Now blogging at diego's weblog. See you over there!

on Microsoft: a walk down memory lane (aka wading through the Byte archives)

"But it may be that although the senses sometimes deceive us concerning things which are hardly perceptible, or very far away, there are yet many others to be met with as to which we cannot reasonably have any doubt, although we recognise them by their means. For example, there is the fact that I am here, seated by the fire, attired in a dressing gown, having this paper in my hands and other similar matters."

Rene Descartes, Meditations On First Philosophy, 1641.

Wow! Quoting Descartes! This must be good!

Actually, that was probably the high point of this post. :) But it does tie in with what I wanted to talk about, it's not that I engage just for kicks in quoting philosophers with whom I don't agree at all.

Besides, I am not sitting by the fire (the warm glow of the LCD doesn't count, I'm sure), and I am not attired in a dressing gown (now that's a thought! Who needs WiFi or distributed object systems? Dressing gowns for all! Forget high tech!).

Boy, am I a riot tonight.

What was the point again? Oh, right. Longhorn, Microsoft, and that other magic word that for tech people, for a short period of time, became more than the name of the Capital of Egypt and started to embody The Future (in Technicolor). Those were the days, when Microsoft OSes were named after cities--remember Chicago and Daytona? (Win95 and WinNT 3.5 respectively.) How about Memphis? (Win98). And by the way, since Cairo ended up being NT 4, Memphis clearly did not point the State of Tennessee, to the city of the Blues and Civil Rights struggles in the 60's, but rather, it was a reference to the ancient Capital of Egypt. Memphis and Cairo, the old and the new. City names were cool.

Certainly better than Longhorn. I mean, come on!.

(Yes, I anticipate running for cover when people start explaining what's in reference to--I'm sure there's a reason).

Anyway, it's not about the names, although that's kind of interesting. This is about the technology (or I think it is), as I'll try to explain below.

Through the afternoon I kept thinking about the long-winded history of all the "innovation" that will be showered on us in a couple of years when Longhorn is released, particularly all the brouhaha surrounding its object filesystem and such.

Descartes came to mind at first because I remembered his leisurely attitude when writing his Meditations. Through the text, Descartes repeatedly goes back to the whole sitting-by-the-fire thing to use as examples and so on, impressing us with his (flawed to me) logic, but he also tends to create the unwelcome impression that he's just a basically a well-off guy (consider when he wrote it...and the conditions in general back then) with too much time on his hands.

Both that situation and the quote have some parallels to what Microsoft is doing methinks.

The Cairo-Longhorn connection has been raised before (I remember seeing it mentioned in at least one weblog recently). This is not new. But the similarities are just so startling that it's interesting to take a closer look.

Part of what I thought about were those excellent articles in Byte through which I gathered a lot of useful information (PC Magazine was always crap as far as I could see, except for their lab tests). I started wading through the Byte print archives, looking for some of those articles.

Let's begin with this one (which, as I remember, wasn't an article but a box in a bigger section on OO technology) entitled Signs to Cairo. Choice quote:

Now peek into the future. The top level will no longer be a separate application such as PowerPoint, but the Cairo desktop itself. The streams comprising the compound document will no longer be inside a DOS file allocation table (FAT) file system. Cairo's Object File System (OFS) makes the whole hard disk a single huge docfile that exposes its internal objects to the user.

That was in November, 1995. Eight years ago.

And another one, from Jon Udell (now at InfoWorld): Exploring Chicago and Daytona:

In Daytona's successor, Cairo, OLE structured storage will be able to attach to, and extend, the file system. As the Explorer navigates from a file store into an object store, control will be transferred from Explorer's viewer to an object-supplied viewer. Object internals won't be stored in user-visible directory structures, so users won't trip over them.

And more, from Inside the Mind of Microsoft:

OLE DB, the newest member of the OLE family, interfaces OLE to multiple databases. Among them is Microsoft's future object-oriented file system for Windows NT (see the sidebar "A Peek at OFS"). Ultimately, we could be looking at a distributed file system based on this technology.

Almost all this technology is expected to converge in Cairo. By then, 16- or 24-MB systems will be the baseline, so hardware shouldn't be a limitation. Cairo will inherit desirable features from Windows 95 and Memphis, until finally the day arrives when Microsoft can offer a single OS to all desktop users.

