Microsoft, HP Show Path to PC Renaissance

Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard snuggled up to each other Tuesday, using their already close partnership to show manufacturers a new future in PC manufacturing where vendors work with Microsoft from the ground up when developing new PC technologies.

The result is “Athens,” a PC prototype which takes a page from Apple Computer’s book with deep integration of hardware and software designed around the end-user experience.

“The hardware industry and Microsoft are leading the next wave of PC development by creating unprecedented levels of synergy between hardware and software,” said Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates during his keynote at the 12th annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in New Orleans. “The result will be innovative products that improve the way our customers work, communicate, learn and are entertained. The ‘Athens’ PC prototype is just one example of the amazing things that are possible when hardware and software companies collaborate deeply on new designs.”

Co-developed with HP, Athens is an effort to converge communications — like voice, video and text messaging — into a consistent, streamlined design which makes Windows-based machines easier to navigate while eliminating hiccups.

Athens features integrated telephony functionality with a wireless handset and headset that form a centralized communications unit; a wide, high-DPI flat panel display intended to make working with multiple documents on the screen more comfortable; more consistent system controls; and improvements like quite operation, “appliance-like availability,” and high quality audio.

The machine’s media and device ports, as well as disk drives, are all positioned on the display, where they are easy to access, while a single cable serves up power and data to the screen. Athens also features a wireless mouse and wireless keyboard.

“In a world where technology is increasingly commoditizing, the need for innovation that solves real business problems and creates a richer customer experience is stronger than ever,” said Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of HP. “Just as we did with the Tablet PC and the Media Center PC, HP and Microsoft are creating a new standard of joint innovation in hardware, software and product design. The Athens prototype PC will empower business customers with an entirely new class of business technology that provides a seamless and natural experience for communications and collaboration.”

Gates also held up a new set of cross-product navigation controls, code-named “Xeel,” as an example of the fruit that deep integration between hardware and software can bear. Xeel, which aims to build on the navigation innovations of the mouse wheel, is a cluster of hardware components and software interactions which are intended to simplify content navigation and work consistently across Windows-based devices, from Tablet PCs and Pocket PCs to Windows Powered Smartphones, Windows Powered Smart Displays, and the new Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT).

Gates also used his keynote to announce new pricing and packaging for Windows CE .NET 4.2, the company’s embedded operating system, in an effort to make it more suitable for low-cost commercial and consumer devices. The new license, Windows CE .NET Core, is available for an estimated retail price of $3. Gates said the company has also made a free, noncommercial distribution license for the operating system available. That license is intended to help embedded partners, developers and device manufacturers share device images.

“Smart, connected devices are playing an increasingly significant role in everyday life and are a key part of our ‘Digital Decade’ vision,” Gates said. “Our new low-cost Windows CE .NET Core license is a rich platform that enables manufacturers and developers to quickly utilize Windows CE across a broad range of these devices, and our free noncommercial license and tools will help foster innovation.”

Intended for low-cost devices like gateways, entry-level VoIP phones, industrial automation equipment and consumer electronic devices like CD players, digital cameras and networked DVD players, Windows CE .NET 4.2 Core features a real-time operating system kernel, file system, networking and communications technologies, multimedia capabilities and an application development platform.

The Windows CE .NET 4.2 Professional license, geared for devices with a richer user interface like set-top boxes, advanced VoIP devices, handhelds and digital media players, includes value-added components like Windows Messenger, WordPad, the Remote Desktop Protocol and Internet Explorer 6. Additionally, those who purchase a professional license can obtain viewers for Office documents like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF and image viewers for an additional cost.

The noncommercial distribution license is included in the free Windows CE .NET 4.2 Emulation Edition and Evaluation Kit. It includes the full Platform Builder tool and complete operating system components.