Q&A: “Athens” Prototype PC Inspires Innovations Showcased at WinHEC 2004

SEATTLE, Wash., May 3, 2004 — One year after it was unveiled at last year’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), the “Athens” PC prototype continues to influence trends in hardware and software development — from a proliferation of wide-screen displays to integrated wireless and telephony features. Many of these technologies will be showcased May 4 – 7 in Seattle at the 13th annual WinHEC — the premier gathering for the PC industry to explore the future for the Microsoft Windows platform.

Developed with Hewlett Packard, the “Athens” prototype represented an evolution of the PC as a center for communication and collaboration for information workers. It simultaneously simplified PC operations while merging all forms of communication — including next-generation voice, video and text messaging — into a consistent, streamlined design. The goal of the “Athens” PC was to offer a vision of what can be accomplished through the synergy of software and hardware, and to inspire developers to think out of the box.

Tom Phillips, General Manager, Windows Hardware Experience Group

For a better sense of the importance of WinHEC to the PC industry, an update on “Athens” one year after its unveiling and a preview of what attendees can expect at this year’s show, PressPass spoke with Tom Phillips , general manager of Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Experience Group.

PressPass: What is the significance of WinHEC for the PC industry?

Phillips: It’s an opportunity to do what is rarely done in the PC industry today, which is to really get a synthesized view of hardware, software and human factors — all in an aggregate form. Put more simply, PC hardware and PC software are really created by different companies, sometimes on different timelines. WinHEC provides the industry and customers an opportunity to see the synthesis of hardware and software all at the same time, particularly with an eye toward longer-term developments and innovations.

PressPass: Last year, you unveiled the “Athens” PC prototype. Where is it now?

Phillips: The PC in the ’80s and ’90s was about productivity work and traditional, asynchronous productivity applications. Today, it’s about rich communications and real-time collaboration, as has been highlighted by applications such as Microsoft Messenger, e-mail, conferencing and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) — telephony delivered over the Internet. The “Athens” PC demonstrates this transition of the PC.

The “Athens” PC prototype, a concept PC, was a coalescence of many different capabilities and features that had been developed independently. The significance of the “Athens” PC prototype was that it pulled them all together, showing interoperability and integration in ways that had never been seen before. For example, it showed that an incoming call to a cell phone enabled with Bluetooth wireless technology would be transferred seamlessly to a PC when the user simply pressed an answer button on the keyboard. The PC used the integrated speakers/microphone to manage the call audio.

In addition to the hardware, the software was integrated with the process so that users could get rich caller information such as their communications history with the caller (for example, via a pop-up window on-screen with all the voicemail and e-mail history from that person), based on the caller ID. While some of the elements themselves weren’t new, “Athens” was unique in bringing together the software, hardware, peripherals and the design to pull everything together.

The “Athens” PC concept has come a long way since last year. Although there are no PCs on the market today that include all of the elements included in the prototype, different technologies are increasingly apparent in systems available now. For example, Microsoft has shipped the Microsoft Live Communications Server and updates to its Microsoft Messenger software products, and has been joined by the rest of the industry, hardware and software, to provide some of the simplicity and functionality that were highlighted by “Athens.”

Additionally, companies have used “Athens” as a foundation for other new PC concepts and designs, several of which were demonstrated at industry forums such as the last Intel Developers Forum (IDF). Examples include several Hewlett Packard follow-on platforms — such as the Troy Desktop and mobile prototype systems — that integrate audio, video and other components. They are among the most realistic designs in the lineup of conceptual PCs, and take the “Athens” concept another step toward reality. Many of these systems will be showcased at WinHEC 2004 to demonstrate how the industry is really moving forward together.

PressPass: What other technologies within “Athens” are already on the market?

Phillips: Some examples of these technologies include wide-screen high-resolution displays, microphone arrays, “instant on” and “quiet” system fundamentals, biometrics, high-quality audio speakers, Bluetooth integration with cell phones and Bluetooth integration for notebook and desktop computers. There’s also a lot of telephony integration capabilities available today that formed a key scenario for “Athens” as a communication hub. These capabilities have been built into things like cell phones and private branch exchange (PBX) systems (private telephone networks used within enterprises).

