The eighth annual WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) event, running April 6-9, was the place to be for a look at things to come for the Microsoft Windows environment, both in software and hardware.

Such trade shows as Comdex and CES showcase products we can buy now and coming in the near months ahead.  WinHEC is more future telling.  This one is for the developers and manufacturers that will make the components required to produce computer products as much as two, three, four or more years in the future. In other words, this gathering was a step ahead (or is it a step before – I never can quite figure it out?). It was a fascinating, rewarding and odd experience.

Before I get to the fun stuff for you and me, here’s why the serious attendees were there, right from their own Website.  Read it for laughs.  There will not be a quiz:

•Architecture and standards for Windows-based networking, communications, and related technologies.

•Architecture and technical advances for digital media.

•Architecture and design for embedded systems using Windows CE and Embedded Windows NT.

•Enterprise computing technologies for high availability, scalability, performance, manageability and storage.

•Microsoft roadmap for Windows, including releases for consumer and enterprise customers.

•Technical details presented by Microsoft and industry leaders for advancing and reinventing the PC, including CPU and memory architecture advances, new high-speed serial buses for storage, higher I/O bandwidth for servers and workstations, elimination of legacy I/O architecture, low-cost designs, and new imaging, display and multimedia architectures.

On the other hand, here’s just a taste of what I found of interest . . .

Microsoft President Steve Ballmer speaks.

In the opening keynote that set the stage for things to come, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer detailed Microsoft’s vision of “anywhere, any time, on any device.”  What I think he meant was Microsoft Windows or other Microsoft operating systems or software, anywhere, any time on any device.  (Now, there’s a scary thought!)  From the smallest handhelds to the largest servers, from living room devices and appliances to set top boxes and in our cars and airplanes, it will be a Microsoft world, and anything you want, anywhere you want it on whatever device you want to use, well, you get the idea.  He talked about different form factors and specialized devices that perform singular and sometimes simple functions.  He called upon the developers to partner with Microsoft to find new and different ways to apply this vision to help re-invent the Windows-based PC.  “The PC is a tool for empowerment,” said Ballmer.  I, however, don’t quite feel empowered when I get those &*%[email protected] error messages, fatal errors and other cryptic in-my-face greetings that, once again, Windows 95 or 98 has left the building and is laughing at me as it closes the door on exiting.

There was the vision of the connected home, with PCs and other devices all communicating with each other over high speed serial connections, mingling audio and video, as well as broadcast and high speed online connectivity.

Ballmer admitted that there was much work to be done.  “We’ve got to get the consumer computing experience to the place where everything just works. We’ve got to remove complexity.” (Hey, wait a minute, I know, they must be thinking about modeling their new iron on the MacOS, iMacs and the new blue and white Mac G3s.  Just a thought. — SK) He told the assemblage, “ . . . we have certainly underperformed . . .” Since we’re talking about future stuff here, if they do get it right, remember, we still won’t see it for up to five more years.

“And,” Ballmer continued, “we need a device that connects to everything, other devices in the home, as well as other devices out on the Internet. It’s got to just work.”  The “it’s got to just work” theme was a key phrase throughout Microsoft’s presentations. This is the message they’ve been touting for years.  I know Microsoft needs the complete cooperation of its partners and can’t do it alone, but the natives were clearly restless listening to this same mantra over and over again, year after year.

Ballmer invited associates to join him onstage for cool demos of things they’d like to see in the future, if the industry works together to make it happen.  Demos were nearly glitch-free!  For homes and small businesses there was a demo of an Internet server appliance.  (Businesses and schools, for example, can connect all or most of their computers together through a server and then to the Internet, “serving” pages to their Website visitors.)  Designed for ease of setup and use, this little box running Windows NT that might sell for between $1,000 and $2,000 was configured and up and running in less than five minutes.  With no connected monitor of its own, it was a complete solution for Internet, file and printer sharing, though it was not scalable to enable it to grow as needs increased.  (Note: Next week at Internet World, I’ll see and report on competitive products.)

