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‘Athens’ – MS defines the next Windows PC standard

Oh, and it's a communications centre as well. Sort of...

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The essential guide to IT transformation

OK, reality check. Your PC is fundamentally unreliable and broken. It doesn't switch on immediately and stay on, working, like your stereo, TV, fixed line or mobile phone, granny can't just play music and videos, stay connected to the Internet and collect her emails without regular calls to tech support (i.e., you), and in addition to making annoying whooshing, whining and rattling noises the PC is prone to various hardware components mysteriously dropping dead (or not so mysteriously, given that the noises and the failures are frequently connected).

So having firmly framed that picture of PCs in the real world, let's hop over to WinHEC 2003, where this week His Billness was happily recommending integrating all of those pieces of equipment that do work into the one that doesn't, that wondrous single point of failure the evil Wintel twins have been failing to finish for nigh-on 20 years now. Last year's joint effort with HP, the Agora concept PC, has now morphed into Athens, and is headed for a business near you, probably in 2004, probably running Longhorn and probably also NGSCD ( Next Generation Secure Computing Base, aka Palladium). And classical scholars may join us in speculating that further geographical broadening of the codename could well mean rev three is tagged Attica. Non classical scholars should be aware that this has been a part of Greece for far longer than it's been a prison, however.

So what is "Athens"? Microsoft pitches it as the next generation of productivity-enhancing PC for business, integrating telephony functionality and wireless with the PC, and using "Intuitive and consistent system controls [to make] the PC user experience more seamless." A part of this is Xeel, yet another friggin control interface (YAFCI), which is variously described (in the press release) as a "cluster of hardware components and software interactions builds on the success of the mouse wheel to simplify content navigation and provide consistency across Microsoft Windows-based devices" and (by Bill) as "a ruler that can be pushed in or moved to the left or right so it gives you four different directions and an action push, and then in some cases some additional buttons that let you switch in or out - back buttons, switch Window buttons." Whatever you say, Bill, but we expect we'll know it when we see it.

Drilling down through the verbiage, Athens can be defined on several levels, depending on where you're standing:

User's eye view: By attempting to route all of your phone calls via the PC it provides a useful personal communications centre which can scoop the CLI of incoming calls and kick up data on the caller, switch off your music when the call comes in, route calls to messaging when you don't want to be distracted, mix and match emails, voice, mobile, fixed line, Internet phone. Basically it aims to pull together a lot of stuff that's already available separately, and basically it's the sort of thing that will appeal to Microsoft executives and the less creative business brain, as a perceived productivity boost to what Microsoft terms the knowledge worker, and what The Register thinks more of as the excessively anal-retentive sales droid. Work the way you want to work? uh-uh. This sort of stuff is intended to make you work the way they think you ought to work, but as you can't risk objecting, they'll quite possibly buy it for you anyway.

PC vendor's eye view: If customers see sufficiently compelling reasons to upgrade to Athens class PCs, then vendors will see a much-needed uplift in sales. But that's a big 'if'. Microsoft's research indicates that customers will pay for telephony features, but they're probably lying (no, Microsoft's research doesn't say that), because when push comes to shove businesses will likely conclude they've already got phones, and they might as well wait this one out at least till they're sure it works. There are however other more likely come-ons from the vendor's point of view. Athens has a big, 20in TFT, which in itself will not spell profit margin, because MS reckons these will be around $400 by next year, but at that price they'll be a good draw for Agora, and the rest can come clanking behind. Some of 'the rest' could provide useful lock-in strategies for vendors - according to Bill: "One of the things that's less obvious about the display is the work that's gone into consolidating a lot of the components and cables that normally clutter your desktop within the display itself. This one cable from the CPU, which contains high-speed USB and video, connects a slim form factor drive bay, USB speakers, slim and array microphone, camera and a Bluetooth transceiver that drives this rechargeable wireless keyboard that recharges right here in the base, wireless mouse and a cordless telephone handset."

So you can see vendors being able to do some form-factor lock-in here, and depending on how much freedom they have in terms of lights (the display includes 'you have mail' alert lights and similar) and buttons, they can possibly lock in users here as well. More likely, though, Microsoft will keep a tight rein on these aspects, and will therefore end up confiscating such elements of individualisation that PC vendors currently employ.

