New Windows of Opportunity

As operating system enters third decade, Microsoft's Gates sees benefits from 64-bit computing and 'Longhorn' in enterprise.

Microsoft Corp.s third decade of Windows computing initially will be dominated by the move to 64-bit computing and the release of "Longhorn." This future includes greater functionality, better usability, tighter security, seamless integration among devices and marked improvements in productivity for all, according to Bill Gates. Sharing his vision for the next decade, the Redmond, Wash., companys chairman and chief software architect sat down last week with eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli for a discussion of Windows next steps.

You have long talked about the digital decade, which was characterized by 32-bit computing from 1992 to the present. As we now move into the third decade of Windows, obviously the digital side is not going away, but what else do you think will define this decade?

I think 64-bit computing and the headroom [64-bit] gives us everywhere. As will the ability to not just connect the browser to any site, but for software to connect to any other software through the standards that have come out of XML at the base level and now Web services at the protocol level. I think that leads to a style of programming and flexibility that is pretty important, as is what we call natural interface: the voice, telephony, connecting up to the PC; video cameras connecting up to the PC; [and] speech, video and ink recognition.

I think people are vastly underestimating those things as really contributing to the ease of doing things on a strongly digital basis. Its a bit software-centric, but we are modeling things more, from business processes to the systems we are trying to manage to the applications and the performance you are trying to get, so its higher-level constructs for people to work with. All of these have been holy grails of software, but we are making real progress there because of the benefits of writing less code or not managing system by system, but managing against a set of systems with just policies that set up explicit commands.

What do you foresee are the greatest challenges for the industry during the third decade of Windows computing?

We need to use the magic of software to avoid some of the complexities and frustrations people have. Theyre worried about getting their identities stolen, they feel like they have to manually go in and look to see whether things are up-to-date, they have to get signatures and add-on software. So we have to get rid of that friction and pain in order for them to be willing to experience the benefit of all this. So, if you look at it as a category of investment for Microsoft, what we call Trustworthy Computing and which includes all of this, it will be the biggest category for as long as I can see out in the future—lets say for the rest of this decade.

By doing that well, then we can take what we can do with business intelligence and workflow and let those things show through. We need to make things better, and we are, in a sense, an integrator. Were mostly integrating our own code, but thats what we do on behalf of the user, and there is no equivalent function in terms of consistent user interface, consistent tasking and responsiveness. The commercial model really is superior for some of those things.

How about the greatest opportunities?

Were still nowhere near some of the dreams of the late 90s. Has e-commerce happened? I would say only in a very modest way. Do people schedule themselves electronically or not? Its a very small minority today that does. Scheduling is just one scenario that, as we get that right between Windows and Office, will be very advantageous for people.

Broadband we can take for granted in businesses, but do we have the services where we monitor these things on behalf of those users and make it easier for them to decide what they want to have in their businesses? Do they want to run their server in their business or do they want services that provide the equivalent, and do we make it really easy to switch back and forth between those two things? Thats just a huge opportunity, and we can come forward to a corporation and tell them that we will let them save on development costs, hardware costs, communications costs and the complexity of the software stack they are managing.

They can then use those savings to put in the wireless network so their users are always connected, get the people in the field to have the Tablet PC device and do business intelligence in a better way, without having to grow the IT budget a ton.

What are some of the new and innovative scenarios that you see 64-bit computing bringing for the enterprise, alongside Longhorn?

Lets separate 64-bit, which is here today, and Longhorn. With 64-bit, you will be able to get a lot more performance out of the applications you have now: Terminal Server is more than twice as fast; Active Directory is twice as fast; and everybody has their Web sites they want to run faster, some data mining tool they want to run faster. Many people have applications that they hesitated to [deploy] in terms of cracking data, looking for patterns in data, moving into video because it would have been too slow, too expensive.

But 64-bit has this incredible effect of taking away the memory limit, and for a long time that wont be a constraining factor, and so you will see it dramatically on the server and on the desktops. Eventually, it will be everywhere, and there is no premium to pay.

With Longhorn, were in the process of talking to the industry about it, and so we have frozen the Display Driver model and the Metro model and all those things that the hardware industry needs to know about so that, in parallel with us getting Longhorn done, they can do their piece, and it can all be there.

At our [Professional Developers] conference in September, we will talk about things like the size and the speed and the specs, and well really freeze down exactly what can run back on XP, what requires Longhorn and how we are using those things. Its only after Beta 2 comes out that you will start to really realize what weve done in the user interface and what weve got. This is as big a deal as anything since Windows 95, and so well have a lot of message there.

But will it be as compelling for the enterprise as it is for the consumer market?

Yes. Some of the stuff around deployment is a big deal for the enterprise. You know, patching without rebooting, some of the performance stuff. Enterprises are more and more using mobile devices, and so theres an incredible amount in Longhorn for mobile devices. Theres automatic monitoring, where we see whats wrong with a machine, notify you in advance about those things, get the updates sent on.

What you will also see for the enterprise is a lot of cost-of-ownership benefits, IT simplification benefits [and] end-user benefits so they are calling the help desk less and getting more done. We havent talked about how Longhorn relates to telephony and peer-to-peer yet. As we get into Beta 2, some of those messages will become a lot more evident.

Apple Computer Inc. [with Spotlight in Mac OS X Tiger] and Novell Inc. [with its Novell Desktop Linux 10] are talking a lot about the new search engines and capabilities included in those releases, claiming that they move above and beyond Microsoft with regard to search. How does WinFS compare?

Understand that there are three different stages here. We will do a Windows desktop add-on that you can just download for free later this year. Its a desktop search feature that indexes everything on your drive, and it makes it trivial from within the shell and Outlook and has the benefit of very rich searching.

With Longhorn, we move a step up with that in that we integrate it into the user interface, so it is not an add-on; its just designed in. There we try and do things that are kind of like Tiger, but better. The integrated user interface lets you do some neat things. None of that gets you to an actual database, and no one has done that, and that is what WinFS is. And so thats a level beyond anything I know of from any competitor, including Tiger.

Now theres a nice connection in that all these rich indexing capabilities are in WinFS. It is transactive, and there are a lot of things that take the boundary between your file world and your data world and bring those together.

Why are you not talking more about the enterprise feature set in Longhorn?

Things like the driver model and the Metro format or the Web services stuff, that all has to be worked on and architected and made compatible, and wed better be nearly done with those things by now. But the shell guys have great ideas and great prototypes, and theyll keep cycling, and it will only be in Beta 2 that these will be there.

The display manager can already do translucency—the rich, clear-type fonts that you are seeing—and we have that as the foundation for the shell user interface to be built on.

In the browser, with Internet Explorer 7, which will go to beta sometime later this summer, people will see some user interface things that are pretty cool.