We were treated to a demo of what the connected home (in a Windows-centric world) of the future might look like.  Universal Plug ‘n Play (UpnP) is a big part of this “it just works” equation.  (Fairness alert! Macintosh users have enjoyed great success with built-in plug ‘n play for years.  It’s not perfect, but it has always been better and much easier than on the Windows side and still continues to improve. — SK)

The demo scenario involved a PC connected to a home network over household electrical wiring, existing phone wiring or through wireless means.  Add digital speakers in other rooms along with a multi-disk CD player.  Remember, everything’s connected on the network.  The user could direct the PC to “discover” or recognize the connected devices, which it did, and then the PC was used to control the music play across the network as if in another room.  On the PC screen or even on a wireless tablet with an embedded screen the user could see and use the music controller. Select the disc and audio selections, and see all the information on the remote tablet, the audio controls and information about each title and cut.  Whatever additional information might be needed would automatically be sought out and found on the Internet in a seamless, user-friendly way.  In this same way, the user could download and store hundreds of CDs-worth of MP3 audio on tomorrow’s inexpensive, huge hard drives.  Once stored, play it all back at any time, in the order and in any chosen room(s), all via this in-home network and using these new connected and compliant UPnP devices.  How about other audio sources via the ‘Net?  Streaming audio and, from other demos, we learned we could add video, such as incoming TV (even HDTV) that can be brought to the PC through an installed card.

Once there, how about watching a TV program that is always run through a processor (that’s on a board in your PC) enabling a live program to be paused in progress? The continuing incoming stream would be stored on the hard drive in perfect quality.  Take a potty break or phone call and resume watching the show. Skip through commercials or boring parts and eventually re-join the live show in progress in real time, never missing a beat!  That’s where we are headed, according to Microsoft.  (The TV portion of this scenario is in many ways similar to what we saw at CES in the form of products called TiVo and ReplayTV.  But this way is free.  It’s just that everything runs through the connected PC. — SK)

Very cool future-oriented demo

I wish you could have been there with me to see the demo from Microsoft’s Dan Robbins.  He wowed us with a clever and friendly 3D desktop environment that had us all smiling and nodding approval.  Robbins reminded us that Windows-based PCs come with powerful 3D graphics cards.  Why not use them for more than games?  His futuristic desktop had the look and feel of a living space.  Folders could move and change their 3D perspective giving the appearance of depth.  He made room for other folders and their contents he wished to make prominent on the desktop.  Instead of appearing to be only flat, collapsed or gone and put away, Robbins’ folders with familiar program and file icons merely changed apparent 3D perspective and position. They moved out of the way to reveal other folders.  Off in another part of this desktop environment was a palate with a virtual hand attached, upon which we saw more familiar and commonly used program icons for easy launching in a clean-looking and inventive setting.  I always wonder how they think of this stuff!  The environment can be zoomed in and out and navigated as if moving through a virtual space, in this case, a home or office look and feel designed and tailored for the individual user.  I really liked this one.

Windows 2000 will be better

Next, Brian Valentine, Microsoft’s Vice President, Windows Operating Systems Division treated us to a sobering session.  The message was clear: Windows 2000 will not ship before its time.  They won’t rush it.  How’s this for commitment, “One of the goals I have is that Windows 2000 must be significantly more reliable than NT 4 and NT 5 that’s shipping here in a little bit or we’re not going to ship it.”  He pleaded for help to make it ready.  (One neat chatchka we all received, among many others, was a special edition of the upcoming Windows 2000 for our own evaluation.)  There was a lot of geek-speak in this session, and for those of you intent upon reading up on this proceeding, knock yourselves out here.