Microsoft eye-view: This is another Windows-only design. Bill puts it (talking about XEEL, we think, but would some brave person please tell him to take public speaking classes?): "This is something that we'd love to see people trying out. It simply comes along with Windows, the right to use it and do it this way, and so I think this is key frontier is a similar user interaction across the different devices." Fortunately, the white paper is considerably clearer as to the nature of the spade: "The ultimate goal is an innovative new platform that incorporates these new features and that is closely aligned with the Microsoft Windows operating system."

As with the Media Center PC, there's precious little chance that rival software vendors will actually want to provide non-Windows alternatives for the platform, because only Microsoft actually has the delusion that the client PC ought to be the centre of everything, and only Microsoft has the desperate need to make this so. Microsoft does however have the power to make fundamentally dumb ideas into industry standards, and that's clearly a worry. In his keynote Bill claims Tablets and Media Centers have sold very well, which may or may not be true, but in the Athens supporting white paper Microsoft presents stats that show a worldwide fall in enterprise PC shipments in 2001 and 2002.

One could postulate that Tablets and Media Centers have done better than the vanilla equivalents, on the prosaic basis that they've got extra stuff, so while the PC vendors are still getting hammered, they have probably noted they're getting slightly less hammered if they build the proprietary MS stuff than if they build vanilla, or a home-grown alternative that'll have to run without the MS marketing machine's backing. Sure in the long term they'll just make it worse by building Microsoft's third proprietary PC design, but a long term of any description is something of a pious dream for most PC vendors, so they probably don't worry about that any more. If they didn't intend to be here today, they should have taken the rings off and thrown them in the fire years ago, and as Macbeth had it, "I am in blood stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er."

And the consequent increased prevalence of PCs sporting the extra gizmos opens the door for a traditional Microsoft standards-setting tactic: "To drive early adoption, influential end users and IT managers must be able to experience the value of telephony integration at a negligible cost and risk." Which is pretty much a statement of the old 'get the stuff in the hands of the users then drive standards from the bottom up' gag.

Customer eye view: For those few who're paying attention, the gradual appearance of communications control centres you don't control out on the peripheries of the network ought to set off alarm bells. Microsoft says: "For broad adoption of PC telephony integration in the long term, solutions must leverage existing investments in telephony infrastructure," but you'd probably do well to consider that as meaning 'leverage into the PC,' possibly presenting you with additional support costs for a system that promises integration benefits, but that initially works less well than the centralised systems you already have.

Tech eye view: There's interesting, possibly very important, stuff here that Microsoft doesn't entirely foreground. It has finally, belatedly, dawned on Redmond that there are several things about PCs that users find intensely irritating. If the power goes off, you lose stuff, if you switch it on, it takes forever, so you leave it switched on all the time, but it crashes and makes a hell of a racket. So, Athens switches to a two stage power model, on/suspend, rather than a three stage one/suspend/off. So with suspend effectively consituting the new official 'off' state this is intended to give you a switch on time of just a couple of seconds. This ought not to be a major technical challenge, but as Wintel has now been conspicuously failing to deliver this in portable computer for many years, one has ones doubts. Athens will also have a backup battery capability that will allow an emergency suspend to disk in the event of power loss.

All this is nice on paper, and actually is more popular with the businesses Microsoft surveyed than the telephony stuff, but again, the historical failure to deliver reliability in such systems in portables makes one wonder why it's going to be any different this time around.

Most important, though, is that it begins to point desktop computer standards in a different direction, and when you add noise abatement to power management, the new direction begins to look serious. Says the white paper:

"Quiet components, alternative cooling technologies and other sound-dampening techniques reduce acoustic emissions that interfere with audio and affect user productivity. The 'Athens' PC design goal for acoustic emissions is 30 dB or less in A-weighted sound pressure (as defined in ISO 7779 and ISO 9296) while all components except the optical drive are operating."

As anyone who has tried to quieten down a high performance PC knows, just muffling existing components is not enough. You can, as would seem logical for Athens footprint machines, cut some noise by using portable computer components, and then your major challenges will likely be CPU, graphics card and CD/DVD drive. Fixing the first two without unacceptable performance degradation is becoming more viable, but we can presume Microsoft will now be pushing Intel and the graphics companies harder in this direction. The third can at least be muted by some dampening, and by putting sufficient thought into case design and component layout to minimise sympathetic vibrations.