As I mentioned earlier, some of these technologies were already on their way, and our research helped us target areas that were poised for growth. Additionally, we spent significant time with customers to assess which of these technologies really address the problems that are faced by today’s information worker. Some of these technologies were developing independently, and some were directly influenced and enhanced by the “Athens” prototype.

From a hardware standpoint, technologies and systems that will be showcased at WinHEC 2004 include a laptop with wide-screen, high-resolution display from Dell, a Tablet PC with a built-in microphone array for better audio from Toshiba, a laptop with built-in biometrics that allow users to log on to Windows using a thumb scan from Gateway, a USB biometrics storage and identification device from Sony, and an authentication/identification device from DigitalPersona. From the software standpoint, “Athens” has deeply influenced how we’re building some of the communications and telephony in future Microsoft software products.

PressPass: What was reaction among Microsoft’s industry partners to the unveiling of the “Athens” concept PC?

Phillips: Industry reaction was extremely strong because it really was one of those opportunities for the industry to be self-critical and to assess the opportunity that exists for innovative PC functionality and design. Some current PCs are suffering from a lack of innovation and have become very utilitarian. “Athens” was an example of how form, function and aesthetics really matter in terms of taking the PC from its productivity role into this new role as the core of a communication and collaboration platform. At a really basic level, it was a wake-up call to the entire industry — hardware and software — about how much this type of exciting innovation and design matters not only internally to our industry, but more importantly to our customers.

PressPass: Have you heard anything from customers around “Athens”?

Phillips: End-user customers have been really excited by the possibilities and scenarios that the “Athens” concept enables. They want something that enables real-time communication and collaboration, saves them time, allows them to be more productive and is easy to use. “Athens” showcased some of these benefits that really resonated with information workers, such as wide-screen displays that allow you to see more of your work and programs at any one time; enhanced security; and the integration of Bluetooth that reduces cable clutter. There’s also visual ergonomics research indicating that high-resolution displays improve reading performance and increase visual comfort. In essence, our customers say that something like the “Athens” concept PC is exactly what they are looking for and they want to know when they can get it!

Other industry events have also played a role in the positive reaction from customers, such as growing customer interest in technologies like VoIP at both a commercial and a consumer level — technologies that were a core part of what “Athens” demonstrated. While “Athens” was certainly not the unveiling of VoIP to the industry, it was a clear demonstration of how this technology is not only ready for prime time, but how it will fundamentally change some of the ways that we communicate and collaborate. Again, that is the purpose of WinHEC — to take some of these pivotal moments and inflection points, and highlight how they can be leveraged across both hardware and software.

PressPass: When do you see “Athens” becoming a reality for information workers?

Phillips: We’ve had requests from a lot of top original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs) about how they can design “Athens”-inspired products. There’s a lot of interest from both U.S. and international hardware manufacturers. We’ve been talking to companies in Europe and Asia about how they can build these devices into their notebooks, desktops and other types of systems. “Athens” was also an opportunity to highlight some of the software that we are building within Microsoft to leverage this new generation of hardware and technologies.

“Athens” was a four-year vision of scenarios enabled by PCs. With upcoming releases of Windows products, and the functionality of “Athens” available across software and hardware, you’re going to see a lot of the technologies shown in the “Athens” prototype come together and be integrated into products. What makes it happen is the synergy between hardware and software manufacturers. It isn’t just Microsoft — we’re listening to our customers and working with our partners to develop and deliver on this vision for the benefit of our mutual customers. We’re in it together.

PressPass: What else can people expect at WinHEC in Seattle this year?

Phillips: In addition to highlighting the latest software and hardware innovations and areas of focus for the industry, Microsoft will be demonstrating new concept PCs and devices that demonstrate the opportunities for new designs in today’s home entertainment environment. Hardware partners can expect additional details about longer-term Microsoft product developments and technologies. They will also have the opportunity to work one-on-one with their industry peers and with developers from Microsoft to address specific design points on optimizing their hardware solutions for the Windows platform.

Related Posts