More revelations came from Valentine.  In one sense, I know they “get it,” and in another, I feel for them in their never-ending quest for improvement.  Valentine said, “So I don’t want to have to go figure out a confusing user interface, what command, what checkbox do I pick? I don’t want to have to read the manual. I mean, who reads manuals? Maybe I should, but I don’t read manuals. And I don’t think a lot of other consumers like to read 200, 300 page manuals to figure out how to do E-mail. That seems kind of silly to me. And I get tired of answering all kinds of questions. You know, I go to install a game, what directory do I want it in. I don’t care what directory it’s in, I just want it to start working.”  Sound familiar?  It does to me.  (I’m biting my tongue here.  Can you tell?  You know I want to tell you about Macs not being like this.  OK, I’ll stop, for now – SK)

What Valentine wants in upcoming operating system software releases are such things as easy self-updating and zero install applications; those that we place in the CD drive and they just run and install themselves, transparently with no user intervention.  The computer does what is needed.  Period.  How about games that just play and need no real installation?  He wants self-repairing software.  If something’s wrong, the software has the resources to fix itself.  (This self-repairing capability is what Microsoft gave us with Microsoft Office 98 for Macintosh.)  In a really bad situation, users will be able to revert to the last configuration that just worked, before the problems started, because it’s all saved within.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  No more mumbo-jumbo on the computer screen (which will probably be one of those great new flat screen LCD or even plasma monitors!).  It’s all quite possible, as demonstrated.

With high speed Internet access from either DSL or Cable Modem the entire face of computing changes.  Boom it’s there.  With this kind of access, users go for it, whether it’s looking up all kinds of information, downloading large files, such as the new MP3, streaming audio and video.  It changes the way we think of our computers from being “a computer to an appliance,” said Valentine.  “We just go in there, you wiggle the mouse, the screen turns on and I’m right there on the Web, looking at whatever I want to look at. That’s part of being the consumer appliance; it’s always there and ready to go.”

Another design element of the new Windows software is fast boot, wake from sleep.  They want it to be down to about eight seconds from hibernation to ready to go.  Wouldn’t that be great!  Valentine told us, “I want it to be like my TV set, it’s turned on and it comes on.”  These comments are refreshing to hear and offer hope for the future.  On the show floor I witnessed a demo of wake-from-sleep that took about 12 seconds, and that was impressive compared to the seemingly interminable wait for wakeup we now experience on Windows-based computers.

Even Microsoft execs have bad days with Windows!

David Cole, Microsoft Vice President, Web Client and Consumer Experience Division was next up.  Cole must have had maddening Windows experiences like the rest of us. Of the operating system he said, “But it’s still too complicated to use. You know, too many error messages, too hard to get things installed. You know, applications and hardware just don’t work together.”  (At that point I wanted to walk up to the stage and give him my Apple PowerBook to help him avoid these problems, but I didn’t think he would have appreciated it, or that I would have made it out alive had I tried such a stunt. — SK)

Cole continued, “What I’m going to talk a lot in the rest of my talk here about is Consumer Windows and consumer PCs. And the reason I’ve tied these two together, consumers, Windows and the hard job of making it easy, because that’s exactly what consumers want. They want their PCs just to be easy, and that’s a hard job for us.”  (Well, duh! – SK)

The only way this vision will become a reality is if each and every hardware and software developer does what has not happened before in the Windows world – work together, follow all the rules, do everything Microsoft says to do, the way Microsoft ways to do it, and never deviate.  Sure, Microsoft can deliver the solid new operating system we saw, but that’s not all it takes.  Microsoft also must listen to developers, hardware and software, and make the tough decisions to cooperate in ways never before accomplished on matters never before agreed upon.

There was a fascinating demo of what was referred to as the PC health system with system restore.  Let’s say, you’re merrily working on your PC when, out of the blue, the active desktop, in effect, dies.  Nothing responds.  The desktop takes on a whitish background and nothing you click on the desktop responds.  As Cole and his associate, Anthony Chavez indicated, this computer is “pretty broken,” not an uncommon circumstance.

“So what system restore does, very simply, is lets you roll back your machine to a previous point in time where it worked, and it does this in a completely automated fashion.”  I was impressed, but wondering if they couldn’t just make it so the failure does not occur in the first place.

