Microsoft execs discuss the future at WinHEC

Although Steve Ballmer's blockbuster announcement yesterday of a new consumer version of Windows due in 2000 set industry observers on their ears, Microsoft executives discussed a lot of other good information this week at WinHEC (the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference).

First of all, Steve Ballmer's address contained lots of good information about the 64-bit version of Windows 2000, which will ship in mid-2000 for Compaq Alpha and Intel IA-64 (Merced). David Cutler, the original architect of Windows NT, is hard at work on making the 64-bit version of Windows 2000 as good as it can be and this new high-end version will run off the same code base as the "normal" 32-bit version. But while Windows 2000 supports 4 GB of RAM, the 64-bit version will support 8 terabytes of RAM(!), a quantum leap.

For the more typical Windows Server customer, however, Microsoft is working with Intel on something called the "Windows Server Appliance," a "headless" integrated hardware-software appliance that makes it easy for almost anyone to setup a small network for file, Internet, and print sharing. These devices are expected by the end of the year from a variety of vendors for about $1000-$1300.

But quite possibly, the most exciting part of Ballmer's talk was the Easy PC initiative, where PCs of the near future will take on a variety of form factors and expansion will occur through USB and high-speed FireWire (1394) ports, rather than slots and connectors inside the computer. And the new Device Bay specification begins an era of easily upgraded drives and RAM through cartridge-like plug-ins that never require the user to open the box. Ballmer demonstrated a variety of cool-looking machines, most of which bore little resemblance to the PCs of today. And forget iMac, these machines are functional as well as interesting looking with high resolution flat-panel screens and architectural-looking boxes.

"How are we all going to deliver the PC of tomorrow?" Ballmer asked. "We're going to have to design for simplicity and appeal. We're going to have to build devices that are driver-less. That is the driver just appears magically, the customer doesn't have to get involved in the configuration of hardware and devices. These devices will certainly have to be instant on and always available. It is a pain in the neck today, one of the real downsides of Windows in the home that it's not instant on like the television. We're going to have to provide pervasive connectivity across all of the devices in the home, wireless connectivity, phone line based connectivity, power-line based connectivity."

Dell, HP, Compaq, Toshiba, NEC, IBM, Fujitsu, Micron, Gateway and Intel have all jumped onboard the Easy PC initiative and will have product machines ready by next year. And, of course, Microsoft will deliver its controversial new consumer edition of Windows next year to go with the new PCs. Yes, it will be built on the Windows 98 code base and not the NT code base (as used in Windows 2000) that was previously promised. But as I voiced in an editorial almost exactly two months ago, "\[Microsoft needs to\] get over NT. Microsoft has been talking up Windows NT so much for the past few years that they're hovering at the point of no return. Here's a news flash, Microsoft: People love Windows 98... And guess what? It never crashes. Oh, I can play every game on the planet. I really love that." It looks like Microsoft took these sentiments to heart and decided that, while the future is NT, the near future has bigger (less technical) concerns. And what the home market needs is simplicity, not complexity.

"The right approach next year is to continue to enhance the Windows 98 product," Ballmer noted in his keynote. "And it will be focused on the key consumer needs, the simplicity or 'it just works' aspects that I talked about, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), home networking, improving the online experience, and the handling of digital media, pictures, music, and video, which is becoming more fundamental to the consumer computing experience. We want to extend the functionality of Windows in the consumer environment out of the box."

Ballmer noted that post-2000, the Windows 2000 (NT) code base would be the basis for the next consumer Windows, however, as Microsoft once again works to consolidate its various Windows projects. As for Windows CE, the next generation will support DirectX for gaming, a new version of Internet Explorer, and better driver support. Another thing Microsoft hasn't been very clear about is the role of CE in the Windows world, as many proponents of the small footprint OS would like to see it take the place of Windows 98 in the home. Ballmer says that CE is a likely scenario for any device that doesn't require a hard drive, but that standard PCs would probably remain the domain of Windows 9x/2000 because of falling component prices. The argument that a low-cost CE device could undercut a true PC doesn't really cut it anymore. So CE will likely continue to be targeted at the low-end, both at home and for mobile professionals.

In the second keynote on Wednesday, Microsoft VP David Cole discussed Microsoft's simplification strategies for Consumer Windows (note that the capitalization here is Microsoft's; I'm not sure if this is a hint at a future name for the product or not).

"\[PCs are\] still too complicated to use," Cole says. "You know, too many error messages, to hard to get things installed. You know, applications and hardware just don't work together."

Cole discussed the recent reorganization at Microsoft and the creation of a Consumer Windows Division, which will naturally focus on versions of Windows that are aimed at the home market. Microsoft has identified three big trends at the consumer level: PCs are now mass-market devices, media is increasingly digital, and the Internet is a pervasive part of the home computer experience. The first point is perhaps obvious, but it hints at even lower prices and a new breed of low-cost devices such as those demoed during Ballmer's Easy PC talk. In addition to general-purpose PCs, Microsoft sees a booming market for other sorts of devices, including simple home devices that can connect to the Internet.

For Consumer Windows, Cole says the mission is obvious.

"\[Microsoft will\] partner with hardware vendors, software vendors, the industry as a whole to create a more empowering computing experience, connecting to everything, removing all that ugly complexity that there is today, enabling some new usage scenarios, and try to create many more form factors that we think consumers will be interested in," Cole said. "Think about where the computer's going to live. It doesn't just live in the den anymore. I've seen people with PCs in their kitchen and certainly in their living rooms, up in the bedrooms, in the kid's play room. So those require more innovative thinking and different types of form factors that are more appropriate for those environments."

