Avalon on XP

Afew months ago, I mentioned Microsoft’s climb-down over the forthcoming Longhorn release of Windows. In essence, Redmond woke up to the startlingly simple fact that almost no corporate customers were likely to upgrade their desktops to Longhorn in any timescale before 2010. That’s because XP does a perfectly good job today, and there’s a lot of push to get server-side work completed, and all the new promises for Longhorn amount to not a lot unless the server-side infrastructure is in place to make it rock and roll.

Avalon on XP

The recent announcement that Microsoft will basically back-port two of the most important components of Longhorn to XP means that the target has now changed again. By porting the Avalon 3D compositing graphics engine and the Indigo Web Services onto XP and Windows Server 2003, Microsoft now has a chance to bring this technology to the marketplace in a way that has some hope of actually being deployed and used. It therefore became a key milestone to see at what point some of this Longhorn technology would be released onto the XP platform, even in an early alpha or beta prototype form.

Well, I’m pleased to say that it hasn’t taken long for the Avalon 3D graphics group to come up with a release of its technology for XP. The Avalon Community Preview (ACP) is a long way away from a production release – indeed it’s quite a long way even from beta quality, since it’s still under a considerable development effort. There are still lots of holes that need to be filled, but the Avalon team isn’t over-hyping our expectations and is being quite open about what we should expect from this release.

Getting ACP installed and running was far less hassle than I thought it would be. Given that it was quite likely that this development environment might nuke any XP machine onto which it was installed, I chose a suitable victim computer running XP SP 2. I downloaded the current beta build of Visual C# Express Edition and installed that. I then downloaded the ACP code and installed that onto the system. Installation was in two parts – the ACP system itself and the WinFX SDK (Software Development Kit).

At this point, I was ready to try out some source code, so I downloaded a demo package from the web – from blogs.msdn.com/danlehen – which is the good old bouncy ball running in a 3D-rendered space, complete with reflections. To be absolutely honest, I never really expected that the code would compile and run. When you start running beta development tools together with pre-alpha 3D graphics engines, your expectation of success needs to be right down there at the sub-miniscule level.

But in fact, it ran… It took a few seconds for the Avalon engine to come to life, but then up popped the window and the ball bounced around in glorious rendered 3D space. It could have been a little smoother and faster, but given that this is completely untuned code, I was just grateful that something, anything, worked. Obviously, a bouncing ball is nothing to get too excited about – but I’m now really looking forward to new-generation user interfaces that will make appropriate (and hopefully tasteful) use of this technology.

It’s going to be fascinating watching how this progresses over the coming months as we move towards a first beta build of Longhorn, and also to see how portable the code is between the Longhorn and XP platforms. Still, for the time being, it’s clear that Redmond’s development teams are delivering on their promises, and for that they are to be applauded.

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