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Vista OS sags, FlexGo scores

Posted: 02 Jun 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:FlexGo? Windows? Vista? operating system? Microsoft?

The times, they are a-changing. A new system concept for emerging markets called FlexGo stole the show at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference last month. By contrast, Vista, the next major version of Windows, looked like a snoozer, with a roster of features that is technologically impressive but unlikely to kick-start new growth in the maturing PC sector.

Vista offers an improved security architecture, backed by crypto-packing graphics chips that has earned the operating system CableLabs-sanctioned access to premium digital cable TV content. It also sports a photo format that Microsoft claims will supplant JPEG but that lacks broad industry backing thus far.

Those developments top a laundry list of features, but they may not be enough to send jaded PC users in the developed world racing for an upgrade.

Enthusiasm appears to run far higher for FlexGo. Borrowing a page from the cellphone business model, Microsoft is pitching the OS as a solution for the developing world, with service providers subsidizing the price of Web-connected FlexGo-based PCs for potential customers in roughly 1.3 billion households.

FlexGo is still in an early trial phase, but backers-including Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Intel Corp. and Infineon AG, as well as some analystssee significant opportunities, probably starting in 2007.

"FlexGo may become the dominant OS in Asia in a couple years. It's a brilliant model," said Richard Doherty, principal of consulting firm Envisioneering. By contrast, he said, "Vista's value add is nowhere near as great as was XP," Microsoft's last major Windows upgrade, way back in 2001.

PC in every pot
In a WinHEC keynote, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said FlexGo speaks to "the original vision of Microsoft to put a PC on every desktop and in every home."

Only 6 percent of people in the developing world have PCs, but 27 percent have cellphones. That observation, along with about 18 months of ethnographic research, led a handful of Redmond staffers to the concept of subsidizing Internet PCs, much as handsets are subsidized today. FlexGo systems may sell for as little as $250, although they may have a $600+ value. The difference would be made up in payments over time for Web access.

Key to the effort is security, to ensure that users don't hack the systems to get free Internet time or remove components to make a quick profit by selling the system for parts. The FlexGo system would also let operators send a Web services message that would degrade the system's functions if the user stopped paying.

"Most security approaches aim to protect the user from someone else. This is a totally different problem," said Microsoft's Tom Phillips, who manages the program he helped conceive two years ago.

Phillips said OEMs have the freedom to implement FlexGo security in a variety of ways. Initially, the security comes in the form of firmware or BIOS, supplied by Microsoft or Phoenix Technologies, which tracks how many Internet minutes a user has consumed.

Transmeta Corp. used its "code morphing" technology to implement the features as new instructions on its Efficeon processor. OEMs such as Taiwan's Asus and India's Wistron plan to use conventional X86 CPUs with the Phoenix software. And some systems demonstrated at WinHEC use processors and memory chips soldered directly to six-layer PCBs that embed key traces deep into their substrates so devices cannot be stolen or snooped.

In 2007, AMD and Intel are expected to provide hardware security via CPUs that will embed a random number generator, hashing algorithms and secure storage. Infineon will supply an ASIC that is a version of its Trusted Platform Module modified for the Microsoft program. Later, graphics chips and hard disks may implement similar features to prevent their being scavenged from FlexGo systems.

Ultimately, the chipmakers expect that all their chip products will include such hardware to support a secure execution mode, said an AMD representative.

In some ways, the FlexGo security echoes other approaches, including one floated by Microsoft. At WinHEC 2003, the company articulated a detailed plan for PC security called the Next-Generation Secure Computing Base, built on work by the Trusted Computing Group. Microsoft ultimately shelved that program as too complex and costly. Phillips said the FlexGo approach differs from the earlier effort in both function and implementation.

Microsoft kicked off one 1,000-system FlexGo trial in Brazil this year and a second is starting now. Trials are also planned in China, Eastern Europe, India, Mexico, Russia and Vietnam in the next three months. If all goes well, the model ultimately could serve any market in which service providers would be willing to subsidize systems or unlock features over time. "FlexGo will be a growth catalyst. We expect every major OEM will be building these PCs for emerging markets," said Will Poole, vice president of client systems at Microsoft.

