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Microsoft puts on good face for hardware faithful

The company is staging its annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, designed to play up the future capabilities of its operating system and to convince hardware makers to support its technologies.

    Microsoft is refusing to abandon future plans for the computing industry, notwithstanding its antitrust troubles.

    This week in New Orleans, the company will stage its annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, designed to educate PC, device and component manufacturers about the future capabilities of its operating systems. Inevitably, the annual event also plays an important role in convincing hardware makers to support these technologies.

    This year, Microsoft will be selling its vision of the future of connected devices and PCs.

    "They're trying to inform hardware vendors about where they're taking the platform and what they think hardware developers should be focusing on in terms of integrating software technologies," said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Dataquest. "It's as much a marketing effort as disseminating information," he said.

    WinHec, as the conference is known, demonstrates the power that Microsoft retains in shaping the types of products and devices that come to market. Despite legal setbacks and new competition from companies such as Palm and technologies such as Linux, the software giant still wields enormous influence in determining the appearance of the PC market, analysts say.

    The show typically attracts a mix of the technology-savvy, including engineers, product managers, corporate PC buyers and industry analysts. All will be listening as Microsoft and its partners--which typically include chipmaker Intel--lay out their road maps for future products and define the buzz-worthy technologies for the coming year.

    Traditionally, this has meant defining the parameters of the features of the next generation of PCs. But in the past few years, the emphasis on setting PC standards has faded, with the possible exception of Microsoft's ongoing efforts to remove outdated legacy technologies from current computers.

    Shows of years past have instead tended to focus on new areas of computing, just as next week's show will do. Last year the spotlight shone on home networking and digital imaging, as evidenced by the announcement of the Universal Plug and Play industry working group and the unveiling of Windows 98, Second Edition, which offered a variety of new features to support both home networking and digital imaging.

    Plans announced at WinHec don't always come to fruition, however. Two years ago, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates announced that Windows 98 would be the last DOS-based operating system from the company and that a consumer version of Windows NT would be ready by 2000 or 2001. Instead, Windows 98 was extended with Windows 98 SE and Windows Me, due out this year. The consumer version of Windows NT, now Windows 2000, is not expected for another few years.

    Microsoft declined to specify the focus of this year's show, but product manager Stacey Breyfogle said that the event will target new ways for PCs and devices to talk to one another. For example, the Microsoft booth will showcase new ways to connect devices within a home.

    Windows 2000: The next generation "The overall focus of the show has been advancing the platform and communicating with the hardware community what we'll be supporting in Windows and what they'll be driving in the future," she said. "This year, in addition to talking about how PCs and appliances are going to change consumers and business, we're also talking about how they communicate and connect with each other."

    Potential technologies falling under that large category include Bluetooth, a radio technology that does away with cables to allow devices to speak directly to each other, and new wireless Internet access initiatives. Microsoft has joined the Bluetooth industry consortium and is working to include support for the technology in its operating systems.

    "We need to keep things in perspective as to where we actually are and where the technology is going," said Dataquest's McGuire, noting that both wireless Internet access and Bluetooth have long been hyped as the next big thing. "New stuff takes a while, and sometimes it slips."

    In his keynote speech, Gates will touch on advances in connecting appliances and PCs, while Carl Stork, the general manager of Windows hardware strategy, will be more specific about Microsoft's plans for achieving the vision Gates lays out. Stork is expected to talk about new features in Windows operating systems, including the recently released Pocket PC and Windows 2000 corporate operating system.

    Other keynotes will focus on chip architecture: Intel vice president Pat Gelsinger will lay out the chipmaker's long-term strategy and its plans for both the business and consumer markets. Microprocessor analyst Michael Slater also will touch on advances in chip technologies in his keynote address.