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WinHEC Presents a Smorgasbord of Betas

As expected, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced the beginning of Beta 2 for three products key to the company's future during his keynote at this week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.

Attendees at the conference will receive the second beta test versions of Windows Vista, Windows Longhorn Server, and Office System 2007. Additionally, the betas will be available to participants in several Microsoft technology programs in the next few days. However, the impatiently awaited official "broad consumer preview," aka Beta 2 of Vista, that will be available to millions of consumes will begin "in the next couple of weeks," executives said.

The company also made a number of announcements around its virtualization strategy, which it announced Monday in the run up to Tuesday's WinHEC, kick off. Microsoft has been holding its annual hardware conference, which is primarily for hardware developers, system designers and business planners, since 1992. This year's conclave drew a crowd of more than 3,500, the company said in a statement.

While there were no big surprises at the show, the sheer size of the marketplace underline's WinHEC's -- and indeed, Microsoft's -- importance to hardware sales.

"Over 250 million PCs will be sold this year, and that's more than a 10 percent increase coming up from last year," Gates told the audience. "Over the next three years we move to basically 100 percent [64-bit CPUs on desktops] even on low-cost machines, and then mobile only lagging that a little bit," he added.

Interestingly, Gates and other Microsoft officials were careful to always say that Vista will be available in "January," possibly to ward off fears that Vista might slip later into 2007.

The company also showed off the Windows Server 2003 Scalable Networking Pack. Available for download now, the Scalable Networking Pack provides the capability to offload network processing tasks to a TCP Offload Engine-enabled network interface card, leaving the CPU free to run applications.

"Depending on the server workload this could translate into a 20 percent, up to 100 percent, reduction in the CPU overhead related to network packet processing, with up to a 40 percent increase in throughput," Ian Hameroff, senior product manager in Windows Server marketing told the crowd.

"[The networking pack] enables TCP Offload Engines (TOE) hardware to be deployed while maintaining application and network management compatibility…and will be useful both to customers receiving new servers with TOE NICs, and to customers who have older servers and are interested in extending the lives of the servers by adding a TOE NIC and the new Microsoft software," say statements on Microsoft's Web site.

Longhorn Server Beta 2 will go out to more than a half million testers, including Microsoft TechNet and MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) subscribers, beta testers, as well as customers and partners in Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program (TAP), officials said.

A third beta will come in the first half of 2007, followed by final release in the second half of the year, Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business, told the gathering. Beta 3 will be "feature complete," he added. However, officials say few functions remain to be added -- for instance, Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) is present in Beta 2 but is "not fully integrated yet," according to Microsoft officials. (See "Microsoft and Federated Identities: The Road to Single Sign-On," August 16, 2005.)

Meanwhile, customers interested in kicking the wheels on Office System 2007 can go here.

Gates also demonstrated a production-ready hybrid hard drive (HHD) from Samsung that combines flash NAND memory caches with a large disk drive to dramatically speed system bootups as well as to conserve battery power. It will work with Microsoft's ReadyDrive software for Windows Vista, which was created specifically for the HHD. The two technologies combined yield 20 to 30 minutes of increased battery life and, because the drive is spun down whenever it is not in use, improved reliability and ruggedness, officials said.

The two companies showed off a proof of concept of the HHD at last year's WinHEC. Samsung will start sampling the production drives next quarter and will ship HDDs in quantity for inclusion in Vista notebooks by January, the Korean company said in a statement.

Microsoft also announced the release of Beta 2 version of WinFX and the corresponding Go-Live license for its components, both available to developers on MSDN. WinFX is a core part of Vista that includes the Windows Presentation Foundation, the technical underpinnings of the Aero user interface. The Go-Live license enables customers to deploy applications for Windows Vista using any or all of the key technologies of WinFX -- Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Workflow Foundation, Windows Communication Foundation and "InfoCard," the code name for a technology Microsoft says is designed to simplify and improve the safety of accessing resources and sharing personal information on the Internet -- before the final release of WinFX.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.

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