Gates predicts shorter PC upgrade cycles at WinHEC

NEW ORLEANS — The way to shorten upgrade cycles in the enterprise PC world is to sell product that is able to integrate devices as mundane as the telephone, according to Microsoft Corp.’s chairman and chief software architect

Bill Gates.

Gates made his comments Tuesday during the opening keynote address from the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC. Upgrade cycles in the business market are on the order of three to four years, while the education market changes every five years or more, he said.

Ensuring that hardware, software and customer expectations are all maturing at the same level is a problem that has plagued Microsoft and many of its partners in the IT community, he said. One tends to exceed the reach of the other two.

Product improves faster in the technology industry than any other, said Gates. He cited research that suggests that by 2007, processor speeds could easily reach 20 GHz. This will require parallel processors in order to keep the CPU’s heat levels down. “”We don’t have applications taking advantage of these improvements,”” he said.

Microsoft is gearing up for the release of the next Windows PC platform, code-named Longhorn. With that OS, Gates promises vastly improved graphics capability and a graphic user interface (GUI) that will be able to take advantage of it. The falling price of LCD flat-panels is putting a premium on graphics displays and large screens are becoming essential for enterprise users who have to view a variety of complex data on screen, he said.

The release of Longhorn will coincide with the next generation of PCs jointly produced by Microsoft and HP. The Athens PC, as it has been code-named, is a large screen PC with a CPU that can also be used to dock a laptop. Attached to the screen is a camera and docking station for a cell phone. A USB key can be plugged into the machine as a file-storing device, but also to start up the PC as if it were a car key, said Chad Magendanz, Microsoft’s lead program manager.

The focus of Athens, said Gates, is its interoperability. “”Our broader goal is to work with a variety of phone devices,”” said Gates – not only the built-in cell phone but also any office phone, be it analogue- or IP-based. “”The goal here is to have a consistent user experience.

“”That integration we think is a critical one,”” he added, “”and changing what is done in PC development.””

According to Gates, phone-based PCs will allow for tighter integration between voice-mail and e-mail. When a call is received, for example, caller-ID software will immediately call up relevant e-mails the person has sent and notes from any recent meetings.

The road to shorter upgrade cycles for the PC market has already been laid by Microsoft’s most recent operating system Windows XP, according to Gates.

“”We made a faster transition to that version of Windows that any other version of Windows that we’ve ever shipped. The installed base of so-called Windows 9x has dropped dramatically.””

Microsoft is aiming to port the manageability of a desktop to data centre management with its Dynamic Data Center initiative, which is also being jointly developed with HP and was showcased Tuesday at WinHEC. An install window, not unlike hardware management within the Windows desktop operating system, can be used to add and configure server and storage nodes to a network. The concept is part of Microsoft’s Dynamic Systems Initiative, which bears some similarity to self-healing or autonomic projects from other vendors like IBM and Computer Associates.

Like Microsoft, graphics processor company Nvidia is painfully aware that longer upgrade cycles in both the enterprise and home markets are costing the company money and dragging the industry at large down. NVidia’s solution, according to its president, CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang, is to position the PC in the home as an entertainment server that can be used to stream DVD and TV cable signals across multiple televisions.

“”Virtualizing a PC is one of the reasons why people are going to continue to invest in the PC,”” he said. “”Sharing resources is what’s going to keep the PC from being eroded price-wise.””

WinHEC is showcasing prototypes of the Microsoft/HP Athens computer and NVidia’s streaming solution. The conference is also the starting point for Microsoft-led initiative Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB, code-named Palladium), which is the company’s vision of a secure and stable architecture to be included in a future Windows release. The company also announced Windows Hardware and Driver Central (WHDC), designed to stabilize and lock down driver errors which lead to application crashes and PC failure. The Driver Development Conference, part of the WHDC initiative, will be held this November in Redmond, Wash.

WinHEC continues until Thursday.

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