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Microsoft’s sweeping changes to its next major Windows release are drawing little surprise from enterprise IT departments, many of whom were not counting on the most revolutionary changes promised in Longhorn.

Late last week, Microsoft announced that it was dropping a centerpiece of Longhorn called WinFS (Windows File System) in order to meet its schedule for releasing the desktop version in 2006 and the server version in 2007.

WinFS had been heralded as Microsoft’s next-generation storage subsystem for Windows that would improve the storage and retrieval of files.

For enterprises, the loss of WinFS in Longhorn is unlikely to meet much resistance. Few IT departments were ready for an overhaul in the way Windows stores and retrieves files, said David Smith, a vice president at market research firm Gartner Inc.

“I’m not hearing demand from enterprises for WinFS or a unified file system,” Smith said. “It’s a theoretical benefit that’s been hard for Microsoft to explain. This is a pragmatic [step], and overall it will let enterprises and developers do better planning.”

What about software developers? Click here to read about their reaction to the Longhorn changes.

One benefit of Microsoft’s shifts is a more realistic schedule for its Windows release, analysts say. Development delays appeared to plague WinFS, but Longhorn still will include other key Longhorn components such as the “Avalon” graphics subsystem and the “Indigo” communications subsystem.

Along with unleashing a slimmer Longhorn, Microsoft plans to port Avalon and Indigo to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, also in 2006. The Redmond, Wash., software maker pushed out WinFS to a still-uncertain future version of Windows and is pegging a first beta of the technology to coincide with when Longhorn client ships.

Despite the loss of WinFS, the Longhorn client should include features that will entice enterprises to upgrade, said Shawn Wildermuth, a senior consultant at Magenic Technologies Inc., based in Minneapolis. He was less certain about whether the Longhorn server plans would be attractive to corporate IT.

“The key features in Longhorn client will represent changes for the better as well as a maturing of the platform,” he said in an e-mail interview. “In that way, the Longhorn client is likely going to be an upgrade from Win XP that most enterprises will make.”

Next Page: Will the changes hasten or hinder enterprise migrations?

But to Gartner’s Smith, it remains unclear whether the Longhorn shift will hasten or hinder enterprise migrations to the newer Windows release. He called Microsoft’s intent to provide elements of Longhorn for XP and Server 2003 as a move to “prime the pump for next upgrade cycle.”

“Enterprises tend to be rather conservative in upgrades and are not looking to do it quickly,” Smith said. “One of the key challenges will be how they differentiate what you’ll be getting in an upgraded XP and this new [Longhorn] release.”

Read more here about Longhorn’s graphics features.

Civil engineering company Larkin Group Inc. falls into the conservative camp in Windows upgrades. The company just in the past few months began upgrading its 50-some desktops to Windows XP from Windows 2000, despite being a Windows-based IT shop, said Dennis Barr, the company’s IT manager.

The reason: It uses high-end engineering applications and specialized printers that often encounter compatibility issues with new versions of Windows, Barr said. The Kansas City, Mo., company this year also expects to begin upgrading its servers to Windows Server 2003.

“Since I was viewing the Windows File System as something along the lines of vaporware anyway, this has not affected any plans to migrate to the next operating system from Microsoft,” Barr said. “There’s typically a 12- to 15-month lag between the time a new OS comes out and when we see compatibility issues and driver issues resolved in our applications, since we use something more than garden-variety peripherals.”

He expects to allow at least the same amount of lag time in deploying Longhorn, though Barr said he personally will begin testing Longhorn as soon as a beta is available. Microsoft is planning a first beta release next year.

Still, the sudden shift in Microsoft’s Longhorn plans was no surprise to IT managers such as Barr. In fact, the idea of a revamped file system dates back more than a decade to a failed project Microsoft named “Cairo,” Smith said.

Click here to read more about Cairo and the path to Longhorn.

Barr said Microsoft has a history of “promising the next big thing” for Windows and then scaling back its plans. Against that backdrop, Barr said he will wait until late 2005, once the Longhorn beta code is out to developer, before taking the newest Windows release plans too seriously.

“Every release seems like it’s being called the biggest OS change they have ever made, but in this case it seemed like it was true,” Barr said.

Wildermuth, who said he has worked with alpha and pre-alpha builds of Longhorn, said he understands why Microsoft ditched WinFS. Having promised publicly to get Longhorn out in 2006, the company had to choose to either pare it back or extend the delivery date, he said.

The delay of Longhorn is one more reason to try a Linux desktop, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes. Click here for his column.

But without WinFS, Microsoft will be hard-pressed to deliver on its more ambitious initiatives, such as its aim to build deeper desktop-search capabilities into the OS, Wildermuth said.

“At the end of the day, I understand the decisions they made, but at the same time, I am very disappointed that WinFS is being pushed out,” Wildermuth said. “It doesn’t give me much faith [that] it will ever make the light of day.”

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