More USB coming

The keynotes also covered such important topics as USB implementation and frustration with how long it has taken to move the standard forward.  During our press lunch, one brave soul suggested to Microsoft executives that it took Apple’s implementation of USB (Universal Serial Bus), beginning with the iMac, to jump-start the PC industry toward USB.

USB is a fine protocol for certain applications, such as printers, even with its current relatively slow 12 Mbps maximum transfer speed. (Mbps = Megabits per second – use as a relative number, faster is better.)  USB is also fine for speakers and some scanners.  If you want to back up your hard drive, for example, you’ll want much faster speeds.  On the horizon where it has been for a few years now is the answer to the need for high speed.  This just happened to be another hot topic at WinHEC.

FireWire is HOT, but Intel’s somewhat cool to it

The PC community implementation of IEEE 1394, otherwise known as FireWire (except by Sony which calls it iLink) is that answer, in the opinion of many with whom I visited.  (This technology was invented by . . . Apple Computer . . . and adopted industry-wide as a screaming fast and efficient bi-directional data transfer method, ideal for streaming video and other high-speed data transfers, and much more.)  Microsoft is building FireWire support into their operating system, but Intel, I learned, will not build in support in their hardware.  Intel representatives at their booth told me customers can add their own FireWire boards.  Obviously, it would be cheaper to build it in, but Intel, at least for now, is taking a pass.  Could it be that they do not want to dismiss their own slow and less flexible pet, USB?

The REAL promise of FireWire

The highlight of the Trade Show exhibit portion of the event was, in fact, the 1394 Pavilion.  Who wouldn’t like hot swappable, true plug ‘n play external peripherals, including blazingly fast hard drives, printers, and scanners?  Who wouldn’t want simple and small connectors that can also supply power to the peripherals?  Who wouldn’t want to plug in and see instantly an image from a digital still camera or digital video camera (unless you could do it via wireless means, but that’s another thing from the show)?  This FireWire stuff is going to be great when it becomes more common on PCs.  Here are the numbers.  FireWire data transfers are now at 400Mbps (Megabits per second).  By the end of the 1999, this is expected to reach 800Mbps and sometime next year, watch for transfers at 1Gbit per second. USB languishes at up to 12 Mbps.  FireWire supports connecting up to 63 devices in a single chain.  No switches to set, nothing to do but plug in and go, including hard drives, all without restarting the computer.  And FireWire connectivity can work in your home, office or school with Windows-based PCs and Macs!

After seeing the promise and enthusiasm behind those supporting the 1394 standard I was reminded that they had been there before, year after year for the past three or four years.  These things take time.  Get to know FireWire (FireWire tech sheet is here – requires the FREE Adobe Acrobat reader.  Get the Reader here.) You’ll get excited too, especially if you buy one of the new 1394 enabled digital video camcorders (DVC) or Sony Digi8 camcorders and want to edit your videos in your computer, then out to tape – WITH NO LOSS in quality.  The IEEE 1394 jack is built in on nearly all these camcorders.

The Home PNA initiative – Networking in-home devices using existing phone wiring

At the 3Com exhibit, I learned about their new relationship with Microsoft to co-develop a line of home networking products using the UPnP initiative.  What this will mean to you and me is that they are aiming at having 10Mbps performance using existing in-home phone wiring.  The current limitation is about 1.5 Mbps!  All of this is part of another industry buzz-term, Home PNA, or Home Phoneline Networking Alliance.  Home PNA is promoting the use of existing phone wiring, along with phone calls on the same wires at the same time, carrying data between connected and enabled devices.  (Learn more about Home PNA here.)

And in conclusion . . .

So, there’s your taste of WinHEC 99 and just a few of the things that caught my attention and interest.  Look for some of these ideas coming to your Windows-based computer in the future.  As much as I enjoyed my visit among this strange breed, I’m glad to be back on the outside. I’m afraid that staying too long could have had an irreversible effect upon me.  Well, I have to go now.  My pocket protector is falling apart and I have to look for my spare.

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