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A year after Microsoft scaled back Windows Vista by removing a key technology from its development plan, the company released an early test version of its next-generation Windows file system, code-named WinFS.
Microsoft on Monday released a beta 1 edition of WinFS, a relational file system that can store documents, E-mail messages, photos and multimedia files, and structured data from applications in a common way. Using WinFS, software programs could make use of each other's data more easily. Microsoft made WinFS available to subscribers to its Microsoft Developer Network technical Web site; attendees at the company's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles Sept. 13-16 will receive the software as well. The final version of WinFS will be available sometime after the arrival of Windows Vista, the desktop operating system due late next year.
Using WinFS, programmers will be able to write apps that draw on common lists of contacts and other data stored in Windows, says Quentin Clark, Microsoft's WinFS program management director. For example, a sales rep could create a list of high-value customers, then filter his E-mail to show only messages from those people. An online shopper could fill out an order form for a gift that lets her choose a contact from her E-mail program's address book to ship the item to. "End users will get this experience of not having to enter the same information over and over again," Clark says.
WinFS was once a big selling point for Windows Vista. Microsoft once described WinFS as enabling Vista to let users visually manage their files, photos, and contacts, and introducing common commands for searching across different software programs. Last August, Microsoft said it would ship the new file system sometime after Vista arrives. Microsoft plans to release a second beta version of WinFS next year, Clark says. WinFS won't come packaged with Vista, but many PC users might not even notice. "The average end user will just start to see richer apps appear," he says.
Even though WinFS and the APIs to its functions are designed for the Vista client, developers won't be able to run the WinFS beta on the beta version of Vista, which Microsoft released last month. WinFS Beta 1 will only run on Windows XP machines. But the final version appears bound only for Vista PCs. Microsoft plans to make two other technologies it's developing for Vista--the Avalon graphics system and Indigo communications stack--available to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 users as well. That may not be the case with WinFS. "We're not committing to it being available on XP," Clark says. "Which operating systems we support over the long term depend on the market landscape and on whether there are any technical dependencies."
Over time, Microsoft plans to migrate the databases inside its own applications, such as Outlook, to WinFS. "Long term, we believe apps that contain their own data silos will be retooled for WinFS," Clark says. "Beta 1 is really the first step."