Microsoft looks beyond Windows at hardware confab

Looming updates--Office 2007, Vista and Longhorn Server--mean a lot is riding on this year's WinHEC for the company.

Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
Joris Evers
4 min read
At this year's Microsoft conference for Windows hardware experts, the software giant will be talking about a lot more than the operating system.

The upcoming Vista and Windows Server "Longhorn" updates will be at the forefront at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle this week. But another kind of software will also step into the spotlight--Office 2007.

"This is going to be the WinHEC where all three of these products come together," Michael Burk, a Windows product manager at Microsoft, said in an interview. The Redmond, Wash., company will be making announcements about those three areas at the event, he said.

The show should see the release of the long-awaited public test version of Vista, as well as Beta 2 versions of Longhorn Server and Office 2007. Final versions of the PC operating system and the productivity software are expected to arrive in January, while Longhorn Server is slated to ship later in 2007.

This year's conference is crucial for Microsoft as it is the final WinHEC before these launches, of some of the most important products in its history. "It is a really big event for us and for our partners," Burk said

At WinHEC, Microsoft tells hardware makers where it is headed with Windows and related software products, so they can allocate resources accordingly. So traditionally it has been future-oriented, looking several years down the road. The Vista and Office updates mean that's different this year for the PC companies, accessory providers, chipmakers and others listening.

"These products are going to be delivered in the near term, and that definitely changes the scope of what we're talking about," Burk said. "We are talking about a lot more near-term opportunity, in addition to the 10-year vision."

Bill Gates will don his visionary hat. The Microsoft chairman is headlining the conference, speaking Tuesday, and is expected to talk about the intersection of hardware, software and services, and what that means for the PC in the next decade.

Microsoft also plans to discuss new ways it is targeting markets in developing countries, where it sees a big untapped pool of customers. "We really think the next billion users is going to come from emerging markets," Burk said. "Figuring out effective ways of reaching the next billion users is a challenge that we're taking on."

The emerging markets topic has been a subject of past sessions at WinHEC but will take on a more prominent role this year. The software maker is announcing FlexGo, which charges customers in emerging markets less for a PC upfront, then lets them pay off the remainder with a per-hour fee to use the computer.

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Much attention at WinHEC will go to Vista. If Microsoft doesn't release a public trial of the Windows XP successor, that could indicate another delay for the operating system, said Michael Cherry, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft. "It is getting critical that they get the next major version of Vista into the hands of testers," he said.

Hardware requirements to run Vista are another sticky point. Microsoft has given some details, but Cherry expects more. "I don't understand why it has to be this complex," he has said. "Why can't this be written up on a one-page piece of paper in a manner that you don't have to be an electrical engineer to understand?"

Typically, Microsoft shows off some hardware prototypes at WinHEC. This year, it is expected to talk about several next-generation ultramobile PCs based on its Origami concept. Separately, Samsung Electronics will display its hybrid hard drive, which promises an extra half-hour of battery life and faster boot times for notebook owners.

Other perennial WinHEC topics are ways of improving video and driver quality. Microsoft will again call for more drivers that work with 64-bit versions of its operating system. Existing 32-bit software is compatible with 64-bit Windows, but 32-bit drivers are not.

In session
WinHEC sessions have similar topics every year: the core platform, mobility, multimedia, networking, storage and drivers. There are plenty of talks on Vista's new features, such as BitLocker drive encryption, power management and SideShow auxiliary displays.

A session will be devoted to a new image format to rival TIFF and JPEG. Called Windows Media Photo, the new format is designed for Microsoft's new XML Paper Specification (XPS) format, code-named Metro. Windows Media Photo will be part of Vista and promises advanced compression capabilities as well as better color quality.

For driver developers, Microsoft plans to hold a session on two tools to help them create more stable and secure drivers. The tools, PreFast for Drivers and Static Driver Verifier, are source code analysis tools that find defects in code without actually running it.

Another important session topic is virtualization. Several talks are dedicated to it, and Microsoft will provide updates on its Hypervisor virtualization technology and further details on its virtualization manager plans.

In a business track at WinHEC, Microsoft will talk about plans for Vista promotions. These could include discounted or free upgrades for people who buy PCs before its release, for example. This could help persuade people not to hold off on PC purchases until after Vista ships, analysts said.

Microsoft has not said what it will do for this year's holiday season to promote Vista sales, but Windows unit head Kevin Johnson said in an interview that the company won't leave users high and dry.

"There's likely to be something," he said.