WinInfo Short Takes: Week of May 12: WinHEC 2003 Special Edition

An often irreverent look at some of the week's other news...

WinHEC 2003: Microsoft Clarifies Blackcomb Timeline
A Microsoft representative tells me that Dave Thompson didn't actually say that there wouldn't be a Blackcomb server product, though that's what I heard, and how the transcript of his speech reads. But Microsoft says that the Blackcomb release of Windows Server will include iterations of the "out of band" technologies that are following the release of Windows Server 2003, and that Blackcomb is still the code-name for the next major Windows Server release. "The current plan of record calling for a Blackcomb server release has not changed," the representative noted. OK. But here's how the transcript reads. "Here's the Windows Server road map. It shows the evolution from NT 4, Windows 2000, and then the product release we actually added one additional version, the Web Server edition, a focused Web application version of the server that costs less, but only runs Web applications, and then what I call Blackcomb, really is just a list of future technology areas, not to be released in three or four years, for example, but actually you'll see as I move onto the next slide, see that these are things which we're actually rolling out additions to the operating system at a pretty steady stream. This stream happens in just calendar year '03 ... So, that's just a set of things, what we call out of band releases, that is not at a major Windows release, but effectively part of Windows, delivered, you can load from the Web the service as part of Windows through the Standard Service Pack stream." You can see why I was confused.

WinHEC 2003: Microsoft Supporting Every Recordable DVD Format
As first reported right here in WinInfo, Microsoft is supporting more than just the DVD+RW recordable DVD format, and this week the company formally announced that it would support all recordable DVD formats. Now, isn't that awfully inclusive? This means you will be able to use DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, and DVD+MR (Mount Rainier) format recordable DVD media with Longhorn, and not just DVD+R and DVD+RW as reported elsewhere. But wait, there's more: The DVD recording support in Longhorn won't be anything like the CD recording functionality in Windows XP; that's because Longhorn's DVD recording eliminates the time-consuming "staging and burning" steps. Instead, when you copy files to a recordable DVD in Longhorn, they're written to the disk immediately, as would happen with a slow hard drive. One other little tidbit: DVD movie making will be provided in Longhorn as well, through an independent application, and not through the shell. An iDVD competitor from Microsoft? It sounds like it.

WinHEC 2003: Athens PC a Mac Clone?
There were an awful lot of reports this week comparing Microsoft's and HP's Athens PC to the Mac, and at first glance, this comparison seems to make sense: Both machines feature a 23" widescreen display with rounded edges, and a small cube-like CPU box connected to the screen with a single wire. But the comparison falls apart when you actually know something about the Athens PCs, and don't just make your opinions based on a few photos Microsoft posted online. The Athens PC was designed to for functionality, not just to look pretty, which is the biggest differentiator between it and the Mac. Its keyboard, mouse, and integrated handset are all wireless, unlike the Mac, and all of these components feature notification lights tied to work functions such as email, voicemail and meetings. And the Athens PC screen is not only high quality, but features the super-high pixel density that Longhorn's advanced graphics features can take advantage of, a capability the Mac--and Mac OS X--lacks. So get beyond the superficial, one-glance comparison, and you'll see the Athens PC is a classic PC--functional, useful, and horsepower-packed--and not just a pretty Mac clone at all. I'll have a full writeup about the Athens PC--and what this means for future Windows versions--on the SuperSite for Windows next week.

WinHEC 2003: Longhorn Graphics a Mac Clone?
And speaking of people not getting it, I've been deluged with email from crazed Mac fans this week who are convinced that Longhorn's new graphics effects are nothing more than a tired retread of what's been available on Mac OS X thanks to its Quartz and Quartz Extreme rendering technologies. And again, the people making these comparisons haven't actually seen the technology in question--Longhorn, in this case--but are rather drawing conclusions based on descriptions they've read online. Folks, it's not that simple: The Longhorn graphics engine features amazing functionality, including the ability to scale discrete onscreen elements in a virtually unlimited fashion with surprising smoothness and clarity. And remember, we're not even seeing the Longhorn user interface yet--the Longhorn graphics architecture demos shown off this week were all done on the old XP user interface. So we can assume it's going to get a lot better when the hardware-accelerated 3D video-based UI is added on top of the rendering engine. Kerry Hammil, an "Avalon" Program Manager on the Windows Client Platform team, told me that Longhorn's Desktop Composition Engine (DCE) and Quartz Extreme attempt to address the same issues, and are similar from that standpoint, but that DCE is more dynamic and will result in more impressive and immersive on-screen displays. That's because Microsoft is using DCE to add exciting screen effects to user-initiated actions, not just highly controlled visual events like minimizing an application or apply translucency to a terminal window. Microsoft hasn't decided on the final effects that will be added to the Longhorn UI, but the technology demos Hammil provided this week at WinHEC drew gasps and cheers from the audience, made up largely of seasoned hardware and driver programmers, no less. It's heady stuff.

