Microsoft Looks to Future at WinHEC

Microsoft’s 12th annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) this week brought long-sought revelations concerning its forthcoming version of the Windows operating system code-named “Longhorn,” the next iteration of its Windows Server operating system code-named “Blackcomb,” and a new strategy for deep integration of hardware and software exemplified by the “Athens” prototype PC co-developed with Hewlett-Packard.

The show provided Microsoft watchers with one of their first glimpses into Longhorn — including its user interface, drivers, security infrastructure and file system.

Will Poole, senior vice president of the Windows Client Division at Microsoft, used his talk during the show to confirm that Longhorn will hit shelves in 2005. Until now, it was widely agreed that the operating system — code-named for a saloon at the base of Whistler, a ski resort in British Columbia which lent its moniker as the codename for Windows XP — would debut in late 2004 or early 2005.

“There will be a huge wave of excitement for the industry when Longhorn ships in 2005,” he said. “There’s been a lot of speculation about whether we’d do an interim release before then. I don’t think so. Instead, we will have additional releases, follow-ons, for Windows XP Media Center Edition and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, that focus on fit-and-finish and support for the international markets.”

Microsoft intends for Longhorn to usher in a new era of ultra-sharp 3D graphics, designed to run on 120 dots per inch displays, as opposed to the 95 dpi displays which are the industry standard today. That would allow for much crisper images without shrinking everything on the screen. Each Window in the new graphical user interface (GUI), code-named “Avalon,” will be a fully z-buffered 3D surface.

Longhorn will also boast a file system dubbed Windows Future Storage (WinFS), based on developments from Microsoft’s work on Yukon, the next version of its SQL Server database offering. WinFS would replace the NTFS and FAT32 file systems used by current and past versions of the Windows operating system. The file system will abstract physical file locations from the user and allow for complex data searching which can reach into email messages, contacts, Word documents and music files with a single search.

The company also confirmed that the Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), formerly codenamed Palladium, will be a major feature of the new operating system

“Let me now introduce a new capability that over a period of many years we think will be in all PCs,” Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said during his keynote address, which kicked off the show. “This capability we call Next Generation Secure Computing Base. We’re talking about the details of this here at WinHEC for the first time. There’s over 16 hours of breakouts to talk about what it means to have a system that, even as it runs arbitrary third-party code, you can make security guarantees about the cryptography and secrets that are kept inside the system.”

“This is a breakthrough,” he added. “It’s a breakthrough that will allow for privacy guarantees, will allow for document distribution control. It will allow PCs to be used for applications that they are not being used for today.”

He continued, “It will allow people who want to keep tings secure to work across organizational boundaries and so collaborate together, whether it’s corporations working together or security agencies working together. This is a very key technology.”

Gates said that NGSCB will combine work on the processor, keyboard (which will incorporate cryptographic technology), video display and Windows itself — a software component dubbed “Nexus.” The controversial NGSCB technology, which some critics have suggested could serve as a Trojan for Microsoft-placed digital rights management (DRM) technology, works by creating a secondary operating environment within Windows that securely connects applications, memory, storage and peripherals.

According to Bryan Willman, a leading Microsoft Windows architect focused on NGSCB, the security platform delivers four fundamental components: attestation, sealed storage, strong process isolation and secure input and output.

Willman compares attestation to having a document notarized, allowing other computers to verify that a computer is the computer it claims to be and is running the software it claims to be running. Meanwhile, sealed storage allows users to encrypt information. Strong process isolation “essentially acts as a bank vault,” Willman said.

“What we’ve done is carve out a secure area — what we call the ‘right-hand side’ — which looks a lot like the regular CPU that you use to do normal, day-to-day computing, which we call the ‘left-hand side,'” Willman said. “Today, computers only have a left-hand side. With NGSCB, operations that run on the right-hand side are protected and isolated from the left-hand side, which makes them significantly more secure from attack.”

The final component, secure input and output, encrypts keystrokes before they can be read by software and then decrypts them once they reach the right-hand side.

“That means that nobody can use malicious software to record and steal or modify your keyboard’s strokes,” Willman said. “Secure output is similar. The information that appears onscreen can be presented to the user so that no one else can intercept it and read it.”

