May 5, 2004, 6:40 PM PT
SEATTLE—With the next version of Windows, Microsoft is looking to add a number of laptop-specific features designed to make portable machines both more powerful and at the same time as easy to use as consumer devices such as portable DVD players.
To accomplish this feat, Microsoft is looking at the possibility of a separate user interface that could be instantly accessed for playing back movies, music and other media files. The company is even exploring ways that media files could be accessed without logging into Windows as a way to make the experience more comparable to using consumer electronic devices.
"We're looking at how to make it really quick," said Matti Suokko, a business development manager in Microsoft's mobile PC unit. He made the comments Wednesday during a Tablet PC discussion at the Windows Hardware and Engineering Conference here.
Suokko outlined a host of other features under consideration for Longhorn, the next version of Windows, which Microsoft hopes to release by mid-2006. Other enhancements include improved support for multiple displays and the ability to create ad hoc wireless networks. Suokko also showed off a centralized synchronization engine that's designed to make sure information is kept current between a PC and devices like laptops, portable music players and removable storage cards.
Suokko stressed that all of the ideas he discussed are still subject to change and that many are still in the concept stage. Still, his comments marked the clearest vision Microsoft has given to date on some of the other features it is exploring for Longhorn.
The company has largely focused on three major advances of the OS: an improved graphics engine, dubbed Avalon; a new file system, known as WinFS; and Indigo, an improved Web services-based communications subsystem.
One of the areas that Microsoft has devoted significant time to at this year's conference is the potential for multiple displays—both multiple monitors as well as smaller displays that could complement the primary monitor.
Suokko said the company wants to make it easier for laptops to connect to any external monitors that happen to be available. "It's there, but it's somewhat complex today," he said.
IDC analyst Alan Promisel said that the move represents a nod to corporate computer buyers, who are increasingly buying laptops for workers, leaving them with a stockpile of CRT monitors that they would like to still get use out of.
Promisel also said the idea of giving laptops the ability to turn on quickly is something customers want and a quality that is arguably better delivered today by the rival Linux operating system.
"It's lighter, in a sense, and allows a more consumer-electronics experience," Promisel said.
Along the same lines, Microsoft also wants to allow hardware makers to include smaller displays on the outside of a laptop that could let a customer see calendar information, battery status and network status without opening the lid.
The company is also considering setting up a "mobility center" within the Longhorn OS that would be a centralized place to adjust settings, such as power management, display and networking. Different profiles could be created to distinguish if someone was, say, on a plane, versus giving a presentation.
Today, such settings have to be changed individually and are scattered throughout the OS, Suokko said.
The mobility center concept is roughly similar to a "security center" that Microsoft is adding with Windows XP Service Pack 2.
As for the Tablet PC itself, one of the biggest changes being considered is the ability of the operating system to learn the handwriting of a particular user. To date, Microsoft's recognition software has focused on deciphering ink input by comparing it with the millions of samples in its library.
The issue has been a subject of heated internal debate for years, with Chief Software Architect Bill Gates among those pushing for an engine that could adapt to individuals.
The company also wants to expand its support for ink beyond text files, allowing file names, for example, to consist entirely of an ink image. The pen is also likely to get an expanded role in Longhorn. A feature known as "Flick" would allow the pen to deliver complex commands based on various gestures as opposed to just being used to move the cursor on the screen.
On the media front, Microsoft is looking at ways that all Longhorn laptops could take TV shows and other files off of a Media Center PC. That idea is just one of many ways the Microsoft is trying to make Media Center content more portable. Later this year, Microsoft plans to launch a new class of smaller devices, known as Portable Media Centers, that can play video music and photos that are downloaded from a PC.