Retro: Windows Longhorn

Nostalgia is awesome sometimes, and for me nothing is more fondly remembered than the Longhorn project from the early ’00s. This project really accompanied my first experiences with an online community and led to numerous friendships that I still maintain almost ten years on, as well as exposing me to programming. Really then, Longhorn is sort of at the root of everything that is “me”, and so I still keep mountains of discs containing all the leaked builds and all the tools to make them run.

But let’s backtrack a tad: I should quickly explain Longhorn for the uninitiated. Intended to be the successor to Windows XP, the project grew from a minor update (Longhorn is a bar between the Whistler (XP codename) and Blackcomb (post-Longhorn-Windows codename) ski slopes) to an enormous project which wanted to rewrite almost everything, envisioning a highly connected future where the power of modern hardware could be used to its full advantage. It was supposed to RTM and see release in 2003, but missed that date badly. In 2004, they were still releasing alpha builds to developers, and shortly after the WinHEC conference where they handed out the most well known build 4074 the project was reset, the code dismantled and what was working reused and worked in to what eventually became Vista. Many of the most ambitious features were either dropped to the cutting room floor, or given to smaller teams to die a slow death over the next few years – it’s also worth noting that a lot of the things there were building had already been tried in the mid-90s in the Cairo project, which also ended with a whimper (although it did inspire the Windows 95 UI). WinFS is the textbook example of this: A relational file system based on metadata, with the goal of evolving beyond file management to a world where all you needed to know was what type of thing you wanted. All pictures would be collated in a pictures library, all music in music etc. Only a few builds with working WinFS were available, and I use “working” pretty loosely there – after the reset Microsoft said WinFS was still being developed and would be released in the future… It was all-but dissolved a few years later.

But Longhorn did give us some good stuff that stayed in Vista. The translucent Aero Glass interface along with its UI animations began here, and during the development of XP service pack 2 it seems many of the features were dog-fooded in Longhorn — for example, later 40xx builds contained the pop up blocker that would eventually arrive in SP2, as well as a download manager that wouldn’t be included with IE until version 9. For this and many other reasons, Longhorn was a compelling project trying to push the envelope.

A couple of years ago a few new builds leaked and I downloaded them but neglected to really look at them any more. I recently decided to clear out the cobwebs and set a few up to relive those heady days! Some of these images are my own, most are taken from either Paul Thurrott (the Microsoft demi-god) or Grabberslashers blog UX Unleaked, covering unleaked builds (some of which have since leaked.)

Let’s start at the beginning.


The first build ever leaked, compiled September 2002. At first glance it’s just a slightly modified XP, but there were some interesting bits hidden in there: A new Display control panel was locked up and badly broken in this build, and it also provided the curious option of incorporating the Start button and taskbar in to the sidebar, so you only had a single panel. Also, things like the bars illustrating free disk space were ridiculously exciting at the time.


While an interim build has since leaked (3706) this was the next leak after 3683, compiled November ’02. The new Plex theme is introduced proper – ostensibly used as a placeholder theme until a new one was ready, but I always thought it was pretty enough to stand on its own – and we get our first taste of the Desktop Compositing Engine, later the Desktop Window Manager, aka the thing that makes with the pretty. Hardware requirements to run DCE were unknown and seemingly random at the time, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it working properly despite it being controlled by a simple checkbox in the graphics properties. This build has all the graphical treats because it comes out of Lab06, and under the old system of building Windows this lab handled UI/UX.


We’re skipping a whole bunch of builds here because they were very similar. 4008, 4015, 4018 and 4029 all still contained the Plex theme which received light refinements and fixes before being replaced around the 4040 mark (with the switch to Milestone 7) with the new Slate theme. 4051 was released at the 2003 PDC, and contained a few things of interest, mainly the aforementioned dogfooded XP SP2 bits. Build 4053 was subsequently leaked and offered a few bug fixes and a barely-functional iteration of WinFS. These builds are special for me however, as 4051 was the first Longhorn build I actually used – and used for almost a year as my day-to-day OS, in fact.




Finally we reach 4074. This build contained everything from 405x, a more recent though still buggy as hell WinFS, and a hidden DCE mode and modified Slate theme (called Jade) which first showed the world those Glass window borders that would grace Vista years later. The pinnacle of development as far as we know, not long after this build everything went to hell, and subsequent leaks demonstrate that. Builds 4084 and 4093 are closer to XP than Longhorn, with all non-essentials stripped out.
Some of the recent leaks finally let us see features that either never worked or were never present in other builds, things like the Phodeo 3D view mode in Explorer, and DirectX accelerated Aurora animations in the preview pane. Hopefully these things will continue to leak over time, and we might see some of the REALLY interesting builds… Like the Lab06 builds with the insane animation demos.

For those screenshots and more, Beta-Archive has a neatly organised collection on its wiki that’s worth looking through.

Will we ever see another Longhorn? Unlikely, now the emphasis is on mobile devices and cloud computing. Would it have been a good thing if Longhorn had worked out? Honestly, no. Vista was a better product technically, and the whole disastrous experience taught Microsoft some valuable lessons about project management, and while it may have knocked their reputation it’s better in the long run that they focused on core improvements to security rather than back-flipping windows.

We can always dream though.