Seattle, Wash. — Windows XP, multimedia PCs and USB data keys took the stage at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), as Microsoft and its partners demonstrated their vision for an all-encompassing computing experience.
Jim Allchin, group vice president for the platforms group
at Microsoft, noted in his keynote, “”Today the PC is often still considered just a tool, but together we need to make it a lot more than that. We need to make it a path to experiences. I firmly believe that the most successful companies in the future will be the ones who understand the customers, whether in business or at home, really want deep, immersive experiences, and the best products will be the ones that bring those to life.””
A computing experience, he went on, is not about speeds and feeds any more, it’s about sights and sounds.
ATI introduces Ruby
The over 2,500 attendees experienced plenty of those.
In a pre-show Q&A, Microsoft’s Tom Phillips, general manager of Windows Hardware Experience Group, said, “”PC hardware and PC software are really created by different companies, sometimes on different timelines. WinHEC provides the industry and customers an opportunity to see the synthesis of hardware and software all at the same time, particularly with an eye toward longer-term developments and innovations.””
The synthesis included plenty of glitz, and experiences of all sizes and shapes. Hot new graphics hardware from ATI Technologies was introduced by way of an animated heroine named Ruby. The culmination of last year’s concept PC (then code-named Athens) strutted its stuff, and Allchin demonstrated a new small business server the size of a fat briefcase.
“”It’s three inches by 10 inches by 10 inches. It only takes 40 watts. It’s fan-less. It’s got RAID on the motherboard. It’s got a built-in UPS,”” he told attendees, as he pulled the plug to prove that it also has enough smarts to finish what it’s doing before it shuts down after losing power. “”And there’s no network cables at all. It’s just got a PC card slot in the back where you push in a wireless.””
Fan-less and wireless were a continuing theme in showcased hardware, as vendors attempt to make them consumer and office-friendly by eliminating wires and noise.
ATI’s president and chief operating officer, Dave Orton, took advantage of the event to launch a new line of graphics processors, the Radeon X800 Visual Processing Unit (VPU), designed for high-end applications such as gaming and visualization, with an action-packed animated short, rendered in real time (the VPU set new graphics speed records in a variety of games and graphics benchmarks later that week, at System Builder Summit in Barcelona, Spain).
“”Consumers are taking control of not only what they want to watch, but where,”” he said. “”The question (for the industry) to ask is, are we ready, is our industry ready, and are we thinking big enough?””
Gates sees in 3D
Not to be outdone, arch-competitor nVidia handed out 3D glasses and powered a demonstration of a real-time three-dimensional fluid dynamics simulation during Bill Gates’ keynote.
In keeping with the pervasive computing theme, Allchin showed off another use for USB data keys (also known as USB Flash Drives, or UFDs), those increasingly popular thumb-sized storage devices. The upcoming Windows XP service pack 2 (SP 2) can use a UFD to help build a secure wireless network. Thanks to new USB-equipped wireless access points and printers from AboCom and HP, the configuration, including 128-bit security key, can be transferred from the primary computer to other computers and printers on a network, and even to the wireless access point itself.
In a business environment, Allchin showed how a UFD loaded with the Windows PE (preinstall environment) could be used to boot a malfunctioning or unconfigured system and install or repair the operating system.
The UFD made its way into Gates keynote too. He said, “”In some ways, I think this is the first time I can say that the floppy disk is dead. You know, we enjoyed the floppy disk; it was nice, it got smaller and smaller, but because of compatibility reasons, it sort of got stuck at the 1.44 megabyte level, and carrying them around, and having that big physical slot in machines, that became a real burden. Today, you get a low-cost USB flash drive, with 64 megabits on it very, very inexpensively. “”
The Media Center PC is evolving into an all-encompassing home information centre and, said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows. The number of OEMs equipped to build and ship them has grown considerably since the product’s inception, and will probably grow even more.
“”I think we’ve been pretty clear, that long-term (and I’ve got to be careful about not making any SKU announcements here, because we don’t have it all figured out yet), that the trend is, for a given audience segment, that it makes sense for a PC to have some of those capabilities,”” he said. “”At some point, does the typical home PC have the capabilities of the Media Center Edition PC — sure — why not? It’s cool — I’d want it. So how do we deliver that? What are the product versions, what are the distribution channels, what are the opportunities for VARs and system builders and those who are not today on the relatively short list — growing, but still in the grand scheme of things a relatively short list of OEMs that provide Media Center PCs?””
He went on, “”We have no interest in constraining the distribution of that experience, and in fact have committed to delivering those kinds of capabilities broadly, and having it be a default capability of a home computer in the future. What began as a very limited group of OEMs shipping what turns out to be a compelling home computing experience has grown to a broader set of OEMs and now it is being considered that those features should be in any home computer. This is in the Longhorn timeframe that we figure this out.””
Despite the hardware focus, Windows XP, both SP 2 and the upcoming 64-bit edition, featured heavily in the agenda, as did Longhorn, the next version of Windows due to arrive around 2006.
The call to action for both Longhorn and 64-bit Windows XP was for developers to start building device drivers; for SP2, attendees were urged to begin testing for application compatibility. SP2 is secure by default, which will prevent some home and business applications from functioning as they did before.