THG interview: Microsoft on Vista, rich metadata, new graphics stack, virtual registry

Redmond (WA) - In an exclusive interview with Tom’s Hardware Guide this afternoon, Microsoft’s lead product manager for Windows Client operating systems, Greg Sullivan, revealed the company is working on a new "metadata" filing system that will be the focus of Vista’s new "virtual folders" model.

In the wake of Microsoft’s release, at 10:00 a.m. West Coast time this morning, of Windows Vista Beta 1 to selected and subscribing participants in its testing program, Sullivan introduced us to the new Document Explorer. While replete with new textures and animations, the replacement for Windows XP’s "My Computer" will also be utilizing "rich metadata," generated by applications such as the company’s forthcoming Office 12 suite. Like the metadata used by XHTML Web pages to help search engines categorize them in their semantic databases for the entire Internet, Vista’s new system will employ similar metadata for document files, that is shared with local databases. This way, virtual folders can be set up to display documents based on their contents and their common attributes, not just their filenames.

Virtual folders and the New Document Explorer

"The notion of virtual folders is something that we were demonstrating a couple of years ago as part of WinFS," said Sullivan, referring to a file system that was proposed in 2003 to replace NTFS, and was featured in Chairman Bill Gates’ now infamous Longhorn rollout in October of that year. There, Gates demonstrated before a stunned crowd a concept of a fully relational file management system, that would make almost any file instantly available to query, and that appeared to convert the Windows file system into a Google-like search engine. "When we announced last year that WinFS would not be shipping with Windows Vista," Sullivan continued, "but would [be released] subsequently, people assumed that all of those scenarios were no longer valid. It turns out that the development team took a look at the problem space and, in the case of the Document Explorer, they were able to do things in the shell that leveraged inherent properties that are in-stream with the NTFS file system."

For several years already, Microsoft Office documents have included properties which today’s Windows already takes advantage of. For instance, hover your pointer over a Microsoft Word document to see its author, internal title, and date of last modification. Microsoft’s shell team realized that this existing feature was already extensible through today’s NTFS file system, enabling mining of metadata right now without having to wait for WinFS. "So it doesn’t matter which folder I stick [a] file in," explained Sullivan, "if I want ’Things written by Brian on Windows Vista that relate to the Longhorn Display Driver Model,’ I can filter on those keywords, and then combine that with full text search and an indexing engine," to essentially provide the same functionality presented in at least one of the WinFS demos two years ago.

Sullivan cautioned that the full functionality of this new virtual filing model may not be visible to users outside of Vista’s new Document Explorer - for instance, through File Open and File Save dialog boxes in other applications. This is because the application programming interfaces (APIs) for utilizing this functionality have not been developed, and may actually wait for WinFS’ eventual release as an add-on to the commercial Windows Vista product. However, Sullivan told Tom’s Hardware Guide, an alternative to the conventional API approach of leveraging Windows functionality may be at hand, in the form of an RSS document type that enables applications to publish metadata to the operating system using XML files. This would be similar to how Web sites and blogs currently use RSS to publish their headlines to news aggregators, and podcast publishers use it to provide their playlists to MP3 applications.

"We announced recently [our interest in] RSS as a platform capability," stated Sullivan, "and as a rich messaging infrastructure for XML data to communicate not just the information from a Web log to my news reader, but to platform-ize that capability [so that] applications could utilize that infrastructure to send and receive, and subscribe to, information. [This will] really extend that metaphor of RSS and text reading to not just multimedia, but potentially, programmatically, other very interesting ways of doing communications. So that’s absolutely the direction that we’ll see." Sullivan told us the company will have more to say on this topic at Microsoft’s next Professional Developers’ Conference, which is scheduled for mid-September.

The new Document Explorer - whose name is subject to change, Sullivan reminded us - is just one among what Microsoft promises to be a multitude of future "explorers." In much the same way that Microsoft’s "wizards" have come to represent dialog boxes that provide clear explanations and simple choices, Microsoft is characterizing Vista’s new "explorers" as providing extensive and query-ready views into the user’s everyday work. "We have a whole series of explorers," Sullivan told us, "but we’re being more explicit about the experience that you’re having. An explorer is a tool that is the container for that experience."

Applications graphics receive a "body slam" from "WPF"

One way Microsoft intends to enrich the user’s experience is by replacing the graphics rendering system upon which applications have come to rely, with a richer, full-time, 3D-capable subsystem. As of today, it’s no longer called "Avalon" - it becomes Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). This is the new programming model to which both applications and games will write for on-screen rendering. Today, application content is rendered using the Graphics Device Interface (GDI) which, coupled with the current window rendering manager called USER, have been part of Windows since version 3.0 in 1990. Meanwhile, games and other applications that take special advantage of graphics capabilities - for example, Winamp and Stardock WindowBlinds - write to the DirectX graphics API.

