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Monday, April 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Gates to offer up a peek at the future

Seattle Times technology reporter

First phones started becoming more like computers. Now computers are getting to be more like phones.

Phonelike features are prominent in several prototype computers that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is expected to unveil at a conference today where Microsoft is helping computer makers build the PCs of tomorrow.

Gates will also release the latest test version of Longhorn, the new version of Windows due late next year, to the 2,800 computer hardware developers from 500 companies and 42 countries attending the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle this week.

WinHEC is an annual event, but this year it's particularly important for Microsoft. Computer sales are slowing, competition from Linux is growing, and the company needs to get the industry fired up about Longhorn as the software enters its homestretch. Most of the show is devoted to helping companies start building products to go on sale alongside Longhorn in late 2006.

The show also comes as the PC platform is in the midst of another dramatic technology shift that will make vastly more powerful systems widely available by the end of the year.

"This is certainly a critical audience for Microsoft, one that it used to have a solid lock on pre-Linux," said Dwight Davis, a Summit Strategies analyst in Kirkland.

Davis said "the vast majority" of hardware vendors and customers will continue using Windows, but the competition is forcing the company to work harder on relationships with computer makers, known in the industry as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs.

"It's not as if Microsoft is the only game in town anymore, so it does have to do this time around a better selling job than it might have in the past to get these OEMs enthusiastic about the next version of Windows," Davis said.

Cool stuff

One way the company inspires its flock is by showing off cool stuff, such as the prototype systems that Gates is expected to demonstrate during his keynote this morning at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

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The most far-out machine is a small tabletlike PC about as thick as 10 sheets of paper with a 6-inch screen and weighing 1 to 2 pounds. It supports a built-in camera and, like a cellphone, runs for a full day on a single battery charge. Microsoft expects computer makers will be producing similar systems a few years after Longhorn is released.

Closer to reality are Longhorn-based laptops with an auxiliary display screen built into the cover. The idea is to display a few lines of information, such as the time or a message, similar to the small displays on some clamshell-type cellphones that show time and call information without having to open the device.

Another machine is a prototype thin Tablet PC with a sliding cover.

In addition to showing off hardware ideas, Gates is expected to present features in Longhorn, such as tools for organizing and locating files, its look and feel and security improvements.

"People have heard what's not in it (Longhorn)," said Neil Charney, director of Windows product management. "We have a great opportunity to show what we are going to be putting in that product that will create excitement in the industry."

64-bit computing

Microsoft is also refreshing its current Windows line with two new systems that support powerful 64-bit processors, the latest in personal computer-chip technology. Gates is announcing 64-bit versions of Windows XP Professional and Windows Server 2003 today.

Windows 95 ushered in a shift from 16-bit to 32-bit processors, and Microsoft expects a similar transition will happen around the time Longhorn is released. Charney said the company expects about half of new PCs will come with 64-bit processors by the end of this year, and within two years nearly all systems will be 64-bit.

The bit count refers to the size of data streams that the processors can handle. With a higher capacity, the systems can process more information faster, but they need software and applications that take advantage of their power.

Network servers and other high-end machines widely use 64-bit processors, but their use in PCs has so far been limited, largely because Microsoft has taken so long to produce a 64-bit version of Windows.

AMD, chief competitor to Intel in chip manufacturing, began selling 64-bit processors for the consumer market about 18 months ago.

"They (Microsoft) had some delays because they needed to focus on the security aspects of the OS (operating system)," said Tim Wright, AMD director of strategic marketing. "Obviously we think that the hardware was ready at the time for 64-bit. The Linux community took advantage of it, Microsoft wasn't able to."

Wright said today's release of 64-bit editions of Windows is "going to be the last pieces of the dominoes to fall."

"Obviously Microsoft and Windows are key to broad adoption," he said.

Different cast

Charney said Longhorn has been delayed because the company moved some developers to work on a Windows XP security upgrade, but he characterized the 64-bit timing differently.

"I'm not sure it was necessarily a delay," he said. "It's something that took time to make sure we were doing right and get feedback from the beta process."

AMD and Intel will both be pitching their latest processors at WinHEC, including 64-bit systems and systems with dual core processors.

Intel has lagged AMD in 64-bit but expects that half of its corporate desktop systems will be 64-bit by the end of 2005.

"Within two years, the overwhelming majority of processors, if not all processors," will be 64-bit, said Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel enterprise platforms-group marketing.

In general, the 64-bit systems are backward compatible with current products. Performance should be more than double that of 32-bit machines, speeding tasks such as manipulating digital videos and images as well as 3-D gaming.

More storage

A key advance with 64-bit systems is that they can have much more random-access memory. That means more information can be stored on memory chips that transfer data almost instantly, a thousand times faster than hard drives.

A 64-bit system and the new version of Windows XP being released today can have up to 128 gigabytes of memory. That's enough memory to store an operating system, application and files on chips.

That means systems could be built without hard drives, or that hard drives could become the equivalent of floppy disks or the insertable memory cards used on digital cameras.

That also means a Tablet PC could be created with no moving parts; in some models available now, the only significant moving part is the hard drive.

The huge memory capacity could also lead to the eventual creation of exotic machines like the wafer-thin PC that Gates is to demonstrate, which uses only flash memory and has no hard drive.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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