Ten years ago, Microsoft was in the midst of a monumental software development effort for a next-generation operating system -- two next-generation operating systems, actually.
There was "Chicago," which eventually went to market under the label of Windows 95, carrying the entire known universe of Windows users into the faster-and-better world of 32-bit computing -- a remarkably successful transition that still shapes the PC universe we work in today. Then there was Cairo, which was to follow on Chicago's heels, and offer realms of untold wonders in advancing the versatility and ease-of-use of mainstream desktop computing. Cairo never saw the light of day -- not as it was promised, anyway. A little phenomenon called the Internet distracted Microsoft and the rest of the world. Bill Gates turned his corporate battleship around to deal with it, and Cairo was buried as one more piece of Microsoft vaporware.
A decade later, during the technology industry's dark winter of discontent following the Internet bubble-burst, Gates has revived many of Cairo's ideas and unleashed his legions of software developers to go forth and, once more, seek the perennial Microsoft grail: a Better Operating System. This time, there's good reason to believe that the new product, nicknamed Longhorn, is not some phantom of FUD or a development dead-end.
In the Microsoft universe, separating truth from marketing blather and corporate-strategy feints is never easy. Revisiting the decade-old P.R. for Cairo today is a reminder of just how far big technology companies are willing to go in overpromising and under- (or not-at-all-) delivering. Still, Longhorn actually seems to be a real project with real plans and working prototypes. It may take forever to ship -- once slated for 2003, it is now looking more like a 2006 baby -- but it seems that Microsoft actually intends to sell it, or something like it, someday.
I'm more confident than I might otherwise be in saying so because of a new wrinkle in Microsoft's rollout plan for Longhorn: The company has OK'd, even encouraged, many of the developers working on the project to post their thoughts in public blogs. And it has added one well-known blogger, a Silicon Valley writer and programmer named Robert Scoble, to its payroll, to serve as a bridge between Microsoft's teeming horde of software developers (the company says it has 12,000 people working on Longhorn) and the cantankerous culture of bloggerdom.
This effort has already reaped tangible results for Redmond, and not only in generating a flood of Longhorn-related information on the Net. It has succeeded, in a way that no millions spent on Waggener-Edstrom P.R. and trade-press shmooze-fests could, in transcending the Evil Empire stereotypes that inevitably cling to Microsoft -- and highlighting the human faces behind the intimidatingly omnipresent Windows logo. It's hard to continue thinking of Microsoft as a monolithic Borg when you can follow the day-by-day jottings and musings of individual developers and Windows architects like Chris Anderson, Don Box, Chris Sells and many others.
In Scoble's words, "It's how Microsoft is trying to be a more mature platform leader. Instead of doing this work behind secret closed doors, we're giving everyone a good chance to work with us to make a better experience for customers." Even if you're cynical about the motivation behind such openness -- certainly, Microsoft understands just how effectively this version of "transparency" serves its corporate goals -- you can still respect the result: more, better, earlier information about the company's next big product, and a healthy back-and-forth between the product's creators and eventual users.
Most software engineers are naturally enthusiastic about what they do. Just tune in to Scoble's voluminous blogging output, or sample the flood at Longhornblogs.com -- a site (independent from Microsoft) that pulls together the postings from dozens of developers -- and you can't miss these programmers' sense of excitement at the ambitious stuff they are trying to accomplish.
Microsoft is presenting Longhorn to the world as a series of nicknamed projects with bold promises: A new presentation layer named Avalon will feast on the unused processing power of today's hypertrophied graphics cards to give Longhorn a jazzy look-and-feel and advanced media capabilities (like video in any window). A new file system named WinFS will transform the mountains of files stored on our hard drives into a smarter, more database-like store (think of the difference between organizing your music tracks by file name or sorting them, using their "tags," through iTunes, MusicMatch or your favorite music software). A new communications system named Indigo will enable a new generation of easy-to-build, easy-to-connect, easy-to-use e-commerce. (Microsoft has been demonstrating a revamped Amazon.com store that does instant resorting of vast product categories.) All this, plus security and reliability (no reboots!).
There is no telling at this early date how many of these promises will be delivered on when Longhorn finally ships, and how many of them will be tossed overboard in an effort to keep the shipping date from receding toward an infinite horizon. But however Longhorn finally shapes up, it's clear that Microsoft intends for it to be a big sea change in the Windows world à la Windows 95. If it's not, the company will have a multibillion-dollar egg on its face. As Microsoft's "general manager of evangelism" Vic Gundotra put it earlier this month at a Longhorn pitch for Silicon Valley developers, "This is a bet-the-company strategy. It's the biggest bet we've ever made, and there's no guarantee of success."
You always have to take Microsoft's "we could lose our monopoly any time!" line with several grains of salt: The company uses it internally as a way to reinforce the paranoia that has always been its legions' motivating force ("If we don't add another $10 billion to our coffers, who knows who'll eat our lunch?"), and externally as a way to counter the antitrust issues that still dog it -- most recently, with the news of Real Networks' filing a new lawsuit alleging Microsoft antitrust violations in its promotion of the Windows Media Player.
On the other hand, there are big risks for Microsoft in trying to make Longhorn into something genuinely new and different. One of Microsoft's great strengths in the past has been its ability to carry customers across "platform transitions" by religiously maintaining backwards compatibility. It promises more of the same with Longhorn: Microsoft's demos show off a 20-year-old DOS version of the Visicalc spreadsheet running inside a Longhorn window.
But if Longhorn is too radical a break with the past there's always a chance that Microsoft's two key constituencies -- "end users" like you and me and the "ISVs" (independent software vendors) who produce the programs that run on top of Windows -- will balk. The years between now and Longhorn's due date will provide Microsoft's only remaining competitors, at Apple and in the Linux universe, with a real chance to seize the high ground and capture more customers.
In the past, Microsoft rivals have always failed to exploit such, er, windows of opportunity. But they've never had one as big as this. Three years is forever in the technology industry. After all, think of what happened between 1993 and 1996. While it's hard to predict what exactly will occur between 2003 and 2006 on the same magnitude as the Internet wave of 1994-5, it would be foolish to count on nothing that big taking place.
As Longhorn gradually materializes before us, all eyes will be on Microsoft. Will the new operating system's new security and Web services initiatives build genuinely open software architectures for other businesses and individuals to extend? Or will Microsoft use Longhorn as the latest invitation to "integrate" its operating system with other, arguably extraneous products (like its MSN service or a new Microsoft search engine), in a repeat of the browser-war maneuvering that landed Microsoft in the antitrust penalty box?
We'll see. But in the meantime, Microsoft deserves credit for opening a dialogue between its developers and the public. In this way, at least, as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has pointed out, the Evil Empire is showing itself to be more enlightened than most corporations of its size -- or, for that matter, than most of the media operations that cover it.