Programs whose graphics are supported by the new WPF will rely upon an updated - though not entirely replaced - system for device drivers that is still called Longhorn Display Driver Model (LDDM) - another name susceptible to change over the coming months.

"The graphics stack - both the display driver model, as well as the APIs and the subsystems in Windows that manage graphics and handle drawing pixels on the screen - have been changed completely, top-to-bottom," Sullivan officially confirmed.

"The problem that we’re trying to solve there is twofold," he explained. "First, it turns out that historically, a significant percentage of hardware failures and device driver failures are caused by the relative brittleness of our existing graphics stack." GDI and USER, Sullivan said, are the collective culprit "of more than their share of blue screens. It’s also the reason why there’s such a disparity in the graphics experience between [what you see on the desktop, and] a well-written DX application that’s written to the DirectX stack, and actually fully exploits the underlying 3D and hardware acceleration capabilities of the graphics system.

"This is really manifest when folks go play a great Windows game," Sullivan continued, "and they have a very rich three-dimensional world that scrolls in real-time with millions of polygons and millions of colors, and it’s a photo-realistic, cinematic experience that is incredibly responsive and interactive, and then they hit Alt-Tab and go to their browser or go back to Word, and hit Page Down, and it goes chunk, chunk, chunk, and you see screen tearing, and you don’t see the performance...because the graphics stack that we’re writing to is circa 1990."

Sullivan was cautious to point out that all existing applications will still work, even if they have to default to rendering using GDI and USER, though new applications should show a dramatic performance difference. This difference, Sullivan admitted, won’t be visible to testers of Vista Beta 1 at first, of course, because the applications that take advantage of the new rendering system have yet to be written. But one of the reasons for releasing Vista Beta 1 is to expedite the process of writing new applications now. Developers, he told us, will be provided with the necessary development kits (SDKs) to get them started.

The beginning of the end for the system Registry

In the days of the Windows 2.x environment - which was then an overlay on top of MS-DOS - applications stored information about themselves in "initialization files," which were plaintext files whose variables and values could be plainly read by anyone. In the era before the Web, this wasn’t a security concern. Unofficially with Windows for Workgroups 3.11, and later officially with Windows 95, Microsoft’s implementation of its ground-breaking Component Object Model (COM) brought with it the creation of the System Registry - one colossal non-relational database whose three principal files became the easiest targets for the first network incursion attempts. Besides, as more and more applications are installed in Windows, the Registry has historically been the culprit for making everything slower and slower over time.

This afternoon, Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan confirmed the company’s official exodus away from the System Registry as a key component, and toward what are now being called "application manifests" - individual, secure files for applications to store their own configuration data, and for other purposes. It turns out that, as Microsoft moves toward gradual adoption of what was dubbed this morning Windows Communication Foundation (formerly and more affectionately known as "Indigo"), a single file for storing the configurations and data attributes of all running components in the system, may eventually no longer be necessary.

"This has been an ongoing design goal of ours," Sullivan told us. "The Registry has served its purpose well for managing the settings and keys required to do configuration - particularly application installation and behavior - but that model has also been fraught with some challenges that we’ve had to face. So it’s been a long-term goal for us to evolve that." However, Sullivan added, there are still over 600 million people using Windows XP and, therefore, using local System Registries. The challenge over the next several years will be to migrate to a Registry-free world without breaking applications.

One approach to implementing this exodus, Sullivan revealed to us for the first time, will be a new system that provides non-administrative users with a "virtual Registry," ostensibly at first for the sake of protecting the main Registry from abuse. This way, said Sullivan, "not every user has to be an administrator to accomplish something. But when we’re able to virtualize the Registry, we can actually provide a standard user with a way to have a meaningful interaction, including installing applications that write to the Registry, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily permanently harm or affect what the administrator has set up." Conceivably, a virtual Registry could be used by older Windows applications that still require it, within a future system - probably far later than Vista - that no longer provides the Registry as a standard service.

Another of the more unexpected features presented by Microsoft just this morning is an entirely new file compression format called Windows Imaging Format (WIM). In a statement, the company describes this new alternative to ZIP as providing "a single file that contains one or more complete Windows Vista installation images. To conserve space, Windows Vista compresses the file and stores only a single copy of files that more than one image share."

Also today, Microsoft reported that beta copies of the server operating system scheduled in 2007 to replace Windows Server 2003 - currently still code-named "Longhorn" - were also released at the same time as Vista Beta 2, to a smaller group of selected invitees. The company also announced that Microsoft Management Console 3.0 - the latest version of the administrative management service that not everyone knows is also available in Windows XP Professional - is a part of Windows Vista Beta 1. The company said the new console has yet to be tested in conjunction with Microsoft Command Shell (MSH)- the command-line interface that should eventually replace the DOS-like Windows Command Prompt - which is currently being tested on a separate track.

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