Microsoft's role in this initiative, naturally, is the software platform (Windows). And it's not just PCs: Cole talked up smart phones, video game systems, WebTV Internet set-top boxes, Auto PCs, and other devices in addition to the devices we now refer to as PCs.

Cole then discussed some particulars about Consumer Windows.

"The user interface has to be way simpler and \[more\] discoverable than it is today. We have some work underway to go forward and see what a better user interface might be like, one that anticipates what users want to do. It doesn't make them search across the big hierarchy of menus and commands, across the stream where you're trying to find the little command that lets you do E-mail, and you've got to hunt all over for it. It's quite insane. It needs to be personal and tasked for you, so the computer ought to know who you are and what you like to do. It should be tasked for you. You know, if you want to manage your pictures, you shouldn't have to go through the UI and find the sixteen different commands you need. You ought to have sort of a task-oriented way to do that, where everything you need to do that task is right there in front of you, and you can just click and away you go."

Cole then discussed the three scenarios that the Consumer Windows team will be focusing on:

  • Home networking and pervasive connections. PCs will be connected together in the home and connected to the Internet all the time. Microsoft calls this "Home Networking" and "Universal Plug and Play." Windows will "integrate" with the Internet and make it become part of your computer, not a separate experience.

  • Digital Media and Entertainment. People use their PCs to play games, play music, work with video, and exchange digital images with each other. People want their computers to work with the TV.

  • "It just works." Perhaps the biggest problem with today's computers is complexity. People shouldn't have to worry about where files go on a computer or how it works. Two hundred page manuals will become a thing of the past. Programs should auto-install and auto-update. And the system needs to be on when you want it on, not after a lengthy boot-up time. It should work like a TV.
Cole also revealed that Microsoft would like to start releasing a new version of Consumer Windows every year and, with Windows 98 in 1998, Windows 98 Second Edition in 1999, and Consumer Windows expected in 2000, they're actually on track for that goal.

Brian Valentine, who is now heading the Windows 2000 project at Microsoft, gave the third Microsoft keynote. Valentine used his time to brief attendees on the status of Windows 2000, now expected in October.

"We're on track to ship it this year," he said.

Valentine explained the strategy for Windows 2000, stating that the product's genesis four years was based around the ideals of scalability, simplicity, and reliability. And since the project began, other goals such as availability and compatibility have become big issues. Developers are tired of writing different drivers for Windows 9x and NT, for example. It's been a big job.

"I've got literally thousands of people working on \[Windows 2000\] today that are Microsoft employees. I've got almost 1,000 vendors at Microsoft developing device drivers that are housed at Microsoft. And then I've got a whole other wave that are housed at their own companies," Valentine said. "There is just a huge industry investment, and a huge Microsoft investment going into Windows 2000. And it is a big project. It's not a project that's out of control. It's not a project that's too hard to get done, like some people would like to say. We're on a glide path now to get it done this year, and we are going to get it done this year."

But the message on Windows 2000 this year is clear, Valentine says: Get ready, it's shipping.

"It's real, it's here, and it's time to start looking at evaluations of the product, start looking at how you can get involved in the programs and the product, and start building the support we need around it," he said. "Starting in about three or four weeks, we're going to actually go out with beta three of Windows 2000, and have it running in production. So, we will have a whole set of customers, and I've got 50 of them lined up right now, that will start running Windows 2000 in large enterprise production systems. Microsoft is one of those, but there are 49 other companies that have signed up to start running the production by the end of this month."

\[On an interesting side-note, "three or four weeks" places the beta three release of Windows 2000 at April 28 to May 5, about a week or two after the previously announced April 21 ship date for this release. I wonder if this wasn't mentioned on purpose but then he later said that "Beta will ship in April." We'll see. --Paul\]

"Everything is feature complete," he added. "We're going to ship it this year."

Valentine discussed some esoteric new Windows 2000 features that will be of interest primarily to hardware makers, such as digitally signed driver signatures and driver verification tools. But the new plan for slipstreamed service packs will affect everyone that uses Windows 2000 in a positive way: Service Packs can now be applied to the base OS code so that future new installations will include the service packs without a separate install.

"What we've done with Windows 2000 is we've made it such that you can roll in service packs underneath an install tree," Valentine said. "So, if you take and load up a server based install with Windows 2000, and we come out with Service Pack 1 or Service Pack 2, or whatever, you can roll that right underneath the install tree as the single set-up program that will install the next PC that you want to install with that service pack. So you can do roll-in updates and service packs."

And Service Packs will no longer be used to add new features to Windows (can I hear a "Halleluiah"?). Service Packs, finally, will be for bug fixes only. And system files (such as DLLs you'd typically see in the "system32" folder) are now locked down: If an application attempts to overwrite a system file with an older copy, Windows 2000 will block that overwrite and keep the system intact. And the system will repair itself at boot time if someone has messed up the system files some other way.

Valentine says he met with the Windows 2000 team in January and asked them what the goals were for Windows 2000 in 1999. Four goals came to light: S, H, I, and P: "SHIP". So only one goal really came out of this meeting, but it's a good one and Valentine says they're on track.

"It's feature complete today," he noted. "We're focusing 100 percent on quality, which is reliability, scalability, application compatibility, hardware compatibility, all of those type of things. So there's a huge effort going on in those areas, and it's just in the get it done stage now.

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