Surprise! Microsoft's WinFS beta arrives

Developers pore over Microsoft's grand experiment in desktop information management

The surprise beta release of Microsoft's WinFS file system on Monday has attracted intense scrutiny. WinFS was one of the three pillars of Microsoft's next-generation version of Windows announced two years ago, then code-named Longhorn and now morphed and downsized into Vista. All three pillars -- WinFS, the Avalon GUI, and the Indigo Web-services protocol stack -- have been detached from any specific forthcoming release of Windows and will be offered as separate technologies. Microsoft developers were happy to discover that the WinFS beta really does install on Windows XP and includes an array of supporting development tools.

Running on top of, rather than replacing, the Windows NTFS (NT File System), WinFS enables developers to exploit XML interfaces to data previously locked up in desktop applications. This promises users a much more effective means of searching and organizing information. Essentially, it augments the traditional hierarchical file system with an object/relational/XML database of items classified by type.

The knock on WinFS has been that it creates yet another Microsoft "walled garden," with its own schema and query language, leaving developers with a new learning curve and the task of reconciling the WinFS model with that of the wider world.

Michael Herman, president and CTO of collaboration solution provider Parallelspace, has already dived into the WinFS beta. He pronounced it "ready for knowledgeable developers to use and be productive." New technologies include the ability for developers to install custom item types (rather than being limited to a fixed set); a peer-to-peer synchronization feature for WinFS databases; and several interesting SDK tools.

Herman said that among the most potentially useful tools is Microsoft Rave, an application built over WinFS and WinFS Synchronization. Developers can invite others to synchronize with their folders. Synchronization occurs automatically as data changes.

The WinFS beta also includes OPather, a utility intended to ease the construction of queries in OPath, WinFS's proprietary answer to the standard XPath method of identifying XML data items. OPather helps developers quickly verify if an OPath query is valid and features a GUI popup that appears whenever it thinks it can help. Another tool, StoreSpy, is designed to aid in debugging WinFS applications.

The beta release of WinFS is a small milestone in a grand experiment on the part of Microsoft: detaching desktop data from its rigid hierarchy and enabling users to create new, more intuitive information relationships. Now that the code has arrived, developers can start prototyping applications for themselves and get a feel for what the new era will bring.