Taking the Wraps off the Next Windows

XP’s successor is trying to re-define the concept of an OS

Windows XP was way ahead of the 9X series of operating systems, particularly the oft-dissed Windows ME. Incorporating the solid code base of NT and the best “consumer” features from 98SE, Windows XP finally delivered a level of stability that made it well-suited for pro music applications.

Sure, there were annoyances — not being able to install it on more than one machine, a “product activation” scheme, and a default interface that looked like it had been designed by the Teletubbies. Still, plusses far exceeded minuses, and XP has become the Windows OS of choice for recording.

So what does Microsoft do for an encore? Although they’re not being very talkative, enough has leaked out that it’s possible to speculate. However, bear in mind that what you’ll read here is a mix of hearsay, leaks, rumors, and a scattering of info from Microsoft.

The OS code name is Longhorn, but things get uncertain after that: It’s a moving target with a moving introduction date (the latest estimated time of arrival is early 2005 — quite a delay compared to the original target of early 2003). Some people think we’re dealing with little more than “the next XP,” while others bet it’s something new altogether. But a real good clue comes from Rob Girling, Design Manager — Windows User Experience, who stated, “I believe we should get over the idea of the OS. Everything would become an application. The idea of [an] OS is definitely evolving away from the ‘file system, app launcher’ and into a model where it’s actually a place you can imagine getting things done.”

Among Longhorn rumors, the most intriguing to me is the promise of a more database-oriented model of file retrieval. Today’s files exist in a hierarchical structure, where you drill down through levels to find what you want. But as Tjeerd Hoek, Group Design Manager in the Windows User Experience team, says, “We will definitely see innovation and lots of new capabilities in the file system. We want to — and need to — do much better given how many photos, music files, and other types of files people will have and want to keep over many years.”

In the corporate world, data tends to “clump” around specific tasks or groups of personnel. Networks mostly provide access to those working within these “clumps.”

In the studio, though, not only is there storage related to specific projects, but storage related to raw materials (samples, loops, processes) that may be used in different projects. You might be working on a commercial and want to use the trumpet samples that spiced up one of your R& projects. Also, many studios are now acutely aware of the value of archives, as surround remixes, audio remixes for different markets, and re-mastering have become common. Studios need to be able to access information that crosses over multiple projects over long periods of time.

Longhorn’s file system, called Windows Future Storage (which replaces the NTFS and FAT32 systems), will basically remove barriers among different types of data (such as documents, emails, audio files, video files, etc.) and eliminate the desktop/filing cabinet metaphor. The system will treat all data as a searchable pool of information. For example, as you look for samples used in a particular project, you will also be able to find the spreadsheet with your estimate of the recording costs, the emails with the client about how the mastering was progressing, and so forth. No longer will you compartmentalize information in clumps, but rather, use search functions as the equivalent of a “magnet” to “pull” in related data, much as web search engines do now.

But there’s a warning flag for digital audio enthusiasts: The indexing system runs in the background. The first thing people with music computers do is turn off Office’s “Fast Find” option, because you don’t want your computer pre-occupied if you’re trying to run continuous audio. Clearly, there will have to be some way to turn off indexing during CPU-intensive tasks.

Complementing this approach will be a new interface that’s more 3D, and oriented toward running tasks instead of showing files. Although familiar elements such as windows and the start menu will be retained, an additional translucent “sidebar” element will serve as a place to consolidate functions, or switch among several “virtual desktops.”

However, changing to a different type of file system is not trivial. Applications moved from FAT32 to NTFS without major problems, but there’s some concern that Windows Future Storage could “break” some existing applications. Remember the new drivers and patches you had to round up when switching over to XP? It looks like more patches are on the horizon.

With the massive amounts of data passing through studios, XP’s ability to support and burn CDs was welcome. Continuing on that arc, Longhorn will support recordable DVDs (supposedly both DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW formats — good news for compatibility fans, but bad news in terms of tilting the industry toward a single standard).

There’s no question that the existence of commercial music software is threatened by “cracks.” Already, consumer choices have been diminished because companies sometimes don’t get paid for enough copies to recoup their R& investment. This means greater efforts must be spent on copy protection at the expense of upgrades, customer service, etc.

Longhorn is the first OS to work with the PCI Express motherboard design (Intel’s baby, which promises a bus speed of 2.5 GHz, compared to today’s pokey PCI bus speed of 133 MHz). In addition to the speed boost, there are hardware “hooks” for the Palladium software/hardware technology behind the “trustworthy computing” concept. This theoretically makes Longhorn extremely difficult to compromise without hacking on the hardware level as well.

Rumors are running rife about Palladium, one being that it will “lock out” legacy programs and make freeware a thing of the past (trustworthy computing certification costs money). But plenty of audio interfaces aren’t digitally signed because companies don’t want to spend the money for certification, and they work fine with XP. In reality, anything that worked with XP should be able to work with Longhorn — it just won’t be able to take advantage of the security features.

Palladium’s main function is to offer a way to protect software, and of course the OS, from various online evils (hacking, spam, viruses, etc.), as well as distribute protected files. But that works both ways: Just as you will be able to send files that theoretically are secure from outside interference, and prevent unauthorized executables from wreaking havoc in your computing environment, companies should be able to send you, for example, updates to programs secure in the knowledge that they will be paid for and will work on your machine. With the increasing amount of online distribution of music programs and files, this could have a major impact on the way data is sold and distributed.

Of course, there are a lot of variables, including how secure something really can be. There are also some troubling questions about content and control; anyone remember how musicians couldn’t make copies of digital copies for backup on DATs with SCMS? The promise that trustworthy programs can keep out spam, viruses, and cracks is tantalizing, but time will tell whether it’s truly possible to foil hackers.

There are also indications that Longhorn will support the new 64-bit architectures from both Intel Itanium and AMD 64 processors. In theory, more bits = faster CPU processing, which of course means more plug-ins!

Those who still think Microsoft doesn’t have its sights on controlling the flow of information in the entertainment industry should take a long look at Longhorn, and think of what preceded it.

Microsoft has been extremely aggressive in promoting and enhancing its Windows Media compression and streaming schemes. Part of Microsoft’s pitch is digital rights management, a way to secure online files and control copying — obviously bait to the entertainment industry. But also look at the software that will supposedly come with Longhorn: A “music library” with enhanced searching capabilities viewable at the folder level (no application required), and a Control Panel that has controls for portable audio devices. DVD-burning may also make it easier for a high-resolution audio format (e.g., DVD-A) to take hold.

But on the pro front, matters are murkier. There are unconfirmed rumors that WDM is going to be replaced in Longhorn, so maybe there’s more to Sonar supporting ASIO than just “let’s support more hardware.” The transition to WDM was slow, and I sure wouldn’t like to see a repeat of that experience. But my guess is that WDM will continue to be supported, and anything new will co-exist. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if MME finally drops off the map.

All this is subject to change without notice, but when Microsoft speaks, people listen . . . and when they don’t speak, people speculate. Stay tuned for progress reports in the months and years ahead.