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Microsoft PDC: Some revelations, a few surprises, and a secret star

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Los Angeles (CA) - The first official day of Microsoft’s Professional Developers’ Conference 2005 wrapped up fairly late for reporters, but by the end of this long day, and even after the unanticipated unveiling of the new "look and feel" for Vista applications, it’s beginning to sink in that not every question on our minds has been addressed yet. Apple’s recently released iPod nano became an unexpected conference highlight - at least off stage.

For our first PDC report of the day, let’s look at the list of seven Flashpoints we first presented on Monday morning, just before the power went out all over Los Angeles :

Will Longhorn Server lose its horns ? Meaning, would Microsoft finally get around to revealing the retail name of the server product line ? Officially, no , which was something of a surprise, because some were expecting an official announcement of Windows’ new product tiers, especially for Vista. Unofficially, some of Microsoft’s own lead developers may be as confused as we are. What we did notice Tuesday, especially throughout the keynote sessions, was that the fantastic new graphical features generated through the new Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) - still lovingly referred to by its old code name of "Avalon" - were also referred to by Microsoft officials as "the Vista look" or "the Vista interface" and not "Longhorn." If these references were not inadvertent, this could point to either of two possible scenarios : 1) The Vista name will be extended to the server tiers eventually ; or 2) as is the case with Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, which are both available simultaneously, the more replete graphics subsystem may only be available for the consumer edition of the product.

The 3D fanfold "flip" function for paging through running applications, shown for the first time Tuesday.

What performance factors will drive the evolution of hardware ? We clearly saw the answer to that on Tuesday. Even if the fundamental engine power behind applications becomes streamlined and optimized, if you’re going to feel the full impact of the "fanfold" and "flip" effects when tabbing between open applications, your computer and your graphics card are going to require top-class rendering capabilities.

A cataloging application for Netflix, created using Vista’s Avalon foundation.

The company did unveil its extended WPF/E concept Tuesday, with the "E" standing for "Everywhere," and with scalability of display "surfaces" being the key factor there. But the example application for WPF/E involved a consumer application for renting Netflix movies ; what we did not see was Avalon-generated features of Windows Vista running on a mainstream PC, circa 2005. So until we do some tests of our own we won’t know how much the graphical effects of simply tabbing through open applications will have to be scaled down to meet the capabilities of single-core CPUs running less than 256 MByte graphics cards. Will the effect run slower, though choppier ? Or will the effect simply not be seen at all until the card passes a certain performance quantum ?

The new Excel, characterized by the new tabbed control console, replacing the menu bar.

It is worth noting, though, that a beta version of Office 12, with the new "command tab" console replacing the venerable menu bar, was used in a demonstration for a Tuesday session, running on Windows XP. While the effects weren’t as smooth or exhilarating, nor did they inspire poetic exaltation as they did on Vista during the keynote, the command tabs and most of their animated features did run in the XP environment. So we do know that Avalon is optional, and Microsoft graphical libraries in future applications must have fallback modes for when Avalon is absent.

Monad lead developer Jeffrey Snover unveils Beta 2 of Microsoft Command Shell

What’s the deal with Monad ? That question was clearly answered today. Monad is alive and well, and evolving. Today, Microsoft released Beta 2 of the Microsoft Command Shell, not for exclusive invited developers as before, but for

How will Microsoft respond to Google ? There was a running joke among reporters today that Microsoft could try to buy a P2P VoIP company, just to make things even...oh, that’s right, they already did that. Today, Microsoft re-unveiled its Sidebar as a formal component of Vista - a feature we saw in earlier builds of Longhorn Client, but which was curiously sidelined in later editions. The Sidebar will be a vertical docking station for small applications that perform everyday, perpetual functions, such as showing the time, stock quotes, videos, RSS headlines, and program shortcuts. The idea, though, is to compel developers to come up with other cool "gadgets" to run in the Sidebar, similar to what Stardock Systems currently does with its DesktopX environment for Windows. Besides that consumer-oriented play, Microsoft’s response to Google on the architectural front was loud and clear with the formal unveiling of Atlas, its surprisingly standards-compliant developers’ toolkit for producing Asynchronous JavaScript applications. These are small programs such as Virtual Earth that can be delivered over the Web (relatively) securely, and executed on the client side under a controlled environment. Atlas programs could conceivably render obsolete the need for "cookies" as a mechanism for servers to store "state" information. Google currently uses AJAX, the open version of Asynchronous JavaScript, to develop its Google Maps and Google Earth services. We heard hints today of Microsoft linking Windows Communications Platform (WCF, codenamed "Indigo"), the WinFS file subsystem, and Atlas to generate distributed search applications, though we saw no demonstrations or were given any concrete details about such plans.

A change in network topology ? With Web transports becoming the new method for delivering application functionality - as evidenced by Atlas - you’d think the way business networks divide the responsibility among their servers would change. This is not a question we’ve heard addressed voluntarily, so we may have to start pressing for answers the old-fashioned way.

A company video demonstrates Bill Gates’ renewed commitment to problem solving, aided by "business partner" and "Napoleon Dynamite" star Jon Heder.

What happens to .NET ? There’s obviously no danger of .NET’s demise anytime soon. The Common Language Runtime - .NET’s principal component - is certain to be the preferred methodology for delivering easily deployed applications for some time to come. It’s not the all-encompassing umbrella it was originally envisioned to be, though it remains a key piece of the puzzle. Which leads to the final Flashpoint question we asked on Monday :

One more piece in the puzzle ? At this stage in the ballgame, Microsoft probably couldn’t handle yet another piece in the already intricate system of diverging platform concepts. It appears likely at this time that the Component Object Model, the .NET Framework, the Indigo communication platform, and the Atlas asynchronous client model will all be supported simultaneously by Windows. The task seems similar to holding together a coalition government in a tempest-tossed country. But we are indeed seeing the first signs of the final shape of the Windows operating system, likely for the remainder of this decade.

Jupiter Media principal analyst Michael Gartenberg shows off his new toy.

Here’s one more unexpected development : One of the big stars of the PDC show this week isn’t from Microsoft. The talk here is about the iPod nano, and Apple’s stunning success - at least initially - at developing and marketing a fashionable and desirable consumer product. Microsoft representatives from all walks of the company today, to whom we spoke candidly, were in awe, praising both the nano’s elegant and enticing form factor, as well as that company’s chairman and CEO, Steve Jobs. Jupiter Research vice president and research director Michael Gartenberg was showing off his new nano : He believes it’s a triumph of both marketing and design, and commented to us about how Apple’s triumph serves to underscore Microsoft’s current predicament : Microsoft is in a situation, Gartenberg said, where they have a single product that must appeal successfully to two completely separate markets : consumers and information executives. If they split the product up too obviously, the resulting products could end up appealing to neither. At the same time, it can’t be played as a consumer product that has this nifty server feature as well, or vice versa. It is a unique and unequaled predicament in the history of business and industry, he said. Microsoft has to pull this off just right. Of course, it’s hard to say what the "Or Else" situation would be at this point. Gartenberg is convinced that Microsoft has the right technology at the right time. What it needs to succeed is a very strong marketing plan that appeals to both segments separately but equally, knowing that the company cannot necessarily rely on the stumbles and missteps of its competitors going forward.

Stay in touch with Tom’s Hardware Guide for more news as it happens, as PDC 2005 continues from Los Angeles.

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