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Billionaire baron Bill Gates still mourns Vista's stillborn WinFS

Watching you sync your files with the cloud makes him cry (probably)

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Five years after he stepped down from day-to-day involvement in Microsoft, co-founder and chairman Bill Gates has revealed his frustration that Windows Vista's database-like file system never saw daylight.

In a question'n'answers session on the wildly popular cat'n'chat board Reddit, the world's richest geek was asked: “What one Microsoft program or product that was never fully developed or released do you wish had made it to market?”

The squillionaire, pausing from answering queries about eradicating polio and such worthy efforts, responded:

We had a rich database as the client/cloud store that was part of a Windows release that was before its time. This is an idea that will [re-emerge] since your cloud store will be rich with schema rather than just a bunch of files and the client will be a partial replica of it with rich schema understanding.

Although Gates didn’t name the database nor the version of Windows, he later confirmed one Redditor was correct in guessing it was WinFS.

WinFS was unveiled by Gates at his company’s Professional Developer Conference in 2003. Before Windows 8, it was Microsoft’s next big thing - and another example of the software giant trying to foist significant change on users whether they were prepared or not.

Branded the “next generation of data storage to securely store structured and unstructured data", WinFS involved a total reworking of the Windows operating system's approach to organising users' files and information.

“With WinFS, developers can take advantage of prebuilt data structures in their applications, and extend those structures to handle their specific requirements and add unique value to the application by creating new structures,” Microsoft declared in 2003.

WinFS was one of three main pillars of Windows Vista, then codenamed Longhorn: there was also the WinFX programming model (aka .NET Framework 3.0) and the Avalon user interface. The third pillar was the Indigo web services communications architecture – using a family of specifications jointly authored by Microsoft - that predated talk of cloud.

Back when Microsoft thought its hand was firmly on the tiller of computing, it called Longhorn the “next wave of software innovation”. The Redmond giant wanted remote web servers to access structured and unstructured data stored in WinFS on the PC in a model resembling today's services that store data central in the cloud for handheld devices and other gadgets on the move.

But Longhorn's pillars came tumbling down: half the new operating system's code base was scrapped, and with development "crashing into the ground" the product's release date was kicked back from 2004 to 2006. WinFX and Indigo were also broken out of Windows Vista and made available to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, simply to help Windows Vista ship.

Windows Vista eventually launched in 2006 but barely – it was released to manufacturing and to business customers in November that year. Consumers got Vista in January 2007. WinFS was dumped as Microsoft focussed on shipping a finished OS - but this set the software giant back against web, desktop and device rivals.

Ultimately, Gates’ belief in the merging of web and desktop, of online services interacting richly with locally held data and devices using remote data, proved correct. Today, we have Windows, Mac and Linux PCs, tablets and smartphones plugging into cloud services via apps and services. That vision was too much for one man, albeit worth $100bn, and his mega-company to exclusively own. ®

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