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Avalon: A new UI for Windows

Posted by pbrittan on September 29, 2003 at 1:35 PM PDT

Avalon gives Microsoft an opportunity to demonstrate its leverage over the user experience and to shake up competitors.

There is a lot of buzz in the Microsoft community these days in advance of the first public educational events around 'Avalon', one of the many new pieces of the Longhorn version of Windows. Avalon is the new Windows API, and it apparently represents a major jump in UI capabilities. Part of its value proposition is in the ease of use to developers and part in the experience for end users.

In order to increase developer productivity, Avalon will rationalize and reduce the number of APIs in the Win32 stack from over 70,000 down to 8,000.

On the user experience side, Avalon will feature advanced support for 2D and 3D vector graphics as well as standard GUI widgets. Some descriptions of Avalon suggest that it is more comprehensive than just the graphics layer, and will incorporate support for paradigm-shifting "task-oriented" UIs.

Microsoft has already said that they will be releasing a version of Microsoft Office for Longhorn based on Avalon, which should help drive user demand for Avalon’s capabilities.

I see several immediate ramifications for this:

  1. It is a shot across the bow of Macromedia Flash MX. Flash has traditionally been focused on adding real-time vector graphics to Web pages for decoration or on-line advertising. Microsoft played along with Macromedia, bundling Flash into IE, because it never really cared about those fluffy things. But in the last year or so, Macromedia has been actively re-positioning Flash (now called Flash MX) as an alternative for building the user interfaces for enterprise applications -- smack into Microsoft’s home turf. It has been inevitable that Microsoft would respond at some point (there were early rumors that Microsoft might even try to buy Macromedia), and now it seems to be doing that with Avalon. Even though Longhorn isn’t due out until 2005, the mere fact that Microsoft will be baking into Windows the same kind of real-time 2D and 3D vector graphics capabilities that Flash promises, nicely integrated into same API layers as standard GUI widgets, could create enough FUD to slow down companies considering Flash MX. The fact that Flash is a client-side UI execution engine, just like Microsoft technology, means that it doesn’t have a strong differentiation over a Microsoft offering. Strategically, Microsoft can potentially always turn off its bundling deals with Macromedia, leaving them high and dry.

  2. Introducing a major change in the UI API means giving Java a good shake. It is likely that it will take client-side Java long time to support the new capabilities of Avalon. If Microsoft can get its users addicted to the new paradigm (by using it in Office, which they plan), then they make Java look even more out-dated on the client side.

  3. As I have argued elsewhere, Microsoft doesn't really like the idea of browser-delivered apps because it weakens the Microsoft desktop. Just as with Java, if Avalon gives users an amazing experience which is just not available through the browser, then browser-based apps don't seem like such a good idea to users. Alternatively, the browser might support these capabilities, but only through IE when powered by IIS on a Windows server.

  4. Longhorn requires hefty hardware support, so Microsoft will undoubtedly time release to coincide with a price/performance level for new PCs that will allow them to encourage a massive hardware churn. That means that the Longhorn release will likely be coordinated with hardware partners like Intel and Dell.

  5. The depth dimension of the desktop is catching on. Sun’s Project Looking glass uses depth by letting users angle windows away from them, thus using less of the 2D space of the desktop while still giving users an oblique view of what’s in the window. Microsoft’s new desktop, Aero, which relies heavily on the capabilities of Avalon, also makes more use of the 3rd desktop dimension by supporting transparent windows (so you can see the whole stack underneath at once), and also supporting real-time window rotation.

Of course, a rich thin client technology could take advantage of all the advanced features of Avalon and still let the business logic be powered by Java.

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