Seattle Looking beyond the desktop, Microsoft Corp. pushed further into the mobile, multimedia future with a series of products and initiatives discussed at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference here last week. The efforts which range from a new concept for a low-power disk drive to a major rewrite of its Windows operating system come as the company is trying to link design efforts more closely to end-user experiences.
In a keynote address, Jim Allchin, Microsoft's vice president for platforms, told engineers to ground their thinking on real-world user scenarios, a theme many Microsoft teams at the conference have clearly taken to heart. "From a design perspective, it all starts there," Allchin said.
Finding fresh scenarios is key for Microsoft as the traditional PC matures. "The desktop is almost at the end of its hardware evolution. There's still a lot of volume there but not much growth," said Howard Locker, chief architect of IBM Corp.'s PC division.
"I think the distinction between consumer electronics and PC worlds will continue to blur. Microsoft wants to build a bridge between these two worlds using standards," said Pat Griffis, a director of media standards at Microsoft.
On another front, Microsoft is working to clear bottlenecks in media streaming over home 802.11 wireless networks. "I would say the majority of today's hardware doesn't work in this environment, but with some testing and fine-tuning, it can be there," said Tarek Elabbady, a Microsoft program manager.
Microsoft is preparing a new suite of application programming interfaces and design guidelines for wireless media streaming in its next major version of Windows, dubbed Longhorn and due in late 2006. Longhorn will not allow streams to start if the home net can't support them. It will scale back data rates on streams to avoid predicted interference levels and provide event reporting and diagnostics.
"We can't say we have a good audio/video streaming experience yet," said Roy Stedman, a technology strategist at Dell Inc. Dell reported on 802.11 tests in a half dozen homes in Austin, Texas, showing that .11b and first-generation .11a products were not suitable for media streaming. Second-generation .11a and .11g products were "good enough" for streaming, Stedman said, though .11a does not penetrate walls well and .11g is subject to significant interference.
Microsoft is about to start its own series of tests in homes in North America and Asia. "We know very little about real home environments at this point. We know how to test features, but we don't know how to test [real-life] scenarios," said Elabbady.
Microsoft is reworking how it automates setup for 802.11 in Windows. The Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, due to ship at the end of the year, will turn off automatic scans for 802.11 signal IDs that can interrupt streaming. However, Microsoft has yet to figure out how to let its software automatically choose the correct 802.11 net in consumer products when competing signals exist.
"At shows like this, you see Microsoft doesn't have enough RF engineers," said Alex Pournelle, an editor with Byte.com.
Power to the portable
On the mobile front, Microsoft detailed a new concept for a low-power disk drive as part of a broad push toward more aggressive power management in Longhorn. It also showcased a new battery startup and said it would enable location-based services in Longhorn.
"Next year we will make more revenue from notebooks than desktops in the developed world. That's going to drive a market dynamic to design the best mobile products we can make," said Clark Nicholson, a program manager in Microsoft's Windows hardware group.
Nicholson's group is working with two hard-disk makers on a program to define a drive that incorporates a 128-Mbyte NAND-flash write buffer. The buffer would leverage a new Longhorn kernel feature called superfetch that aggressively reads files and caches them in system DRAM to reduce disk accesses and increase system performance. One source said that superfetch will drive Microsoft to require a minimum 1-Gbyte RAM on Longhorn systems.
The flash write buffer could reduce the power consumption of hard disks by as much as 85 percent or by about 1.7 watts, Nicholson estimated. "That translates pretty close to an extra half hour of battery life on the typical notebook," he said.
The power savings will come at an estimated bill-of-materials cost of about $8 in late 2006, when Longhorn debuts, he added. A business manager from drive maker Maxtor Corp. who attended the presentation said the extra costs could be "a killer," but Nicholson said the technology would be packaged as a feature on premium notebooks.
The drive concept is one of many ways Microsoft intends to cut power demands in Windows machines. Under Power Sense, an umbrella program, the company kept a consumer PC on low power so it can in-stantly switch on and off like a TV or radio yet be available to handle network requests like preprogrammed TV recording.
In a demo, a consumer PC from Taiwan-based First International Computer Inc. consumed just 0.65 amp in a so-called state zero about half its normal rate.
On the battery side of the equation, Microsoft brought startup Sion Power Corp. to the conference floor. The Tucson, Ariz., company is developing a lithium battery that uses sulfur in the cathode.
Sion recently announced a milestone of hitting more than 70 percent utilization of the sulfur something others that have experimented with the chemistry have not been able to achieve said Vincent Puglisi, the company's director of advanced technology.
Sion is characterizing the battery and seeking investors to bankroll a pilot production facility it hopes to have running by late 2005, said chief executive officer Melvin Miller. It is working with Hewlett-Packard Co. to understand the requirements for bringing the technology to mainstream notebooks.
The company is also working with Microsoft to develop a fuel gauge for notebooks based on technology it developed to track power capabilities on its batteries.
At the applications level, Microsoft said that it will build the software underpinnings for location-based services into Longhorn. The operating system will aggregate location information from various sources on the PC and provide the data to authorized applications and services. The software could let notebooks be used as car navigation systems, or let users make flexible links to peripherals, services or other users in their area.