Microsoft PDC reveals the future of Windows

By Brian Livingston

I’ve just returned from the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, where Microsoft announced that there’s a great version of Windows coming if you can just wait a few years.

Actually, they didn’t say that, but they could have. At the PDC, held Oct. 19-23 in the L.A. Convention Center, Microsoft handed out to the 7,000+ developers in attendance the first CDs containing a working, pre-beta build of its new operating system, code-named Longhorn. This product will turn into a shipping desktop version of Windows some time in 2005 or 2006.

Timelines shown by Microsoft speakers during the conference’s main presentations asserted that the first beta build of Longhorn (officially called Beta 1) would be released in the 2nd half of 2004. If that schedule holds up, it means that Longhorn could ship before the end of 2005 if all the development work goes smoothly. If snags are encountered, on the other hand, the product could slip into 2006. At this point, I believe it’s futile to speculate on the exact ship date, which is impossible to predict.

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Since Longhorn is so far away from being a working product, I believe that two other upcoming Microsoft releases will have a much greater near-term impact:
  • Windows XP Service Pack 2 in 1H 2004
    A beta of XP SP2 will be released to interested testers by December 2003, according to Microsoft representatives. The final SP2 release, scheduled for the 1st half of 2004, promises to close some of the security issues in XP. The plan is to make the operating system more resistant to worm attacks, even in machines that may not have a critical patch installed. The changes include improvements to Microsoft’s Internet Connection Firewall (actually turning it on, for example, instead of leaving it off by default), new support for “no execute” areas of memory in order to prevent buffer overruns, and safer versions of Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Windows Messenger.

  • Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 in 2H 2004
    While not providing definite guidance on when SP1 for Server 2003 will be released for beta testing, Microsoft suggests that the beta release of SP1 will go out in the 1st half of 2004. The final service pack, scheduled for release in the 2nd half of 2004, is also expected (like the service pack for XP) to concentrate on security fixes for the server OS.

If your company uses Windows XP or develops software that runs on XP, it’s important that you get into the beta test program for XP SP2. Many of the changes planned for that service pack will break programs that aren’t designed for the new environment. In particular, changes to Microsoft’s firewall, RPC (Remote Procedure Calls), and DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model) may interfere with some of today’s programs.

“Developers need to test their apps on SP2 as soon as possible,” said Michael Howard, Microsoft’s senior program manager of security engineering and communications, in a telephone interview. “Some features will be turned off by default” that your programs may rely upon, he emphasized.

An excellent 11-page paper that describes the changes in XP, entitled “Windows XP Service Pack 2: A Developer’s View,” was handed out at a security workshop during the PDC. A copy of the paper has been posted in the MSDN Library. I strongly recommend that you take a look.

Compared to XP SP2, less information is available about plans for SP1 for Windows Server 2003. I’ll cover developments in these and other areas as they evolve.

Now is the time for readers to send me their findings on the pre-beta release of Longhorn and word on the betas of XP SP2 and Server 2003 SP1. To send me tips on these or any other subjects, visit WindowsSecrets.com/contact.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2003-11-06: