What WinFS is all About

WinFS has been officially pulled out of Microsoft’s road map for products and services – permanently. People all around the web are shocked and complaining. But the thing is: who didn’t expect this?

OK, sure, maybe Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public didn’t expect this, and maybe Joe Blogg didn’t either, but then again, does it really matter to them? But for everyone else, WinFS was gone. Although no one came out and said it directly, no one spoke of WinFS except as a distant memory, it was quite obvious that people didn’t buy Microsoft’s story of it shipping separately. If people had believed it, the shock and outrage today would be ten times as big as it was when the LH project was rebooted and WinFS torn out with the veins strings still hanging.

But the question many people are asking these long years later is: What is WinFS anyway? And what’s the big deal if everyone already knew it wasn’t coming?

WinFS was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Anyone that is familiar with the term “Cairo” should know immediately what we’re talking about. For 15 years now, Cairo was Microsoft’s vision, almost every single decision made for the desktop operating systems came from a vision of Cairo becoming a reality, and over the years, Cairo began to take shape. Everything was in place, and only WinFS was left.

So what’s Cairo? Cairo is a mythical beast, found throughout legends of old, it is sporadically sighted around the world, and it was last seen in 2004. No really. It is.

Not that’s it’s of much any use, but here’s the Wikipedia entry for Cairo. Wikipedia calls it an operating system, but as far as anybody knows, it never reached that stage. In reality, Cairo was a collection of visions and ideas far before their time that MS had amassed – and intended to turn into the ultimate operating system.

At its heart was WinFS. The culmination of Bill Gate’s vision of “Information at your fingertips.” As Robert McLaws points out, it’s all about the relational file system. It means everything. If there were mythical beasts in technology, AI would be the Phoenix, and WinFS would be the Unicorn.

WinFS in itself would be an amazing step forward for artificial intelligence (well, the API would at any rate). With WinFS, your computer suddenly becomes exponentially more intelligent. It knows what you’re doing, it can keep track of actions and conversations. It can intelligently group files, folders, messages, and conversations together without your intervention for the most part after a while of using your computer. With relational file systems, a lot of things suddenly become possible.

At its core, a relational filesystem is a type of universal framework, where almost all data (of any use to other programs or persons, so not games and stuff, but data) would be stored in a single universal format (think XML), and could be used on-the-fly with almost any API or product to acheive instant compatibility and results. With it, your harddrive becomes one big database, but it doesn’t require “drivers” or client-side software to query this database, the operating system does it all for you. It ends up with immense power and almost infinite possibilites, and makes many chores of today suddenly seem like a joke.

Apple attempted this ten years ago as well, but their project (Open Doc) went belly-up quite fast. At the moment, the most visible example is Google and their server farm: everything is stored in a universally readable format and indexed on-the-fly by the “OS” for immediate results. However, it’s much more complicated than Google’s setup: at Google content is indexed, not files. Its robots scour the web for content and then store it for later retrieval. But on a desktop, the operating system has to accept all files and folders, and not just one proprietry program that would sit on top of the operating system and tell it what to grab and where to put it, but rather be capable of supporting a traditional file system on top, and then translating data and API calls in real-time – a big challenge.

But maybe this is the reason why Microsoft pulled out of this project. They were way in over their heads. Maybe WinFS relational file systems have to come after artificial intelligence. Or maybe we have it wrong and are going about it the wrong way.

What matters is, WinFS is really gone. It’s dead, and it’s not coming back for a long time. Microsoft may claim that it’s being chopped up into smaller pieces and being fed back to the community and Windows in various products and services – but just think about it: does it seem like WinFS could be delivered in bits and pieces and then build itself together? Does it even matter?

Assume for a minute (or less, just long enough to finish this paragraph) that Microsoft does manage to by some means re-introduce relational file systems via a hot-fix to Windows Vista or even a service pack: it will be useless. What’s the point of the framework if the operating system doesn’t support it? What’s a magician’s hat without the magician to use it, or a wand without knowing the spells?

WinFS is dead. Vista was Microsoft’s only chance of introducing relational file systems successfully because it came with an almost entirely re-written kernel, but Vista’s come and (technically) gone, and WinFS has been dropped.

It just goes to show, a Unicorn isn’t considered a mythical beast without a reason. We won’t catch it. Not now, not ever.

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