Tag Archives: longhorn

Microsoft still paying the price for botched Vista with muddled development strategy

Professional Developers Conference 2003. Windows Longhorn is revealed, with three “pillars”:

  • Avalon, later named Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF)
  • Indigo, later named Windows Communication Foundation (WCF)
  • WinFS, the relational file system that was later abandoned

With the benefit of hindsight, Microsoft got many things right with the vision it set out at PDC 2003. The company saw that a revolution in user interface technology was under way, driven by the powerful graphics capabilities of modern hardware, and that the old Win32 graphics API would have to be replaced, much as Windows itself replaced DOS and the command-line. XAML and WPF was its answer, bringing together .NET, DirectX, vector graphics, XML and declarative programming to form a new, rich, presentation framework that was both designer-friendly and programmer-friendly.

Microsoft also had plans to take a cut-down version of WPF cross-platform as a browser plugin. WPF/Everywhere, which became Silverlight, was to take WPF to the Mac and to mobile devices.

I still recall the early demos of Avalon, which greatly impressed me: beautiful, rich designs which made traditional Windows applications look dated.

Unfortunately Microsoft largely failed to execute its vision. The preview of Longhorn handed out at PDC, which used Avalon for its GUI, was desperately slow.

Fast forward to April 2005, and Windows geek Paul Thurrott reports on Longhorn progress:

I’m reflecting a bit on Longhorn 5048. My thoughts are not positive, not positive at all. This is a painful build to have to deal with after a year of waiting, a step back in some ways. I hope Microsoft has surprises up their sleeves. This has the makings of a train wreck.

Thurrott was right. But why did Longhorn go backwards? Well, at some point – and I am not sure of the date, but I think sometime in 2004 – Microsoft decided that the .NET API for Longhorn was not working, performance was too bad, defects too many. The Windows build was rebased on the code for Server 2003 and most of .NET was removed, as documented by Richard Grimes.

Vista as we now know was not a success for Microsoft, though it was by no means all bad and laid the foundation for the well-received Windows 7. My point though is how this impacted Microsoft’s strategy for the client API. WPF was shipped in Longhorn, and also back-ported to Windows XP, but it was there as a runtime for custom applications, not as part of the core operating system.

One way of seeing this is that when Longhorn ran into the ground and had to be reset, the Windows team within Microsoft vowed never again to depend on .NET. While I do not know if this is correct, as a model it makes sense of what has subsequently happened with Silverlight, IE and HTML5, and Windows Phone:

  • Windows team talks up IE9 at PDC 2010 and does not mention Silverlight
  • Microsoft refuses to deliver a tablet version of Windows Phone OS with its .NET application API, favouring some future version of full Windows instead

Note that in 2008 Microsoft advertised for a job vacancy including this in the description:

We will be determining the new Windows user interface guidelines and building a platform that supports it. We’ll eliminate much of the drudgery of Win32 UI development and enable rich, graphical, animated user interface by using markup based UI and a small, high performance, native code runtime.

In other words, the Windows team has possibly been working on its own native code equivalent to XAML and WPF, or perhaps a native code runtime for XAML presentation markup. Maybe this could appear in Windows 8 and support a new touch-oriented user interface.

In the meantime though, Microsoft’s developer division has continued a strong push for .NET, Silverlight and most recently Windows Phone. Look at Visual Studio or talk to the development folk, and you still get the impression that this is the future of Windows client applications.

All this adds up to a muddled development story, which is costly when it comes to evangelising the platform.

In particular, eight years after PDC 2003 there is no clarity about Microsoft’s rich client or RIA (Rich Internet Application) designer and developer story. Is it really WPF, Silverlight and .NET, or is it some new API yet to be revealed, or will IE9 as a runtime play a key role?

There is now a little bit more evidence for this confusion and its cost; but this post is long enough and I have covered it separately.

Jewels from the loft: launch of Delphi, Netscape’s Constellation, HTML to die, Longhorn for developers

It’s the Easter holiday in the UK and I’ve suffered a bout of spring-clean fever. It is time, I decided, to clear out a mountain of old books and magazines.

A job like this always prompts reflections, the first of which is the sad decline of print journalism in the field of software development. It hurt to send piles of Byte, Exe, Dr Dobbs’s Journal, Application Development Advisor and others off for recycling.


A few things caught my eye. Exe June 1995, and there is a young Anders Hejlsberg talking to Will Watts about his new creation: Borland Delphi:

Before Delphi, you always had to make a choice. Do I go for the performance of a native code compiler, or the ease of use of a visual development environment? Do I go for a powerful object-oriented language, or a proprietary 4GL client/server tool? What programmers really want is all of the above, in one package. That’s what we set out to do.

What is striking about Delphi is that this was not hype. It delivered on that promise. It was better than its obvious rival, Microsoft’s Visual Basic, in almost every way (I will give VB a point for sheer ubiquity, especially in VBA guise). Delphi is still with us today, not bad after fifteen years. However, it never came close to VB’s market share, which shows that quality has never been the sole or even the most important determinant of sales success.

Next up is Byte, March 1998. “Reinventing the Web”, the cover proclaims. “XML and DHTML will bring order to the chaos”.


Inside there is a breathless description of how XML will change everything, and a quote from Jon Bosak:

HTML, this so-called ‘hypertext markup language,’ implements just a tiny amount of the functionality that has historically been associated with the concept of hypertext systems. Only the simplest form of linking is supported – unidirectional links to hard-coded locations. This is a far cry from the systems that were built and proven during the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed. “We need to start replacing simple HTML with more powerful alternatives”, the article concludes. “The migration to XML must begin. The future of the Web depends on it.”

Here’s one thing that mostly did not work out as planned. The W3C tried to retire HTML, failed, and is now belatedly engaged in specifying HTML 5.

Byte March 1997 is also intriguing. Netscape’s Marc Andreessen smiles out of the cover.


Jon Udell, in the days before he disappeared into some Microsoft corridor, writes about Netscape’s “Constellation: the network-centric desktop”:

Netscape’s Constellation takes a less Windows-centric approach and puts more emphasis on location-independent computing, regardless of the platform. No matter what kind of system you’re using or where you are, Constellation presents a universal desktop called the Homeport. Although the Homeport can appear in a browser window, Netscape usually demonstrates it as a full-screen layer that buries the native OS – certainly one reason Microsoft is not embracing Constellation.

Netscape got a lot of things right, a true pioneer of what we now call cloud computing. What went wrong? Well, Microsoft went all-out to conquer Netscape by removing its browser dominance. Microsoft’s weapon was the free Internet Explorer.

It is all a pre-echo of what is happening now with Google and Microsoft, the difference being that Google has huge financial power thanks to its marriage of internet search and internet advertising. Unlike Netscape, Google is winning.

This blog is long enough; but I’ll give a brief mention to another jewel from the archives: a book given out at PDC 2003 entitled Introducing Longhorn for Developers.


It describes Microsoft’s vision for Longhorn: a radical new application model for Windows, building on XAML, WinFS and “Indigo”, the communication framework. It bears little resemblance to what eventually appeared as Vista, which is a shame as it was compelling in many ways.