Call it the revenge of the Windows client — or the revelation of Microsoft's three new technology pillars.
Longhorn, the forthcoming version of Windows, made its first public outing at last week's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles.
Not due until 2005 or 2006, Longhorn represents Microsoft's determination to strengthen its desktop stronghold by fostering a new generation of Internet-aware applications.
Underpinning that strategy are Longhorn's three main technology pillars: Avalon, the glossy new 3D GUI; WinFS, a new, XML-based storage scheme; and Indigo, a messaging technology based on Web services. All three fall under the moniker WinFX, an upgrade of the .Net Framework and the new Longhorn application development environment.
Avalon's role can be seen as an attempt to raise the desktop ante with compelling 3D extensions to the Windows GUI so that browser apps pale even more in comparison.
For years, Microsoft has argued that browser-based apps are a step backward. The company has suggested these apps be replaced by smart, Internet-aware client applications that exploit all that excess processing power at the edge of the network — that is, desktop computers running Windows.
Greg Sullivan, lead product manager at Microsoft's Windows development group, acknowledged that "we now live in a world where the dominant application model is living in a Web page" despite the fact that the client must always be connected, that the server becomes a bottleneck, and that HTML apps are clunky to build and use. He noted that even in current desktop applications, hardware is not fully utilized, particularly the GPU (graphics processing unit) now mostly used for games.
Avalon will need all the computing power it can find. Although a subset of the new Avalon graphics subsystem will run on today's hardware, Microsoft technical evangelist Darryn Dieken said developers will need hardware not yet available if they "want a rich visual experience with all the 3D controls."
According to Sullivan, programming will actually be easier with Avalon than with current Windows GUI development thanks to XAML (XML Application Markup Language), which will simplify the creation of graphical interfaces. Moreover, XAML code can be passed from other apps.
Greg DeMichillie, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, explained that enterprise customers will have "the possibility of letting graphic artists more directly create the user interface either by entering the markup themselves or by using graphics tools as opposed to programmer tools."
DeMichillie added that the Avalon proposition hinges on a simple question. "Will consumers go out and buy another PC and upgrade, or will corporations buy a new PC and upgrade to get Avalon? Well, the answer to that will depend largely on whether there's some great Avalon app that's so compelling that they say, 'Yeah, I gotta have it,' " DeMichillie said.
One example of Avalon's capabilities was a shopping application developed by Amazon and demonstrated at PDC by Jim Allchin, vice president of Microsoft's platforms group. This downloadable, smart 3D client applied a Rolodex-like metaphor that illustrated the power of WinFS, the new unified storage model. When a user looks up information in a desktop calendar app, for example, it suggests a gift for mom's imminent birthday.