Microsoft Corp.'s annual Windows hardware engineering conference (WinHEC), to be held in New Orleans this week, comes at a pivotal time for the company and its highly popular operating system. With a judge reviewing possible "remedies" for business practices that have irritated both the federal government and many state governments, the question on everyone's mind is whether there will always be a Microsoft.
But engineers and system vendors who are committing their time and resources to developing Windows-based products are asking a more germane question: What is the ultimate fate of PC-centric computing itself, the arena where Windows was established and still holds over 90 percent of the market? If the PC, and desktop computing in general, are simply swept away in a flood of low-cost, ubiquitous Internet-connected gadgets, the technology base for Microsoft's current dominance of the operating-system market will go with them.
The threat is being taken seriously at Microsoft, which is attempting to take Windows into the Internet, the consumer electronics and the embedded applications arenas. Indeed, the current government case against Microsoft has centered on the company's decision to incorporate an Internet browser into the operating system. Windows CE, a scaled-down version for low-cost consumer electronics applications, and Windows NT Embedded, with configuration tools for scaling down the operating system's memory footprint, have also been introduced. And, Windows 2000 has a new power- and device-management system designed to make plug-and-play components simple to add to a design.
|Leading Microsoft's effort to break out of the PC mold, Carl Stork, general manager of Windows hardware strategy, and David Williams, director of Windows hardware evangelism, are revamping Windows for embedded, Internet and consumer applications. |
As Carl Stork, WinHEC conference chair explains, "One of the things that is going to be very evident at this year's WinHEC is that Windows is going to span everything from the data center-big servers, big iron-through the traditional PC down to appliances and gadgets." Hardware and software designed to interact with Windows are being supplied by the industry across that whole spectrum. "We've been moving in that direction already, but it is going to be way more evident this year than it has been in the past," Stork said.
Windows originated as an icon and mouse wrapper for Microsoft's flagship MS-DOS operating system, which was designed specifically for disk-based IBM desktop clones. It was wildly popular due to the ease of use it introduced to the large, established base of desktop systems. But the architecture of the venerable IBM clone is experiencing a rapid metamorphosis. Even on the desktop, new serial interfaces such as Universal Serial Bus and the IEEE-1394 standard offer a new level of flexibility. Indeed, the flexibility is so compelling that consumer product developers are bypassing the PC itself, devising products such as a digital camera that connects directly to a printer.
The 1394 standard, also known as Firewire, is being taken seriously by Microsoft. On page 114, Scott Fierstein, a technical evangelist for Windows hardware strategy and business development at the company, details the standard, its history and its relation to Windows 2000.
In Stork's view, this kind of development only reinforces the importance of desktop systems. "With new types of peripherals and connectivity, the PC can service these new gadgets. For example, you might want to catalogue and organize digital photos on a PC," he said.
Windows is moving into the high-end graphics market while keeping an eye on the low-end consumer photography market with the new GDI+ and metadata systems. Graphics are now pervasive in industry and an electronic standard has to encompass a very wide range of applications and technologies, as Michael Stokes, a program manager in Microsoft's Windows Division, explains on page 116, detailing the new Windows-based sRGB64 color standard.
But the Internet poses the hardest problems for a Windows-fits-all philosophy. Again, consumer product designers would simply like to find a way around the desktop, and net appliances are beginning to appear with built-in Internet connectivity.
For example, a cell phone might have an e-mail capability included, and the tiny LCD screen on the back of the phone is far too small to have a Windows interface. Such small-scale portable systems are beginning to be equipped with miniature Web browsers, which could take on many of the functions now performed on the desktop. On-line services such as AOL and browser-based appliances do not depend on Windows, although they introduce the same easy-to-understand, easy-to-use interface.
The open question with all of the new angles on information delivery is, Who will use it, and for what purpose? "While I can read the latest news headlines on my portable phone's minibrowser, I certainly would not use it to read a detailed report," said Jeffrey Harrow, principal member of the technical staff at Compaq Computer Corp.
Harrow, who said his view of the field is his own and not Compaq's, pointed out that where people work and what they do while working are important determinants in how systems develop.
"We call them desktop systems because they developed to serve the needs of knowledge workers, who generally sit at a desk," Harrow said. So unless the portable info appliance is able to tap advanced technologies such as virtual retinal displays,which can project high-resolution graphics from a tiny projector directly into the eye, portability will only be a secondary feature of information-based work.
Desktop systems could also benefit from smaller form factors, better interfaces-both displays and the graphical user interface-and higher connectivity. But it is unlikely that the desktop system will disappear, because the principle mode of work for those using information technology involves sitting at a desk.
Periodically, EETimes' supersection has presented a "design walkthrough"-a series of contributions based on one company's system or design process-giving readers an inside look at the technology behind the innovation. In tandem with the WinHEC conference, this week's focus brings readers an update on the latest in Windows engineering, as told by Microsoft's Windows development team. Armed with hard information on the inner workings of Windows 2000 and Windows NT Embedded, EE Times readers can make decisions on some of the questions posed here.