Is Microsoft's new version of Windows a radical innovation or a return to the company's winner-take-all software strategy from a decade ago?

The next operating system, code-named Longhorn, promises a huge leap forward from current versions of Windows, with better graphics, storage, search and security features, according to analysts and others familiar with the technology. But those features come at a price: Most can be used only through client software that's designed specifically for the new system.

Longhorn, which had its official coming-out party last week, marks Microsoft's return to "fat client" application development-- software that resides largely on desktop or portable PCs rather than on a shared server or network. The company is even considering phasing out the development of a stand-alone browser, instead building Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Web-based applications that would run directly in Longhorn as "native" Windows code.

The result would be "increased lock-in to Windows," said Michael Silver, an analyst at market research firm Gartner. "Microsoft wants enterprises to write browser applications that take advantage of Longhorn application programming interfaces (APIs), which means that they won't work on non- Longhorn browsers," Silver wrote in a research report last week.

With Longhorn, some industry veterans believe, Microsoft is attempting to steer software development back toward the Windows desktop and away from software such as browser applications that can run on other companies' OSes. Longhorn reinforces Microsoft's commitment to the notion of powerful desktop machines that have large hard drives.

"Ultimately, we're the company that believes in the power of the local hard disk," said Gordon Mangione, corporate vice president of Microsoft's SQL Server team. "It's been the thing that has driven the PC revolution for many, many years."

Indeed, the strategy will sound familiar to students of Microsoft's history. Windows became the dominant OS for PCs by controlling the underlying APIs and file formats. The Internet shifted that balance of power away from the desktop by performing functions on Web servers and related technologies.

The strategy has also created legal complications for Microsoft in recent years. Much of the U.S. Department of Justice's landmark antitrust case against Microsoft focused on the way the company attempted to extend its OS dominance to other products and markets. But any legal ramifications relative to Longhorn are difficult to assess at this stage, because the OS is not expected to debut until late 2005 or early 2006.

In the meantime, it remains unclear whether businesses will use Longhorn's features to build applications if they cannot run in standard HTML browsers from other software makers. Their response will be an important factor to customers that are weighing the benefits of buying the new OS.

To persuade corporate customers to upgrade, Microsoft will likely need to emphasize Longhorn's improved administration of desktop PCs.

"I'd have to understand the business benefits of going back to a client/server or fat-client model," said Gary Hensley, director of information technology at Coca-Cola subsidiary Odwalla, which has been using Web-based applications for about three years at substantially reduced PC support costs. "It's pretty simple-- show me the bottom-line business benefit. Either it should improve my capability to help extend revenue or give me a better way to manage the infrastructure and my applications to reduce costs."

In many ways, Microsoft's portrayal of Longhorn mirrors the company's "embrace and extend" strategy, which it launched in reaction to a surge in interest in Internet protocols in the mid- 1990s.

source: continues..CNet

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