Desktop giant

Information technology managers are beginning to determine how their future plans can accommodate Microsoft Corp.'s next major upgrade of Windows, code named Longhorn, slated for release in 2006.

One question with major implications for agency upgrade plans is: What hardware will be able to handle Longhorn? Microsoft officials say they will answer that question in May, when they are scheduled to meet in Seattle with PC hardware manufacturers.

In the meantime, industry analysts are predicting that Longhorn will need every bit of the power and processing capacity of the average desktop computer in 2006. Some say that could mean a 5 GHz microprocessor, 2G of main memory, a PCI Express bus and a widescreen display. The desktop would also likely need a constant Internet connection.

Microsoft officials have already disclosed that some of Longhorn's new security features and graphics functions will not run on existing hardware. Any agency that chooses to run applications in Longhorn's trusted computing mode will have to buy new hardware with a built-in security chip to reinforce the operating system's

security.

An extensive hardware upgrade might also be in store for agencies with PCs lacking 3-D graphics capabilities. Longhorn is expected to introduce screen rendering with vector graphics instead of the bitmap variety that Windows operating systems now use. With vector graphics, Microsoft can offer a user interface with translucent effects and razor-sharp icons, similar to the interface for the Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh OS X operating system.

Until late February, Microsoft's road map for Windows showed no new operating system releases between mid-2004 and 2006, the estimated time of arrival for the client version of Longhorn. But Microsoft officials apparently have come under pressure to promise an interim release, called Windows XP Reloaded, before it delivers Longhorn. Market observers expect that release to include some of the new security functions and multimedia features that Longhorn is supposed to have.

The delivery date matters, said Rob Helm, director of research for Directions on Microsoft, an independent market research company. "Many managers in government are trying to decide now whether to renew long-term contracts," Helm said. "They have to look carefully at their renewal date and make sure, if they're interested in Longhorn, that their new contract will likely cover it."

A server version of Longhorn will follow the client version either in 2006 or later, although "it's conceivable that some parts of the Longhorn technology might show up on servers before Longhorn itself, especially if Longhorn is late," Helm said. Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to deliver two crucial service packs, or updates, by the middle of this year: Service Pack 2 for Windows XP and Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2003.

For government operations in particular, Longhorn could have much to offer. If it is delivered as advertised, Helm said, Longhorn will give employees new security capabilities for protecting sensitive but unclassified information, easier ways to exchange data between software applications and built-in facilities for creating Web portals that provide better access to

documents.

One analyst who attended the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference last October in Los Angeles said he was impressed with Microsoft's plans. "What Microsoft is doing with Longhorn is fundamentally re-engineering large portions of the operating system," said Neil Macehiter,

research director at Ovum Ltd., an IT research and consulting company.

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