WinHEC 2003: Longhorn Will Feature Tiered User Interface
Another interesting aspect of Longhorn's graphics architecture, or Desktop Composite Engine (DCE), is that it will offer users a choice of three different user interfaces. In the most basic UI, Longhorn can be made to look like Windows 2000, in sort of a backwards-compatibility mode aimed at enterprises that want to rollout Longhorn but don't want to retrain users. The next step up is the so-called Tier 1 interface, which will feature a scaled down version of the new Longhorn user interface that is as visually complex as Windows XP's graphics capabilities. The Tier 1 interface will include basic effects like transparency only and will require a minimum level of hardware-based 3D capabilities. The full meal deal, or what Microsoft is currently calling the Tier 2 interface, will be "graphically stunning," and offer rich, 3D-based video, transitions, and other graphical effects. Tier 2 is a superset of Tier 1, I'm told, and these two experiences will be visually related, but it will be obvious which is higher quality and more attractive. The Tier 1 and Tier 2 names, incidentally, are only temporary, and Microsoft expects to have better names--and marketing plans--for them sometime this summer. But the idea is that high-end PCs would offer the best interface, giving consumers reason to want to upgrade.
WinHEC 2003: Longhorn Will Install in 15 Minutes, Offer New Modularity
As hinted at by recently leaked alpha versions of Longhorn, Microsoft's next major client operating system will be fully componentized and offer an amazing image-based install that will cut unattended installations of the product down to 15 minutes or less, the company says. Here's how it will work: In Longhorn, Microsoft will offer system builders a core OS image that will quickly boot and run on any PC. This image will include the 95 percent or so of the OS that is language- and edition-independent, and is therefore applicable to any Longhorn version. Capabilities are added to the core OS component using add-on components like SKU#1 (what we call Home Edition today), SKU#2 (Professional Edition), Tablet PC SKU, Media Center SKU, and others like service packs, hot-fixes, and so on. What this all means that, in addition to the speedy install times--Plug-n-Play detection of your specific hardware will take just about 5 minutes, I'm told--this componentized approach means that future OS updates won't have to ship in hundreds of different versions that support multiple languages and product versions. For system makers, this new scheme is particularly exciting because they can use the new XML-based unattended installation features to custom-create OS images immediately when customers order a new PC. So, for example, it will take just 15 minutes, from time of order, to create an install a PC with a version of Longhorn that includes, say, French language support, Media Center capabilities, and Service Pack 1. That's good stuff.

WinHEC 2003: WinFS Runs on Top of NTFS, Not a New File System
Another interesting tidbit that came out of the Longhorn deployment and manufacturing session was that the Windows Future Storage (WinFS) file system isn't a new file system at all. Instead, WinFS is an add-on that requires NTFS to work, and it runs on top of NTFS. This explains why there is a WinFS service in alpha builds of Longhorn, I suppose. Microsoft is also requiring that Longhorn systems be installed on top of NTFS, and not FAT or FAT32 partitions. However, Longhorn will be able to read and access FAT-based partitions.

WinHEC 2003: Windows XP SP2 To Deliver Two or More Concurrent User Sessions
Microsoft revealed to me during WinHEC that the late 2003 release of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) will include some kind of support for two or more concurrent users, a feature that was previously available only on the server versions of Windows. The company is adding this support primarily for Smart Display owners: Currently, when a person with a Smart Display accesses the PC, it prevents another user from logging on locally at the PC using the primary display. With SP2, you will be able to have two users logged on at once, one via the Smart Display, and one via the primary display. The release of XP SP2 will likely be tied to Smart Display Version 2, which is due in October.

WinHEC 2003: Microsoft Touts Palladium, or Whatever It's Called
This week, Microsoft finally provided the world with the first public demonstrations of Palladium (excuse me, Next Generation Trusted Computing Base) technology in action, and went on the offensive trying to convince people that this technology will be used for good, and not evil. Palladium still suffers from a bad rep with the "haven't seen it but still don't trust it" crowd, but what I've seen impresses. As Microsoft notes, Palladium is designed to protect your privacy, your PC, and your data, not limit your rights, or hold your PC hostage. And here's the real kicker: Palladium is opt-in only, and therefore optional, so if you don't want it, just don't use it. Ah, you crazy conspiracy theorists.

WinHEC 2003: Microsoft Previews AMD-64, Sort Of
This week at WinHEC, Microsoft handed us a bunch of CDs that include 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP that run on AMD Athlon 64- and Opteron-based systems. There's just one problem: They didn't hand out any systems to try the disks on, so right now they're just coasters. AMD 64-bit hardware is a bit tough to come by these days, but hey, you never know. I'd gladly pay a hamburger today for an Opteron tomorrow. Or whatever.

Windows Server 2003 Whomps Linux in File Server Performance Test
This one isn't really WinHEC-related, but it's fun. In a recent test comparing Windows Server 2003 to various Linux versions, Microsoft's latest server OS tromped the competition by 66 to 100 percent in various file server-related performance tests. The test, performed by VeriTest and prepared under contract by Microsoft, found that Windows 2003 significantly outperformed Linux. The fun part, of course, is that the Linux community refuses to believe the findings because Microsoft commissioned the test. I think they need to wake up and smell the coffee: From a performance standpoint, Windows 2003 is a rip-roaring performance hot-rod, and I suspect other tests will come to the same conclusion. There's a reason this OS is already trouncing key industry benchmark records, and it has nothing to do with "influencing" test results.

Passport Security Breach Fixed, But... What the Heck
A Pakistani researcher found a bizarre and simple security hole in Microsoft's Passport system, which could have revealed credit card numbers and other person information for every single user on the system. The flaw, which was immediately fixed by the software giant, was triggered by a simple URL that the company would send out to users wishing to reset their password. There's just one problem: The URL contained the user's email address, and by changing that part of the URL to another user, it was possible to change the password for other Passport accounts and therefore gain access to those accounts. Given Microsoft's recent conversion to the Trustworthy Computing initiative, the revelation of such a simple-minded flaw existing in Passport is somewhat troubling, to say the least.

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