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Microsoft's Cairo reborn as killer eye-candy

DesktopX - the OEMs best friend?

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Stardock has opened its kimono to give us a first glimpse of DesktopX, an attempt to recreate some of the features of Microsoft's abandoned - and now mythical - Cairo operating system.

In the early nineties, with SOM and OpenDoc winning a lot of mindshare, Microsoft began to talk up its successor to Windows NT. Building on NT, Cairo would have an object based file system, and would be the basis for distributed objects.

Eventually, Cairo became a "technology" rather than a "product", then disappeared altogether, with some half-finished portions working their way into Active Directory and exchange server, although Bill Gates' enthusiasm for making the file system the database remains unabashed.

DesktopX is inspired by OpenDoc but, says Stardock President Brad Wardell, sets out to do neat stuff for the desktop rather than giving developers the ability to create networked compound applications: an arms race that has usually ended in tears.

Instead, DesktopX is intended to let desktop gadgets talk to each other and get animated. It's layered on top of Explorer, the default Windows shell, and uses standard Windows COM plumbing, and according to a Stardock white paper this UI-only focus is quite deliberate: "by limiting its scope, DesktopX can be used by end users to create DesktopX objects without the need for any programming by the user."

OK, so it's scriptable eye candy on steroids, but given its potential, and coming when it does, we predict that things are going to get quite interesting very soon.

Base camp for DesktopX is to recreate the funky effects LiteStep and Apple's Aqua promise - like animated desktop icons, but Wardell tells The Register a trivial next step is to get email hooked into a Windows 2000 text to speech engine.

Equally DesktopX object could grab the current weather from the web and display is as an object.

But we're more intrigued by the sample screenshot Stardock is touting for the fully-grown-up DesktopX. It's Windows, but not quite as we know it...

What Stardock has found is away of customising - really customising - the Windows shell so it's suitable for all kinds of non-desktop appliances. The example shows a UI not unllke the abandoned Neptune task centres, some of which made their way into the latest MSN front page.

Now the fact that DesktopX can look like a web appliance isn't half as interesting as the ability it gives Microsoft's regular customers - the OEMs - to tailor the final Windows UI to their choosing. Regular readers may recall how tightly Microsoft has defended its right to control the appearance of the Windows boot sequence, and at the end of it, what actually appears on the desktop.

In fact, it regards the encroachment of a non-Microsoft icon on the desktop as a major concession. But whichever way the Antitrust remedies fall, this looks like one of Microsoft's shakier outposts. And we can think of plenty of top tier OEMs and ASPs we know who'd find DesktopX a very attractive alternative to shell alternatives such as LiteStep. If only because DesktopX isn't a shell replacement (even though it does away with the Start Menu), and so doesn't replace any of the existing Windows plumbing. So politically, OEMs looking to license DesktopX begin from a pretty strong bargaining position.

Recall also Brad Silverberg's "pissy email from billg" memo, recounting in loving detail how the warring UI factions within Microsoft conspired to get in each other's way: always succeeding in compromising competing UI initiatives, but never quite coming up with a convincing new Windows of their own. Again DesktopX looks like the kind of innovation Microsoft imagined, but never quite realised.

So what's with the Cairo connection, again? Wardell says DesktopX completes half the picture. It deals with appearance, not data exchange, and that he sees DesktopX as a Cairo which still needs an object based file system, or something resembling a layer on top of the file system that lets you locate information without digging into the file/directory tree. That's what Gates had in mind with OFS, the object file systemunderneath Cairo. when he expounded at length in InfoWorld in 1993, about how "unified storage" would let you query by content. ®

Well Stardock's working on that too... but we think they're going to be pretty busy with DesktopX. ®

Related Item

DesktopX in Stardock's Object Desktop white paper

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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