April 16, 2002 4:00 AM PDT

Microsoft expo tunes into the home

Microsoft's work to enhance home PCs will begin spilling out to industry partners this week as engineers arrive in Seattle to hear the latest ideas about DVD, audio, video and other consumer computing technology.

Through its eHome initiative, Microsoft is hard at work trying to make PCs better for the home, especially now that the machines have finally achieved much of the long-awaited ability to do the same jobs as stereo and TV components. This week, the company will brief engineers on developments in writing DVD discs, using PCs to record TV shows, controlling PCs with a remote control, setting up home networks and revamping computer audio systems.

The proposed changes and standards will be launched Tuesday through Thursday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or WinHEC, where the software giant will meet with flocks of engineers responsible for arcane but essential workings of PCs such as how Windows talks to the graphics system or how to get a computer to hibernate properly.

Many architectural changes to the PC will arrive in Longhorn, the next version of Windows, but Microsoft's ideas will be in vain if they don't have support from the hardware part of the industry as well.

The WinHEC conference is for those who live and breathe technology. Epitomizing this uber-nerdy milieu will be WinHEC Wars, which will pit teams in chain-link cages against each other in a race to see who can assemble heaps of components into working computers and peripherals despite loud music and hollering onlookers.

In addition, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Intel President Paul Otellini will deliver keynote addresses Thursday.

Microsoft often is criticized for producing software that's good enough but rarely great, but the company is nothing if not persistent in trying to improve its products. The company has won praise for Windows 2000 and its home-oriented successor, Window XP, which are less crash-prone than the Windows 95, 98 and Windows Me (Windows Millennium Edition) products.

Microsoft has wrapped itself in the flag of innovation in defending itself against lawsuits, most notably the federal and state antitrust cases. One antitrust issue is whether Microsoft will take advantage of its dominance in the operating-system market by adding new features to Windows that carry that dominance to new markets.

Much of Microsoft's attention is focused on Web services--computing operations that take place on servers scattered across the Internet--but the company can't afford to neglect its current stronghold for technology that some see as years away. That's especially true given Apple Computer's improvements to home and multimedia computing and the persistent, if low-level, threat Linux poses to desktop computing.

Among the topics under discussion at the show:

 New software components Microsoft is developing "to enable true peer-to-peer application development on Windows," the company said in an agenda. The software, which competes with Sun Microsystems' Jxta effort, will enable peers to discover each other, assemble into groups, communicate securely and stay up-to-date.

 Version 2 of Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), which lets gadgets connect to each other. Microsoft will address requests for better security--no surprise given the UPnP vulnerability that emerged shortly after Windows XP was released. It will also address requests for use of IPv6, an Internet standard that permits many more devices to connect to the network. Microsoft also will discuss UPnP services for audio and video equipment.

 Universal Audio Architecture (UAA), a proposal for software for built-in audio chips that would effectively standardize the basic part of that technology.

 Technologies that would better link handheld computers with the rest of Microsoft's universe, including support for its .Net Web services software on its Windows CE operating system and the Mercury software that would bring a stripped-down version of the content control system in Windows to smaller devices.

 Microsoft's support for DVD+RW, a standard that lets people write videos, music and data to DVDs. The lower-capacity CD-RW standard is very important in home PCs today, but the industry is split between DVD+RW and DVD-RW as a successor.

 Proper ways to use a remote control on a PC, a key part of the Freestyle effort to bolster PCs with video recorder technology.

 The best ways to design Tablet PCs, computers that have little more than a touch-sensitive screen but that can be plugged into the usual apparatuses such as keyboards and mice to make them an ordinary PC. Microsoft will discuss features such as high-quality digitizers for the screen and the ability to undock the tablet from its station without having to issue special commands in advance to prepare the machine for the change.

 Explanations of Mira, a "smart" display similar in appearance to the Tablet PC, except that Mira piggybacks off existing PCs.

 Improvements to servers as well as PCs, including support for the iSCSI technology for connecting to storage devices over ordinary networks, improvements that allow different types of multiprocessor machines called non-uniform memory access (NUMA) servers, and use of Window's system-management software.

 

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