Even more interesting is Cairo Inside, an article from 1996 (with the tagline "An object-oriented, next-generation operating system called Cairo may never ship. However, future versions of Windows NT will enjoy the fruits of the Cairo development effort."). Most interesting of all in this page is the following description of Cairo's OFS:

Lets you create a pseudodirectory that unifies local, network, and Internet files.
Internet files. Interesting no?

Even when it was clear that Cairo would never be "Object Oriented" at all, it was still commonly described as "Microsoft's Next Generation Object Oriented OS". This is almost certainly due to the fact that NextStep was seen as the coolest thing around and it was, well, yes, truly Object Oriented.

Now, this is another Byte column from Jon (hosted at his site), from 1999, when NT4 had been released for some time, and the promises of Cairo's OO attitude were just a memory: From Virtual Memory to Object Storage. Quote:

MS Cairo was headed in this direction, and I saw early demos of some of these ideas back in 1993.
By the way, there's something about those articles that makes them fascinating to read, even now that their vaporware roots have been exposed in all their guts and glory.

Now, these people were not hallucinating, even though the breathable air at COMDEX was probably dwindling by then. This is what they were told by Microsoft. This was the promise.

I think about what Dave said in the comments to my post about how the browser is not the web: "it's Microsoft's dream to turn the clock back to 1993, the end of their brief period of total and utter domination of the computing world," and the history shows that the parallels are quite striking.

Specifically regarding that post, Robert replied by saying that there was an RSS aggregator in Windows among other things, a show of support for the web/openness in part, but even though that's cool, I don't see how it changes the potential ambitions that MS might have. (By the way, on that particular point of whether the browser is the web or not, for more viewpoints check out Karlin, who agreed (if briefly :)), Dare, who agreed only partially, and Christian, writing in Lockergnome, who did not agree with me).

Now, I was basically saying that Robert's argument that RSS was taking him away from the web was flawed. Dare's answer in particular was trying to nail down a pretty exact definition, but I don't think that's what's at stake here (even though it's of course useful and important).

Comparing Microsoft's proclamations 10 years ago from those today makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Notice how everything seemed going along this exact same path that MS is on today (the parallels don't stop with OFS) until the Internet happened. Then MS had to divert itself for a few years to crush Netscape and so on, and now it's back to the old game.

But what is the old game really? "Providing a better user experience" Microsoft will say. "Taking over the world" will say others. I personally think both are mixed :).

And, set the arguments aside for a moment: what happened to all of this technology?. Why didn't OFS ship, if they had demos going back to 1993? It would be interesting to know, just for historical reasons; it's weird that all of this just vanished. Maybe portions of this eventually made it to the product, but certainly not the whole enchilada.

As far as the reason for not seeing it through, my theory is that (as I said) what happened was the Internet. Suddenly OO wasn't all that hot anymore, and why deliver technology that doesn't let you create cool brochures?

Okay, I'm being a bit flip here. Seriously now: To anyone that might say that the technology could not be built... please. Microsoft is one of the top engineering organizations in the world. NeXT could do it. Why not Microsoft? The only reasonable explanation, as far as I can see, would be a realignment of priorities and the consequent starving of resources that go along with it (which is what killed both OpenDoc and Taligent, for example). Which is all well and good.

But then the question is: could it happen again?

Probably not--then again, never say never.

Just to close with some constructive criticism, since Robert's spirited defense (though a bit flawed in my opinion) deserves it.

We've heard a lot about how Microsoft intends to push these new technologies. Ok. But I'd also like to hear what, exactly, they will do to strengthen the Web and its foundations. I think that right now there's a lot of uncertainty because all of these new technologies seem to imply that Microsoft is back to its old tricks after the brush with the DOJ and the European Commission (something that's still not over yet). But I think that a lot of people would give Microsoft a chance if they announced, publicly and clearly, that they will commit to respecting web standards and support them. Examples: That Microsoft Word will stop generating HTML files that look terrible on browsers whose only problem is that they're not IE. That a future Microsoft blogging tool, if any, will not start embedding MS Office documents and such in the middle of RSS files by default (users embedding it at users' whim is another matter). And so on.

Put another way (Hopelessly idealistic as all of this may sound): I think that a lot of people would give Microsoft a chance if they made it clear that they will do a good job of supporting web standards for both for reading and writing, that most people would give Microsoft a chance if they came up with all the innovation they liked, but didn't force it on anyone, and just played fair on web standards, and, that most people would accept the challenge if Microsoft, for once, really stood up to competition based on product quality rather than on leveraging their market-share.

I know I would.

Posted by diego on November 20 2003 at 12:40 AM

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