Charles Arthur On Technology

Bill Gates can't find what he's looking for

Once upon a time there was a boy called Bill, and he had a vision of what a computer-operating system should be able to do: find a file that had any sort of content you were looking for, anywhere on your machine or a local network, and hand it to you regardless of where it had been. All you'd need to know was what you wanted, and the computer would serve it up.

Once upon a time there was a boy called Bill, and he had a vision of what a computer-operating system should be able to do: find a file that had any sort of content you were looking for, anywhere on your machine or a local network, and hand it to you regardless of where it had been. All you'd need to know was what you wanted, and the computer would serve it up.

Bill got his software company to announce that this would be built into the next version of its operating system. But something happened to the great idea of file-content searching. And gradually the idea subsided, and it didn't get put into the next operating system. It would "come later", the company explained.

If you're au fait with what's going on in the computing world, you might think I'm talking about "WinFS", the file system that Microsoft had been planning to implement in its forthcoming revision of Windows, codenamed "Longhorn". (You did guess I meant Microsoft and Bill Gates?)

But actually, that tale also refers to "NT Object Filing System" and "Cairo" - a file system and Windows update that was first described in 1992, and slated for "beta release in 1996 and full release in 1997" in the mid-1990s.

Though the details are now vague, NTOFS sounded as though it was intended to do just the same things that WinFS is also planned to do: find files relevant to content you want.

But somehow NTOFS faded away, and never quite happened; nor did Cairo. Various bits of what had been announced in 1992, and 1996, appeared in later operating systems. But content-searching remained the Holy Grail, which was why WinFS seemed such a good idea. But Microsoft has decided that trying to squeeze WinFS into Longhorn by its planned release date, the second half of 2006, isn't feasible.

It's not quite the death of a dream for Bill Gates, who has always wanted computers to have the effortless functionality of his ideals. Jim Allchin, in charge of Microsoft's "platforms", said last week that WinFS will be made available after the 2007 release of the server version of Longhorn.

But Longhorn is being stripped of much of what had been promised as its stand-out features: incredible new graphics systems, and the file-search facility. And that means that the future of personal computing suddenly looks very different. It means a future where Microsoft will still dominate, but without the control it used to have. Windows will be an adjunct to the really interesting uses of PCs - not its driver.

For a start, there are already plenty of competitors. One of the most interesting is a startup company called blinkx ( www.blinkx.com), which offers a searchbar that integrates into Internet Explorer and can search your hard disk, the web, and even online video from sources such as the BBC. You type a few words, or open a document, and hit search, and it will offer up relevant web pages or Word files or news clips on the subject.

Mac users will grumble because it's Windows-only. The company is working on a Mac version, though the complexity of that task means I'm not holding my breath. And anyway, sometime next spring (my guess) Apple users will have the fifth version of OSX, called "Tiger", which has an inbuilt search technology called "Spotlight" which indexes the content of documents, PDFs, your calendar, contacts, and e-mail so that if you search for "Yosemite" it'll even find the word on a map in a PDF. It's very impressive.

And these are things happening now. You're not going to have to wait until the year after next to do this.

If people can do the sort of things that had been promised (and now rescinded) for Longhorn in other browsers and on other operating systems, including Linux and OSX as well as Windows, one wonders quite what Microsoft is bringing to the party.

And that's where the danger really lies for Microsoft. From having been the place led by a visionary with an idea for an all-conquering operating system (and all-conquering file search), it's now just becoming the company that people build stuff for. But in the two years before Longhorn appears, there will be a lot of time for people to develop other searches and to explore other operating systems (for Linux is advancing a lot more quickly than Windows).

And after those two years, you might find yourself still using Windows XP, and when Microsoft unveils Longhorn, you might think: so what?

And if nobody wants to move to Longhorn because they've got what they want already, Microsoft will have reached the end of the road that Bill Gates set out on all those years ago.

network@independent.co.uk

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