Overall, though, we should expect Microsoft to be accelerating the move towards portable-class technology on the desktop, and further slowing down the Wintel 'megahertz at any cost' development route. Even this late in the day, we should perhaps welcome a sinner saved - anybody else remember the IBM PS/2e?

Bill has more in this department - aside from the clear imperative to get a lid on the CPU packaging, he talks about offloading processing into other components. We suspect that his seizure of the term "parallelism" to describe this does not entirely mean parallelism as we know it, but it does clearly mean the CPU becomes less important:

"... the increase in the graphics processors where the number of transistors now is almost as high as the processor, and in a few cases even more. It's pretty phenomenal, and it's really explained by the fact that we understand parallelism better in the graphics realm, those problems have many different units executing at once, we understand that better than in the general purpose code execution realm."

"This idea of parallelization is becoming increasing important. In fact, as we see these clock rates moving up into the 10 and 20 or even 30 gigahertz range there is a big challenge where the performance will not necessarily continue at the same because of the huge challenges you get as you run up at those incredible clock speeds. There are some clever ideas to reduce leakage, to have advanced cooling systems that Intel and many others are pursuing.
For Microsoft, part of our contribution to this is to make sure that whenever something can be parallelized, we allow the tools to make it easy to express that, because having multiple cores running at very high speed is cheaper than trying to get up to those big clock rates."

"So the same thing we've seen in graphics with the parallel capabilities exposed through DirectX, we now need that for more mainstream general-purpose code, and we have some very interesting ideas of how to take our CLR execution environment and have declarations that allow you see the parallelization opportunities and on the systems that have that we run very fast in parallel. If you don't have that, fine, you still get the same results; you just don't get the parallel execution."

Interesting, almost completely in English (well done Bill, you can do it when you try), and of strategic importance, we'd hazard.

Note that practically all that Microsoft, the well-known software company, has been saying about Athens is about hardware directly, or by implication about the 'down and dirty' hardware management aspects of the software. For the PC industry strategically these are certainly the most important aspects, but as far as the actual 'communications centre' sales pitch for Athens goes, there's very little detail. Quite a lot of work will be needed on UI and integration, but it is not entirely clear what that work will consist of. Will it need the new file system? It will assuredly be stuff that's in Longhorn, and it will, Microsoft will no doubt be assuring us in the run-up to launch, be magnificent. But we detect bits that must currently be missing, and that will be hard, if not impossible, to execute by 2004.

Bluetooth, for example, is viewed as important, the survey data indicates that users would like to use their mobile phone with the system (the pictured wireless handset certainly looks very horrid indeed), and Bill envisages mobile phones roaming across wi-fi (yes, he's been bitten too): "We need to get quality of service across Wi-Fi for things like voice connections so even in a portable phone, when it goes into your home, will roam to the Wi-Fi instead of using the wide area network, be connected in and get the advantage of the integration, and be able to send those voice bits across the broadband connection at lower cost."

That's hard, particularly as it involves dealing with mobile phone manufacturers who're not going to listen to you. But the white paper perhaps gives an indicator of how far down that road we are, or not: "Microsoft is also investigating technologies to enable 'wake on ring' for USB and Bluetooth telephony devices, which would allow the integrated telephony of the 'Athens' PC to receive calls even when the PC is in standby mode." Which does kind of sound like an essential thing it doesn't quite do yet, and no doubt there's more of that.

NGSCB: This is likely to be available for Athens largely because business is the softest entry point for rights management; there are perfectly valid reasons why, from a business perspective, machine identity and ownership are important. So if Microsoft didn't try to get it out there are Athens stage it would be missing an opportunity. NGSCB is not however covered specifically in the Athens material. Instead, Microsoft postulates smartcard security plus fingerprint biometrics (cue panic about XP sending your fingerprints to Redmond as well). Why do you need a smartcard if you've got working biometrics? Possibly, Microsoft accepts that while biometrics will be ultimately more effective, they could turn out to be a sales negative. Personal ID security is however obviously complementary to DRM security, and (biometric-related revolts permitting) will be a sales positive for business customers. ®

Related links:
Bill's keynote
Athens white paper (Word format)

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