A Peek at Blackcomb

Microsoft also used the show to open a Window into the roadmap of Blackcomb (another ski resort in British Columbia), the codename for the update to the recently released Windows Server 2003 operating system.

Microsoft revealed at the show that many of the features that were planned for release in Blackcomb will actually be released as “out of band” upgrades to Windows Server 2003 over the next several years.

Microsoft Corporate Vice President David Thompson said the company will issue iSCI initiator in June and NAS 3.0 in the second quarter. Automated Deployment Services (ADS) will follow in the third quarter, as will Small Business Server 2003. Virtual Server will come in the fourth quarter, and the promised 64-bit version of Windows Server 2003 for AMD’s new Opteron Processor will be part of Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2003. Thompson said that service pack will be delivered by the end of the year.

Microsoft still plans to release Blackcomb as a full product, which will support dynamic partitioning among other features. The server operating system is slated for release in three to four years.

My Big Fat Prototype PC

The show was also a chance to showcase a new prototype PC, co-developed by Microsoft and HP, which not only seeks to project the future of PCs for knowledge workers, but also the benefits of collaboration between Microsoft and hardware vendors at the earliest stages of new product development.

Such deep collaboration, Microsoft contends, will allow the software titan to incorporate support for new hardware products directly into its operating system, thereby eliminating many of the hiccups that occur between software and hardware devices.

“Now, we’ve taken all of our thoughts about this future PC for the knowledge worker and worked together with Hewlett-Packard to put together a prototype that we call the Athens Prototype PC,” Gates said during his keynote. “We think it’s suggestive of some interesting things and it shows how we’re trying to get early prototypes for us to do the software work so that if these things catch on, if you’re building them into devices the software will be there and users will get the full benefit of them.”

Chad Magendanz, a program manager for hardware innovation at Microsoft, added, “This is prototype software as well as hardware. Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have been refining and designing Athens as a system, concurrently developing hardware and software and dramatically shortening the feedback loop to ensure that the end user is never the first system integration point.”

He noted, “These prototype tools really help us exercise the hardware and software integration.”

Athens features a 20-inch, high density display, and a single cable connecting the display and the CPU which carries both data connections and power. It also has a Blue tooth transceiver that drives a rechargeable wireless keyboard (it recharges on the base), wireless mouse, and a cordless phone directly integrated with the machine.

The integrated phone allows Athens to identify callers with Caller ID, while simultaneously pulling up any background information on the caller stored on the machine or online, all emails in the user’s inbox from the caller, etc. The user could also take notes which are stored on the computer’s schedule and the machine will mark the call on the calendar. The computer can also be set to mute music when a call comes in, set an instant messaging client status to “On the Phone,” or automatically forward a call to another phone.

The prototype also features rapid recovery from standby mode, and authentication based on an integrated smart card chip and biometric thumbprint scanner.

The Rest

Of course, the show wasn’t entirely about Longhorn, Blackcomb and Athens. Microsoft and partner HP also used it as an opportunity to pull the lid off some of the milestones the companies reached in developing an IT infrastructure under the Dynamic Systems Initiative, which was first announced back in March.

At the initiative’s core is the development of a new software architecture called the System Definition Model (SDM), a network and systems management technology based on XML that will be integrated into future versions of Visual Studio, Windows operating systems, server tools and industry-standard hardware.

To prove the viability of Microsoft’s ambitious plan, the company unveiled a blueprint for the first Dynamic Data Center (DDC). During the one-year prototyping process, the Windows Server Group developed a future, SDM-compatible version of Automated Deployment Services (ADS), a server provisioning and administration tool currently found in Windows Server 2003.

Developed under the guidelines of SDM, the new ADS is designed to provide seamless and native administration of network resources across a spectrum of compliant server, networking and storage hardware.

Networks built on this foundation automatically optimize hardware and software parameters on the fly, dynamically shrinking and growing available resources used by distributed applications. IT administrators have the added benefit of rapidly deploying Windows Server System images across their network assets, regardless of how expansive or complex, in a matter of minutes.

Stepping from its enterprise to consumer markets, Microsoft also used the conference to pledge its support for all major writable DVD formats.

The increased writable support is intended to give users more options to back up data and exchange digital audio, pictures and video files between personal computers and consumer electronics devices.