The Windows we never got: users get to work programming “Longhorn Reloaded”

A handful of programmers and tech-savvy Windows users are attempting to do what Microsoft’s legion of coders could not by turning the ‘Longhorn’ beta builds of Windows Vista into a full-featured operating system.

The Longhorn Reloaded project is a daring attempt to roll back the clock from Vista and resurrect the OS in its original form using the seeds of its first iteration — specifically the ‘4074 build’ shown and distributed during the WinHEC geekfest in Seattle in May 2004.

Ah sweet memories: long before Vista’s grassy green background came Longhorn’s rural-themed desktop

At that time Microsoft was still spruiking Longhorn as a radically re-engineered OS that would forever change the Windows roadmap.

However just three months later frustrated by delays and with the feeling that Microsoft may have bitten off more than even the mighty software colossus could chew then Windows chief Jim Allchin persuaded Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer to flick the reset switch on Longhorn and settle for a far less ambitious but more ‘do-able’ OS.

This involved pushing back the delivery date to 2006 and more significantly removing several of the more ambition features which were until then considered the cornerstones of Longhorn (including a storage system based on a relational database and codenamed WinFS along with the special WinFX communications and graphics technologies for developers).

By the time the first beta shipped in July 2005 the OS had a new name — Vista — and had undergone the first of several overhauls each of which took it further away from the Longhorn days in look feel and features.

It was a little too far for the likes of Jean-Marie Houvenaghel who oversees the Longhorn Reloaded project. Houvenaghel also skipped the much-criticised build 5048 from WinHEC 2005 and settled on the penultimate public release of Longhorn (build 4074) as the basis for Longhorn Reloaded.

(Ironically Microsoft itself was the first to flirt with the ‘Reloaded’ tag as a mid-2005 refresh edition of XP to bridge the gap between the release of Service Pack 2 in August 2004 and the arrival of Longhorn sometime in 2006).

Houvenaghel’s half-dozen code hackers have already released a technical refresh of the Longhorn Reloaded M1 (Milestone 1) edition which is available for download via a BitTorrent seed on their site. Now the team is steadily working towards an M2 release.

This isn’t the first attempt to fiddle with the inner working of Microsoft’s favourite child. Melbourne programmer Shane Brooks developed a series of Windows ‘lite’ programs such as 98lite 2000lite and XPlite which stripped out standard Windows components including Internet Explorer Outlook Express and Windows Media Player along with other flotsam files to create a streamlined OS with a footprint claimed to be less than 350MB in the case of XPlite.

(Brooks also offers a Embedded Windows 98 OS which can shrink down to 11MB including network support and the Windows Explorer UI).

Stand-alone tools like nLite and vLite can also be used to create customised installers for bespoke builds of XP 2000 and Vista. But such roll-your-own Windows install aids are nothing compared to the task of tackling the monolithic OS from the ground up using an unfinished pre-beta build of what is in effect an abandoned project.

While the Longhorn Reloaded team don’t have access to the source code it could turn into a fascinating meld of an established closed-source OS at the base mixed with some recent updates and mashed together with an array of open-source add-ons.

And even if resurrecting Longhorn proves to be technically possible will Microsoft let it live? The company has yet to let the dogs of law loose on the “Lite” Brigade perhaps reasoning that it’s better to turn a blind eye and allow customers to use a pared-down version of Windows than lose them to Linux.

We’ve put a call in to Microsoft’s legal eagles and will give you an update with their response

Longhorn build 4074: a more optimistic feature-set before Microsoft stripped all the interesting stuff from Vista

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