Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates on Monday pointed to 2006 as the release year for the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn.Microsoft\u00a0Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates on Monday pointed to 2006 as the release year for the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn.Speaking at Gartner's Symposium\/ITexpo event in San Diego, Gates stopped short of setting 2006 as the year for Longhorn, but said that industry speculation that the operating system will come out in 2006 is "probably valid speculation."Gates also said that Microsoft will release an alpha version of Longhorn later this year. He did not mention the first beta version that Microsoft said earlier it would deliver in 2004. A beta is further along in the development cycle of software than an alpha. "We will have an alpha release out this year that everybody can look at," Gates said.A Microsoft spokesman said the company's goal is still to come out with a Longhorn beta this year, but that it plans to release an updated alpha version of the operating system before then. This alpha version will be made available to software developers, but exactly how the software giant\u00a0plans to distribute the software is yet to be decided, he said.Microsoft at its Windows Engineering Hardware Conference (WinHEC) in May last year said it would deliver Longhorn in 2005, but later backed away from that commitment. Company executives have since declined to specify a release year for Longhorn, which Gates called a "big breakthrough release" for Microsoft.Gates cautioned that dates on Longhorn are fluid. "Longhorn is not a date driven release," Gates said. There are a lot of technological "must haves" for Longhorn and those could hold back a release if they aren't completed on time, Gates said.Software developers have already had a first look at Longhorn. Microsoft released a special preview version of the software at its Professional Developers Conference in October last year.Gates, in an onstage interview conducted by Gartner's Chairman and CEO Michael Fleisher, also talked about several other topics, including some familiar ones, such as Microsoft's focus on security, the vendor's efforts to combat spam and its multibillion dollar research and development budget.