What Will WinHEC Bring?

One down, one to go. Microsoft has the Professional Developer’s Conference (PDC) behind it and is now gearing up for its second major U.S. developer show in as many weeks.

This week’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) is more narrowly focused than PDC. Whereas PDC is for anyone developing Windows software, WinHEC, which begins today in Los Angeles and lasts through Friday, is for the hardware community.

What that likely means is a heavier concentration on Windows 7, which Microsoft showed publicly for the first time on the second day of PDC, after the cloud computing service Azure had been introduced. With this show, Steve Sinofsky, the executive in charge of the Windows team, will take to the keynote stage on day one — another sign of a key emphasis on Windows 7.

What can hardware vendors expect from attending WinHEC? Likely more exhortations to support 64-bit. Sinofsky mentioned it briefly at the end of his speech at PDC, but this week, it’s likely going to be an up-front issue, since 64-bit drivers for Vista have been a little slow in coming to market.

Windows 7 and Windows Vista share the same device driver model, so a driver written for Vista will run on Windows 7. That should help mitigate many of the problems that plagued the Vista launch.

“The problem is if there is no installed base, there is no financial incentive to create the drivers, and they are not trivial,” said Martin Reynolds, research director and distinguished analyst for Gartner. “It’s a fairly big change for vendors to change that. They have to be a lot more secure and a lot more robust.”

Some firms have been pushing hard on 64-bit. High-end HP (HYSE: HPQ) systems are coming with 64-bit Windows Vista and all the drivers, but that’s because HP is telling third-party suppliers that they won’t make it into an HP system unless they have 64-bit drivers, Reynolds said.

Mike Cherry, analyst with Directions on Microsoft, said the major difficulty is getting device driver support for old hardware. “What’s a reasonable amount of time for them to go back and produce device drivers?” he told InternetNews.com. “The real problem isn’t getting people going forward to write drivers, it’s waiting for the natural cycle of replacement to occur. Microsoft and Apple seem to think we’re going to replace our computers every three years. I’ve got stuff much older than that.”

Many vendors didn’t have drivers ready for Vista in time because they didn’t take Microsoft seriously when it set a late 2006 ship date, in part, some charge, due to Microsoft’s alleged efforts to simultaneously promote older technology. The result was vendors scrambling to get drivers out, and more than a few were sub-par.

That problem is solved with a shared driver model, though Cherry said he thinks the OEMs still will take their time working on drivers. “Sure, every one of those companies will listen to Microsoft, but I still think they will reach their own independent decision on any changes they wish to make. They need to see stable code that’s feature-complete.”

In addition to Windows 7, Microsoft is also working on a second service pack for Windows Vista. No release date has been set, but it is expected some time next year.

Other areas of concern

Windows 7 aside, both analysts had their own set of interests that they expect to see discussed during the show. During PDC, Sinofsky showed off a netbook with a gigabyte of memory, which he claimed was enough to load the Windows 7 beta and still have almost half a gigabyte of memory left.

That’s unheard of with Vista, and one reason why Windows XP received a stay of execution: It had a memory footprint small enough to enable it to run on netbooks, so Microsoft kept it alive for just those devices.

“I will be interested if they provide any guidance to manufacturers of these lower-cost, smaller computers,” Cherry said. “I’m really curious to what the story was with the netbook because that’s an incredible performance gain. I’d like to see what was turned on and what was turned off.”

He also wants to learn more about Microsoft’s plans for Device Smart, the service that can discover a variety of devices in the home, such as digital cameras and printers.

“I’d be looking at what hardware manufacturers have to do to take advantage of that discoverability,” Cherry said. “Are there changes to device drives? What changes must be made to be a player in that kind of thing?”

Reynolds thinks multi-core programming will likely be front-and-center as well. “We need support for all the multi-core processors to make it a lot better than it is now, because very few applications are utilizing the full scale of multi-core,” he said.

He also expects virtualization to get a lot of talk as well, especially now that Hyper-V is out. “Virtualization is still relatively new and everyone is still learning about what you need in hardware to make it very fast,” Reynolds said.

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