WinHEC 2007: Microsoft Looks Backward, Not Toward Future

At the Los Angeles Convention Center for Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), it's hard not to think of Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC), the high profile developer-oriented show that Microsoft previously held here in 2005 and 2007. WinHEC is a smaller conference than PDC and seems even smaller than usual this year because Microsoft has backtracked from its typical emphasis on the future and is focused instead on the past.

The rationale is simple: Microsoft's latest OS, Windows Vista, was five years in the making and just released to the general public in January. And despite measurable real-world success, Microsoft is fighting the growing perception that Vista is in trouble. Turns out nothing could be further from the truth: As of last week, Microsoft has sold almost 40 million copies of Vista. That means that within Vista's first five weeks of availability there were already more Vista users worldwide than there are for any non-Microsoft OS, said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates during his keynote address on Tuesday. The message is clear if not explicitly stated: The Macintosh might get all the good press, but Vista surpassed the entire Mac user base in just over a month.

But Vista's success isn't just about sales, Gates said. Thanks to Vista's built-in instrumentation, customers can now report problems to the company so that they can be fixed more quickly than ever before. Gates said that during the first 90 days, customers reported easier setup of Vista systems than with previous Windows versions. "This opens up the platform opportunities and . . . provides a new level of ambition \[on the PC\]," Gates said.

Gates talked up Vista as the foundation of the PC platform for the next decade and harkened back to 1992 and Windows 3.1 to demonstrate how much things have changed. Gates said that back then, even using a GUI was controversial. But by 1995, with Windows 95, Microsoft's GUI investments had paid off and there was a critical mass of PCs worldwide, letting the industry focus on Internet connectivity. Gates said that today, with Vista, the PC still plays a central role and now connects with a wider range of devices and services than was possible 15 years ago.

To be fair, there was some talk of the future at WinHEC, although it was near term, not the pie-in-the-sky talk that was typical of previous WinHECs. Gates talked up a technology called Rally that makes it easier to set up and manage home networks. Built into Vista, Rally also works with a growing number of other compatible devices, including wireless hardware and HD media bridges. Gates also said, cryptically, that Microsoft will be bringing the Xbox 360's remote media experiences to various consumer electronics devices, such as TVs and PCs, which means that the Vista-compatible Media Center Extender technology for the Xbox 360 will soon be available to a wider range of users.

Gates also talked up Windows Home Server, the Windows Server version shipping later this year for multi-PC households. Windows Home Server will be available with special home server hardware from PC makers, such as Gateway and HP, and in a standalone software version for enthusiasts. Windows Home Server provides PC backup, media sharing, and Web browser-based remote access functionality and appears to be an amazing product that should be of interest to the more than 40 million people worldwide with multiple PCs and broadband Internet connections in their homes.

And finally, Gates announced that Longhorn Server would ship as Windows Server 2008 by the end of 2007. Microsoft recently shipped Windows Server 2008 Beta 3, and Gates said that Windows Server Virtualization will ship in beta form by the end of the year as well.

Microsoft didn't mention anything about its technology releases beyond this year, however, and maybe that's a more pragmatic tack to take. But for those of us interested in high-level information about Microsoft's product strategy, WinHEC 2007 seems a bit too much like a step backward instead of the expected and traditional step forward.

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