I'd like to take a one-issue breather from the topic we've been covering (data synchronization) and look at some of the interesting news from the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003 trade show that was held last week in New Orleans. WinHEC sounds like it might be boring, but during the past 3 years WinHEC has become my favorite show, with a surprising amount of in-depth information about the technologies Microsoft plans to release in the coming years. Here are a few of the things I saw at this year's WinHEC.
Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Microsoft showed off an intriguing next-generation computer design, code-named Athens, which the companies hope will demonstrate how the two industry titans are working together to create integrated solutions that meet real customer needs. The Athens PC sports a 23" widescreen flat-panel display with integrated phone and camera, a wireless keyboard and mouse, a separate CPU cube with one cable running to the monitor, and some interesting prototype software from Microsoft that ties it all together. But the Athens PC isn't really about style, although the interesting lighting effects its components generate are sure to be a hit with many people. Instead, Athens is designed to be an integrated solution to the cable and device jumble many people now face.
In the Athens PC, your phone and other communications hardware is integrated into the system. When you get a phone call, Microsoft Outlook-like software pops up onscreen and gives you information about the person to whom you're talking, including documents you've shared, email you've exchanged, and phone calls you've made to each other. This information makes you immediately more effective on the phone, with no more fumbling around for Post-It Notes or contact information. If you choose to change your presence information to "busy," the PC will automatically route your calls to voicemail, and integrated lights on the keyboard and screen will indicate when you have messages or upcoming meetings.
Ambient light on the CPU and screen edges add drama and effect to some tasks. Although HP and Microsoft aren't sure whether all these technologies will eventually become available as part of actual products, they believe that the light effects will find a place in the market. For example, light can often signify mood, so you might have a red glowing effect when messages begin piling up or a throbbing light waiting for you when you arrive at work in the morning.
The Athens PC is just a prototype, and the software we saw running on it was really a Macromedia Director demonstration designed to look like Windows XP. But the companies say that Athens PC-like systems should be out by late 2004 and that the full Athens experience will be available by 2005. Sounds good to me.
The next major Windows version and the successor to XP is code-named Longhorn, and last week Microsoft provided the first public demonstration of this system and revealed some of its features. Longhorn is going to be an exciting product, albeit one that won't ship until 2005, the company says. In the meantime, we can look forward to updates to XP (Service Pack 2--SP2), Windows XP Media Center Edition (version 2.0), and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (also version 2.0). In 2004, the Longhorn betas will begin, with release to manufacturing (RTM) a year later. But for now, Microsoft is providing some early alphas and a surprising amount of new information.
Longhorn will feature an all-new GUI that will look awesome on high-end systems and very good on mid-level systems, scaling to match your hardware's capabilities. Although the Longhorn GUI is still a secret, last week Microsoft revealed for the first time that the underlying graphics technology, called the Longhorn Desktop Composition Engine (DCE), will be miles ahead of XP, offering amazing graphics effects such as discrete element scaling and hardware-accelerated transparencies, all of which are designed to make the system more photo-realistic, interactive, and dynamic. In one demonstration, windows dragged around with the mouse fluttered behind the title bar like curtains, following the path of movement. Microsoft told me that various graphics effects are possible, including a motion blur when windows are moved quickly.
Longhorn supports new setup features that will reduce installation time to as little as 15 minutes. And it will natively support every recordable DVD format that exists, including DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-RAM, DVD+R, DVD+RW, and DVD+MRW (Mt. Rainier). In addition, Longhorn will support DVD movie-making through an as-yet-unnamed application that Microsoft will bundle with the OS.
Longhorn will also include an oddly controversial technology called Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB--formerly Palladium) that will optionally let you create a secure, trusted environment inside of Longhorn that protects your digital ID, data, and machine against intrusion. Detractors see Palladium as a Big Brother project, but I think Microsoft's goals are less dangerous and more beneficial to users than some admit. But the best part of the plan is that Palladium is optional: If you don't want it, don't use it.
I have more news to share, but I'm out of space. If you're interested in these products, visit the SuperSite for Windows (see the URL below). I'll post write-ups on both the Athens PC and the Longhorn alpha this week. In the next issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, we'll look at some interesting reader email about PC data-syncing solutions. Thanks to all of you who wrote to me about that subject.