WinHEC 2003: Microsoft, HP Unveil Athens PC

During his Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2003 keynote address yesterday morning, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled the Athens PC, a joint hardware and software product his company is creating with Hewlett-Packard (HP). The Athens PC is designed for business users, not consumers, and features a striking high-definition wide-screen display, one cable running from the CPU to the screen, and a wireless keyboard, mouse, and phone handset, the latter of which mounts on the side of the display. The point of the prototype, Gates said, is to inspire hardware makers to create next-generation devices that marry collaboration and communications capabilities with the PC.

"The hardware industry and Microsoft are leading the next wave of PC development by creating unprecedented levels of synergy between hardware and software," Gates said. "The result will be innovative products that improve the way our customers work, communicate, learn and are entertained. The Athens PC prototype is just one example of the amazing things that are possible when hardware and software companies collaborate deeply on new designs."

At a demonstration of the Athens PC prototype during the Gates keynote, Chad Magendanz, lead program manager of Microsoft's Hardware Innovation Group, discussed the various hardware and software features that make this solution so compelling. A 20" version of Athens's wide-screen display, he said, might cost several thousand dollars now, but in mid-2004 such a display will retail for less than $400. The display features a mount for a Bluetooth handset, side-mounted ports, and three lights on the top that alert users when they have new voicemail or email messages or a pending appointment. The keyboard has buttons that launch software features such as voicemail.

Based on Longhorn, the next version of Windows, the Athens PC comes out of standby within 2 seconds and uses a USB flash card with security hardware and a thumbprint reader for user authentication. When you pick up the phone handset, the system displays your Microsoft Outlook contacts lists and Windows Messenger changes your presence information to "on the phone." When you make a call, Athens performs a reverse lookup on the person you called and gives you a list of the email and voicemail you've exchanged with that person, the documents you've collaborated on, and notes from previous meetings. "This functionality makes you more effective on the phone," Magendanz noted. Likewise, you can perform the electronic equivalent of closing your office door by marking your presence information as "do not disturb." In this setting, Athens automatically routes incoming calls to voicemail so that your workflow isn't interrupted. You can also answer voice messages by using email with a voice-based reply. "With Athens, voice is a first-class citizen," Magendanz said.

During his keynote, Gates also talked about other hardware-related technologies. Those technologies included 64-bit computing on AMD Athlon 64 and AMD Opteron chips and Itanium 2 chips; a new enterprise-operation-automation solution called Dynamic Systems Management; Trustworthy Computing; and Longhorn hardware innovations.

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