Windows Longhorn era the codename of the operating system that was meant to succeed Windows XP. Microsoft got to work on the code of the latter and planned to incorporate it a host of revolutionary features (in aspects as remote as the graphical interface or the file system).
But the project got out of hand at Microsoft: The code base was too unstable for the number of innovations that were wanted to be incorporated into it, and Longhorn ended up losing its way. CEO Jim Alchin, fed up, ended up sending Bill Gates a famous e-mail:
“I’d buy a Mac today if I wasn’t working at Microsoft.”
So much of the work ended up being scrapped. Microsoft opted to hit the metaphorical ‘reset’ button and started almost from scratch using Windows Server 2003 as a base, and incorporating only ‘layered’ versions of some of the innovations planned for Longhorn. And the result of all that was what we know as Windows Vista..
But, due to its unborn OS status, and its revolutionary approach, Longhorn continues to attract the interest of Windows fans. There is, in fact, a certain community created around Longhorn: users who still today continue to test, analyze and disassemble the few ‘builds’ of the operating system that were released outside the walls of Microsoft.
And yes, even today they continue to find and regularly disclose interesting information about the Microsoft operating system that could not be. To access some features, it may be enough to install and run a build of Longhorn (which in itself already entails some difficulty)…
…but to access others they have had to use more complex techniques: from Windows Registry manipulation to reverse engineering.
‘Windows Longhorn archaeologists’ release the results of their excavations
Stephen Chapman defines himself as a fan of reverse engineering and “software conservationist”. And pick up your work the Twitter account @Beta_Collector. In it, last May, he retrieved a demo projected at the PDC (Professional Developers Conference) in 2003 by Hillel Cooperman, then head of the Windows user experience team at Microsoft:
In the 60-second clip, we get a glimpse of what would have been Longhorn’s login screen, a screen that Chapman describes as “stunningly beautiful,” and which It displayed graphic capabilities that in its time did not match the power of hardware of the equipment of most users, and that today would be out of place before the rise of minimalism of the interfaces.
Shortly after he offered us another video of what was happening when logging in and right after, when first accessing a familiar-but-different desktop for many of us (have you seen that animated start menu?):
By the way, the Media Player also looked quite different to its final appearance:
In the years of development of Longhorn, online communities that emerged around forums that have now disappeared (such as AeroXP, WinBETA and OSBetaArchive) already analyzed the leaks of the builds of this OS.
In another of his tweets, he uses an external tool to explore and visualize the various 3D effects built into the Longhorn interface, based on DirectX:
Back when the 3xxx builds of Longhorn leaked, me & a few others tore into them looking for their secrets. As a lot of shell effects being built were DX-related, you could rip out the shaders/refs/assets & run them externally. Here’s an example of that via the DX tool, EffectEdit! pic.twitter.com/elzJanKIg0
— BetaCollector (@beta_collector) December 14, 2021
Too we owe chapman the broadcast of ‘Longhorn Live’, another example of Microsoft’s ambitious plans, when they imagined —in 2003, two years before the launch of MySpace!— the first social network, not based on the WWW, but integrated directly with our desktop.
Thus, the interface offered us not only microblogging widgets, but also integration with SMS and voice mail. A missed opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the tech industry (Although, perhaps, also to get into a few extra antitrust lawsuits):
A few months later, in December, Longhorn fans turned to archeology to reveal the prehistory of ‘Aero’, the interface effect included in Windows Vista (one of the most notable novelties of this Windows, in fact), popular for offering translucent windows with a ‘smoky glass’ appearance thanks to the power of Direct3D technology.
A few weeks ago, Twitter user @thebookisclosed —whose bio is limited to “Looking at software backwards when I find time”— gave us a glimpse of the earliest known version of the Aero effect, present in the March 2003 Longhorn development build, nearly four years before Vista was released to the public:
This Aero effect is not identical to what we ended up seeing on our Vista PCs.: It is less bright and the blur less pronounced than in the final version, which, as seen in the image, causes potential readability issues. In any case, the general appearance of the interface in the screenshot published by @thebookisclosed clearly refers us to Vista, sidebar included.
In the following days, this and other Twitter accounts (like @mswin_bat) published several great examples of this what-might-have-been for Windows fans. For example, the ‘3D View’ and ‘Carousel’ functionalities, present in another of Longhorn’s builds, show us a very different user experience the one we know when moving between the image albums on our hard drive: