As Microsoft approaches a major milestone in the development of Longhorn, company executives are talking more about the features of the Windows XP successor, which they say will be easier to use, more secure, and less costly to manage than earlier versions of Windows.

Microsoft unveiled the Longhorn operating system in late 2003 at a conference for developers but then reigned in its ambitions for the operating system last year, aiming to make possible a release in late 2006.

To meet that shipment date, Microsoft clipped some of Longhorn's key features, most notably the unified storage system called WinFS that Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates had called the "Holy Grail."

Now, after several months of relative silence on the Longhorn front, Microsoft executives have once again started to talk up the operating system's features.

Sitting in a suite with a postcard view of Alcatraz in a posh San Francisco hotel on Thursday, Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice president in charge of Windows, said that with Longhorn, Microsoft wants to deliver an operating system that is user friendly, secure, and easy to install and manage. And despite the features cut from Longhorn made last year, the operating system will be worth the upgrade, he said.

Users will not have to worry if they will be successful when plugging a projector into a Longhorn-based laptop for a presentation, Allchin said. Also, Longhorn-based computers will instantly connect to a home network and recognise peripherals, such as printers. "It takes magic to figure that out today," he said.

When it comes to security and safety, Microsoft will give users features like parental controls for Web surfing, Allchin said. And when browsing the Web, Internet Explorer will run in a "protected space" so it can't impact the rest of the system, while those guards can be dropped when connected to a corporate intranet, he said.

"We want to make the system as invulnerable as possible," Allchin said.

Longhorn will also have a feature designed to protect data on a PC. "We will have something called secure startup where if you lose your laptop it won't make a difference because somebody can't load another system on there to analyse your hard disk," Allchin said.

For IT professionals, Longhorn will end the nightmare of creating and updating system software images, according to Allchin. Today, Windows typically requires separate images for each language and for each type of PC, and these images have to be rebuilt from scratch when a computer is updated with a security patch.

"We have brand new technology for imaging that will dramatically reduce the number of images required," Allchin said. This should help make Windows more manageable and reduce operational costs for businesses, a major focus for Longhorn, he said.

Despite the absence of WinFS, which was meant to make it easier to find information stored on a PC, Longhorn will offer users new ways to find their documents. In a demonstration, a Microsoft employee showed how the Windows Explorer in Longhorn will display virtual folders with, for example, Word documents located anywhere on the hard disk.

Furthermore, Microsoft has added a search bar in the upper right-hand corner of Windows Explorer to help users find files. Also, in Longhorn images are shown as thumbnails instead of standard icons in Windows Explorer. The file manager will also display thumbnail sized versions of Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

Microsoft sees Longhorn as the basis of Windows releases for the next ten years, Allchin said. As such, the operating system will be ready for the future with support for technologies such as IP (Internet Protocol) version 6, he said. IPv6 is a newer version of IP, which accommodates more IP addresses.

Allchin was not ready to discuss how Longhorn will be marketed and sold by the company. Currently, Windows XP is available in various editions. In addition to Home and Professional versions, Microsoft ships Tablet PC Edition and Media Center Edition versions. Final naming for Longhorn, which is a code name, has not been decided yet, Allchin said.

At Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle later this month, Microsoft plans to hand out a pre-beta version of Longhorn. This version is meant to let hardware makers start building drivers that will work with the operating system. The release is a major milestone in the development cycle of Longhorn.

"It won't be complete in any way. It is not designed to be given out broadly. It is designed because the driver models are solid and they are ready to be written to," Allchin said.

A first beta of Longhorn is due out by July, Allchin said. This beta release will be for IT managers to test features such as imaging and give Microsoft feedback. No date has been set for a second beta.

Developers will get another version of Longhorn in September at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles. This version will let them start developing applications for the operating system, according to Allchin. The version of Longhorn handed out at the 2003 PDC, where Microsoft first showed Longhorn, should be discarded, Allchin said.

The final version of Longhorn is scheduled to be broadly available in December 2006. At that time, WinFS, the unified storage system that was clipped from Longhorn last August, will be in beta testing, Allchin said. There is no target date for a final version of WinFS, he said.

In addition to Longhorn, Microsoft will launch the "x64" versions of Windows Server and Windows XP at the upcoming WinHEC conference. The 64-bit operating systems will offer users improved performance and greater security, Microsoft has said.

With Windows Server 2003 x64 Editions and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, Microsoft will provide users with the option of running both 32-bit and 64-bit applications on the same system. The software runs on PCs equipped with processors with 64-bit extensions from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) and Intel (Profile, Products, Articles) Corp.

These 64-bit systems offer users greater computing power as systems can process more data per clock cycle and can use larger amounts of memory.

At last year's WinHEC event Microsoft called out to hardware makers to build 64-bit drivers.

Microsoft expects significant adoption of 64-bit systems.

AMD's Athlon64 and Opteron processors, as well as Intel's Xeon processors, currently support 64-bit extensions. The availability of the operating systems comes long after the processors shipped.