WinHEC 2004: The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

The Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) has historically been a big event for PC hardware driver developers, engineers, and other low-level technical workers, virtually guaranteeing a low attendee turnout and minimal press coverage--or so you'd think. However, beginning with last year's WinHEC, the conference has gained new prominence as Microsoft began using the show as a way to roll out new Longhorn features. And that strategy makes sense: With a long-term-development product such as Longhorn, low-level hardware developers are the first people who need to know how to target the system's revamped driver model. At this year's show, the hype was bigger than ever, and it wasn't all about Longhorn, although certainly that product received its fair share of coverage. Here's what I learned at the show.

WinHEC 2004 attendees received an alpha build of Longhorn, the first public release of that product since last October's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 preview release, which the company described as prealpha. The new version, Longhorn build 4074, is quite a bit more capable than its predecessor, with many newly implemented features. Some of the most-asked-about functionality, such as that built around the Windows Future Storage (WinFS) engine, is still quite slow performancewise; other functionality--such as the SyncManager that will one day provide a single synchronization conduit between Windows and a variety of portable devices, including laptops, PDAs, portable audio devices, and Portable Media Centers--is still missing from the release.

Future PC Directions
At WinHEC 2003, Microsoft and HP showed off an early concept PC design they called the Athens PC, which combines a widescreen-based PC system with integrated phone and messaging functionality. Over the ensuing months, HP worked to move this concept PC to shipping hardware, and though we're still years away from realizing the Athens PC concept, this year's entry combined shipping HP PC hardware with the Longhorn UI. Microsoft is working with its PC-maker partners earlier in the OS development cycle to ensure that a PC's hardware and software work together more closely. As a result, Longhorn will integrate seamlessly with computer-connected telephone equipment so, for example, the OS will silence all PC sounds while you're on a phone call or automatically trigger the answering machine when you set your Windows Messenger status to "busy."

For Tablet PCs, notebooks, and desktop PCs, Microsoft also foresees new auxiliary displays, built into the body of the PCs, that will supply pertinent at-a-glance information. For Tablet PCs and notebooks, this small display will sit on the unit's outside lid and provide battery status, wireless range, time, personal information manager (PIM) data, and digital-media playback information, even when the underlying PC is off. You could use this screen to view your next three scheduled events, for example, or control digital music playback. For desktop PCs, the auxiliary display will be even more subtle. To get an idea of what's in store, imagine future home PC designs that are more like stereo equipment, with subtle LCD lettering on the case's exterior that details the name of the currently playing song or alerts you when you receive a phone call.

Tomorrow's PCs will also be quieter, thanks to a move toward lower-power CPUs and other components and new advances in fan-less PC design. Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin has been calling on PC makers to embrace quiet computing for years, but it looks like this much-needed PC improvement is finally happening, if a random sampling of hardware makers at the show is any indication. Quiet PCs aren't just less annoying: In offices with numerous PCs, such advances can truly enhance productivity and lessen related physical problems, such as headaches and reduced concentration.

Web Services and Non-PC Devices
Microsoft doesn't get a lot of credit for its early backing of Web services standards, but the company's adoption of Web services for non-PC devices should silence some of its critics. Microsoft is now supporting the Devices Profile for Web Services, coauthored by Intel, Lexmark, and Ricoh. One of the first attempts to get Web services to work with non-PC devices, the Devices Profile for Web Services will enable a base level of interoperability between networkable devices and Web services. "Web services span heterogeneous environments and provide a consistent way to exchange information within home networks, corporate intranets, and across the Internet," Intel Vice President Gerald Holzhammer said. On a related note, Microsoft also released its first Network Connected Device Driver Development Kit (DDK), which hardware makers can use to help Windows systems automatically discover and configure network-attached devices of the future.

Contrary to reports I read last week, security was an often-discussed topic at WinHEC 2004, though Microsoft was eerily silent about the breakout of the Sasser worm. I suspect the recent delay of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which contains the on-by-default Windows Firewall that would deflect many electronic attacks, played a big part in the silence. Microsoft's security product delays, as I noted last week, are becoming somewhat of an embarrassment to the company but, perhaps more important, they're also becoming problematic for its customers. At a show such as WinHEC, which by definition focuses exclusively on the future, current problems don't get a lot of attention. Given the security climate, however, that lack of attention might be a mistake.

That said, Microsoft talked up XP SP2 a lot, discussed some of the features in Windows Server 2003 SP1, and even mentioned Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB--code-named Palladium) a few times, despite being curiously quiet about the latter technology in recent months. Microsoft executives reiterated that Palladium will be an optional component of Longhorn and that the software will require specially built PCs that include secure microprocessors and other chips. According to Microsoft, the company is working to make it easier for developers to access Palladium's security features without having to completely rewrite their applications, which explains the silence of the past few months, Microsoft tells me.

For more information about the advances shown at WinHEC 2004, please visit the SuperSite for Windows ( ). The site has several screen-shot and photo galleries and articles derived from the show. I'll be updating the site throughout the week with new WinHEC content.

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