quarter ending September 30, 2003. However, .NET adoption—especially by VB developers—still hasn't met expectations; perhaps Whidbey will overcome their reluctance. Microsoft's latest wager on Longhorn faces a high hurdle in the business market where most Visual Studio developers earn their livelihood. Whether Longhorn will deliver sufficient user and developer productivity gains to offset hardware upgrade and user training costs will remain an open question until the Longhorn client's final release—currently slated for 2006—and, more likely, until the server version becomes available at an even later date.

However, the Longhorn client is destined to succeed in the consumer PC market. The prospect of selling high-powered workstation upgrades to the average PC user is compelling to chipmakers, computer assemblers, and retailers alike. Original equipment makers (OEMs)—brandishing cooperative-advertising cash from Microsoft, Intel, and AMD—will flood the airwaves with advertisements demonstrating Longhorn's Avalon presentation framework and the Aero UI playing home videos from newly burned DVDs. Computer-industry journalists will lavish praise on Longhorn's new task-oriented environment as "optimizing the user experience." If Longhorn's final UI resembles the PDC Preview Edition's, even experienced Windows users will be disoriented by Aero's new look and feel. But if Aero's designers get the UI right, Longhorn has the potential to overcome Mac OS X's perceived usability advantages over Windows XP.