A tale of two Cairos

Lessons learned from Microsoft's first version of WinFS, unveiled way back in 1993.

Microsoft's 2003 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) reminded some observers of the same event in 1993, when the hot topics were the Win32 APIs, a rough draft of Windows 95 code-named Chicago, and a preview of a futuristic object-file-system-based NT successor code-named Cairo. The hot topics this year were the WinFX managed APIs, a rough draft of a future version of NT code-named Longhorn, and ... Cairo. Now called WinFS, this vision of metadata-enriched storage and query-driven retrieval was, and is, compelling. Making it real wasn't then, and isn't now, simply a matter of engineering the right data structures and APIs.

There's a social dimension to the problem, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid discuss in their book, The Social Life of Information. The Web got that; Cairo didn't. So after a string of four Windows-focused PDCs, Cairo sank beneath the Internet wave that was the theme of the 1996 gathering. The most obvious sign of culture clash at that strange event was Steve Jobs' pitch, during the keynote, for the NeXT WebObjects technology that today powers Apple's iTunes music store. Less noticed, but equally memorable for me, was a talk on CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) delivered by its inventor and now CTO of Opera Software, Hakon Lie. I sat at the back of the room near a group of Microsoft developers who wore pained expressions on their faces. I couldn't blame them. When it came to style sheets, Microsoft Word had been there, done that, and wasn't going to learn any new tricks from the W3C.

Support for CSS in Internet Explorer was doomed from the start to be a grudging compromise. A notable exception was the bang-up CSS implementation done by the IE/5 Mac team. But their product was orphaned earlier this year. And as the 2003 PDC made clear by conspicuous omission, CSS -- along with some other Web standards including XHTML and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) -- won't be embraced or extended in Longhorn's presentation system, Avalon. To call attention to this fact is to risk being branded a Luddite, but two words suffice to explain how and why Web standards still matter: network effects.

Longhorn targets a next generation of PCs, as indeed it should. The convergence of documents, media, and applications in Avalon will give underemployed CPUs and GPUs something to sink their teeth into. An Avalon architect recently asked me, "Who wouldn't want a user experience like the one Amazon showed at the PDC?" Nobody wouldn't. On the other hand, who wouldn't want to be able to click once to jump from an Amazon.com page to the corresponding record in the catalog of a local library? Thanks to Web standards I was able to easily accomplish that integration for hundreds of libraries and thousands of users, in many browsers on various platforms. Although I haven't tried, it probably works on smartphones and PDAs that run Opera and exploit its CSS-based small-screen rendering.

The browser, to be sure, is not a sacred relic to be preserved at all costs. But the Web is much more than the browser. It's an ecosystem whose social and information structures co-evolve. Innovation bubbles up from the grassroots; integration can happen spontaneously; relationships cross borders. Cairo Version 1 wasn't designed to nourish that ecosystem or to flourish in it. Let's hope Microsoft remembers the past and avoids being condemned to repeat it with Cairo Version 2.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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