Microsoft hints at Windows future

Bill Gates puts an early version of 'Whistler' through its paces, demonstrating how Microsoft is starting to move toward a services vision in the 'PC-plus' era

Microsoft's next version of Windows, code-named Whistler, offers some signs about how the company is moving toward delivering software as a set of Internet-based services running on multiple devices.

Top Microsoft executives, speaking Tuesday at the company's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in New Orleans, publicly demonstrated the forthcoming operating system for the first time. Whistler is not yet in alpha testing, but internal pirated copies have made their way onto the Web at least twice in recent months.

Referring to Whistler as a fairly minor upgrade to Windows 2000 Professional, Microsoft officials emphasised Whistler's appeal as a platform for next-generation consumer PC hardware. However, Microsoft says it will also play well with computing appliances and other household appliances via the company's Universal Plug and Play software.

Microsoft is developing Whistler -- which will be available in both consumer and business versions -- to be the successor to both Windows 2000 and Windows Millennium Edition, due later this year. Windows Millennium Edition will deliver a number of enhancements for consumers, but Microsoft claims Whistler, due in 2001, will offer a much wider array of features and services tailor-made for home users.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Microsoft is aiming to use Whistler as the platform to improve and simplify using a PC by tackling some of the things consumers don't currently like about Windows PCs.

"The thing that people would really like to see us prioritise ... is the complexity," said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in his WinHEC keynote speech.

Thanks to software improvements, Gates predicted that two kinds of PCs will evolve: general-purpose and single-purpose PC, both with appliance-like simplicity and reliability and broadband Internet connections.

To prove his point, Gates offered up a so-called Concept PC, which the company built to test features and services planned for Whistler.

Some of the most noticeable Whistler features will be changes to the current Windows user interface, although it's not clear if the changes will result in an entirely new interface. Microsoft is still debating how much to diverge from the current Windows look and feel, executives said.

A simple concept

However, one "concept" demonstrated during Gates' keynote by David Williams, director of Microsoft's Windows Hardware Platforms Division, was a Web-like "Personal Start Page." Looking something like a Web page, the user interface showed icons for several different users who could log on and pick up where they left off, with their applications suspended where they last left them. A similar user-interface concept showed Windows control panels as icons on a Web-like page.

Whistler also will more closely tune the user interface with PC hardware. The Concept PC included a small LCD panel, called a Hardware Digital Dashboard, designed to augment the existing user interface and offer quick, easy data input.

"Digital Dashboard" is Microsoft parlance for customized user interfaces developed by Microsoft and its partners and customers. Carl Stork, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Hardware Division, said the dashboard will help Microsoft simplify the Windows Taskbar.

Universal voice chat?

The Concept PC, running an early build of Whistler, demonstrated how the dashboard, combined with a number of buttons, could allow consumers to access certain features of the PCs without having to search around for an application or a control panel inside Windows. Using the dashboard, for example, a user could start a music CD and raise or lower the speaker volume. The Concept PC also included a built-in message light, to notify a user when he or she has mail.

The Concept PC also included a built-in microphone and digital camera. Gates predicted that "voice chat will be an explosive application," and he said Microsoft will offer voice chat in its MSN Instant Messenger within a few months. Games such as Flight Simulator will soon include simple speech recognition, he predicted.

Whistler would also boot up relatively quickly. The company's goal is to deliver an operating system that boots in about 10 seconds.

"We can do better" than the minimum 25-second boot time of Windows Millennium Edition, Gates said. "We're working very hard on that."

But instead of requiring a PC to be restarted once it has been shut down, Microsoft officials said a Whistler-based PC could be put to sleep (even though the demo machine refused to go to sleep during Gates' remarks).

Williams also demonstrated a new service to be included with Whistler called the Windows Image Architecture. The service will allow consumers to download images from a digital camera, edit them and automatically publish them on the Web. An early version is part of the latest Millennium beta and thus will make its official debut later this year.

Coming to a TV near you

Besides new ease-of-use features, Whistler will be more configurable than current consumer operating systems. Whistler "has plumbing for different PC architectures," Williams said. He then demonstrated a PCTV set-top box running Whistler. The PCTV's Web-based user interface was shown giving access to a list of movie titles. A pop-up panel at the bottom of screen could be used to launch a movie. "All the pieces for NetTV and to build other customer user interfaces are in place in Whistler," he said.

While Whistler may offer the greatest number of new features for consumers, the OS will double as an operating system for businesses.

Whistler "development work is going to yield at least two client OS products. One that is optimized for business users ... and a second release that is optimised for the needs of consumers and entry-level users," Stork said.

Microsoft plans to offer service packs for Windows 2000 Professional over the course of the year. The updates will be included in Whistler for businesses, as well, Microsoft officials said.

That means Whistler, for business, will be a "fairly minor update," Stork said.

Other options

Gates also updated developers on the company's plans to support Internet appliances. Microsoft's "PC-Plus" mantra has it working to deliver Windows on a wide range of new devices -- the company's forthcoming X-Box game machines, Pocket PCs and high-end servers.

One new device demonstrated at WinHEC was a Web appliance based on Windows CE. The tablet-size device had a touch screen that would allow users to wirelessly connect to the Internet to get information such as TV listings. The bottom of the screen had several icons that would connect a user to email, news and other services.

The device runs Windows CE 3.0, which is due in June, and was built using the Webpad reference platform and Geode processor from National Semiconductor. Geode is an X86-based processor for appliance devices.

Microsoft will tell a judge today how it should be penalised for its anticompetitive behavior. So come and find out why Jesse thinks the government's plan will likely prevail.

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