Microsoft has synchronized its development efforts for the client and server versions of Longhorn, the code name for the next Windows release, a company executive said Tuesday.

"Today, the Longhorn client and the Longhorn server are tied together," Jim Allchin, vice president of Microsoft's platforms group, said in a keynote presentation at the company's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.

The release of Longhorn remains some way off. Microsoft executives have suggested 2006 as the launch date, but Allchin offered no schedule during his talk. In the past the company has avoided stating if there would be a server and client release of the software, eventually saying there would be a server release "some time" after the client ships.

Allchin did not clarify whether aligning development of the Longhorn client and server also means that the operating systems would be released simultaneously. Analysts with Directions on Microsoft attending the event said they still expect the server release to come after the client, since it will need additional testing.

A Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed the analysts' expectations: "Even with synchronized development cycles, a major release of the Windows server and client will almost always ship with some time interval difference," the spokeswoman said. How much difference is still being determined, she said.

"The important thing to understand is that server development, as you come down the home stretch to release, takes a little more bake time than client products," she said.

All WinHEC attendees will get a preview version of Longhorn for development purposes. Allchin offered the audience of hardware makers a sneak peek at the operating system's graphics capabilities by opening up several windows of moving images. On a Windows XP PC the images got jittery and the video memory quickly maxed out – on the Longhorn system the images were fluent and the system was able to run the Quake video game in the background.

Allchin also showed off a file migration wizard, designed to make it easier for users to move their files from a Windows XP system to a new PC running Longhorn. Users will be able to migrate using a special USB (Universal Serial Bus) cable or over a network. Allchin also showed how Longhorn can be installed from a USB flash memory drive. Ultimately, a migration should be simple and not take a weekend, he said.

He put out a call to action to the hardware makers to work with Microsoft to develop products that offer great user experiences. "Today the PC is often still considered just a tool, but together we need to make it a lot more than that. We need to make it a path to experiences," he said. "Experience computing, what's that about? It is not about speeds and feeds, it's about sights and sounds."

Microsoft christened its previous Windows release "XP" for experience, but that's just a small piece of what software can do, Allchin said. "Yes we called the product experience because we sort of had the image of what we wanted to do here, but that was just the start," he said.

Microsoft Watch states that Longhorn will require: a dual processor machine running between 4-6GHz, 2GB RAM, 1TB storage, gigabit Ethernet and wireless connectivity and a faster graphics processor than has reached market so far.

A first Longhorn beta is still planned for early next year, Allchin said. He also gave an overview of client and server software releases from Microsoft before the company gets to Longhorn.

On the server side, Microsoft this year plans to ship Windows Server 2003 64-bit Edition for Extended Systems; Windows Server 2003 Service Pack (SP) 1; Windows Small Business Server 2003 SP1; and Virtual Server 2005. Next year's server ‘road map’ offers a Windows Server 2003 Update; Windows Small Business Server 2003 Update; and a new Windows Storage Server, code-named Storm, Allchin said.

On the client side, Microsoft is preparing to ship Windows XP SP 2 midyear. Other releases planned for this year include an updated Windows Media Player; Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005; Windows CE 5.0; Windows XP Media Center Edition with support for Media Center Extender; and Windows XP 64-Bit Edition for 64-Bit Extended Systems, Allchin said. Microsoft's hardware partners are also getting ready to ship Portable Windows Media Center devices, he said.