Closing Windows
Gates also took his WinHEC audience on a walk-through of Vista's new features, but he failed to spark excitement for the OS.

Vista's greatest achievements are in bringing a little more security to the notoriously security-impaired PC. Business users have complained about spam and malware, Hollywood moguls have ranted about pirated content, and politicians have complained the PC's problems pose a threat to cyber security in the war on terror.

"We are very happy with how we have faced these problems down. Vista is our first operating system that went through a new methodology of design and test to make sure it was secure," said Gates.

System services now operate in isolated sessions from applications to block malware. Controlled dialog boxes let users interact with those services if needed without letting them gain automatic entry to kernel resources.

Only signed versions of kernel-mode software will be loaded in 64bit versions of Vista. In the 32bit versions, however, users can still opt to install unsigned code.

Microsoft is phasing out its Crypto API in favor of a new model in Vista that is based on plug-ins. The approach opens the door to support for the latest crypto methods, including elliptic-curve cryptography. In addition, all hard drive data in Vista will be automatically encrypted, protecting the user if a laptop is lost or stolen.

Vista also makes it easier to add smart cards to the system, though Microsoft dropped plans to ease the integration of biometric sensors like fingerprint readers.

Microsoft's biggest achievement with Vista thus far has been winning CableLabs' support. Because of the new content protection scheme used in the OS, the R&D consortium of cable TV providers has agreed to let Vista access paid-for digital cable content via a one-way CableCard.

The new approach relies on graphics chips that will ship later this year with built-in support for Diffie-Hellman and AES-128 algorithms for authenticating and encrypting data. The techniques will enforce whatever copy and playback policies content owners dictate in their digital-rights management software, including preventing playback of unauthorized material.

"It took us two years to do this," said Bernard Kotzenberg, a lead program manager in Microsoft's eHome division. "We've had to jump through a lot of hoops with content owners and cable companies to prove we are protecting their content."

Graphics chip maker ATI Technologies will be the first to sell an OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (Ocur) implementation running under Vista. Ocur will not enable pay-per-view or video-on-demand features. It uses a USB interface because CableLabs considers PCI subject to man-in-the-middle attacks.

Microsoft is still negotiating with satellite TV providers, which may adopt a version of the Ocur device. Meanwhile, the company is tailoring a version of its architecture for digital-TV providers in Japan and Europe.

Photo finish
Another digital-media advance in Vista is a new file formatWindows Media Photothat was perhaps the most unexpected news announcement at WinHEC. Microsoft claims WMP will provide similar quality at half the size of a JPEG image.

"One of the biggest drivers for upgrading computers is digital photography, so anything we do to make digital photography better is good for Windows," Bill Crow, senior program manager for WMP, said at the conference.

Analysts praised the technology behind the format but noted that it lacks public backing thus far from camera, printer, system, chip and tool companies. "It's a whizbang demo, but where's the supporting hardware? Where are the Canons and HPs that should be supporting this?" asked Envisioneering's Doherty.

Microsoft said it has been working WMP with unidentified partners, including camera makers, for nearly four years. "It's been very much driven by their feedback," Crow said. But none of the partners were ready to go public at the launch.

Windows Media Photo takes a new approach to the same basic discrete cosine transform technology used in JPEG. Crow described the algorithm as a lapped biorthogonal transform that was based on published work from H.S. Malvar of Microsoft Research. The format also includes a fresh approach to such areas as color space and color conversion.

"Some of the same engineers who worked on the Windows Media Video codec VC-9 also worked on Windows Media Photo," Crow said. That let them apply to WMP "all the lessons they learned from VC-9 but weren't able to [apply to that codec] because of the schedule."

The new file format captures more of the raw information of photos to enable better presentation, editing and compression. Crow said WMP will easily enable 25:1 compression ratios for most uses of digital photography. JPEG, by contrast, allows a maximum ratio of about 12:1 before images visibly degrade.

WMP is based on a symmetrical algorithm that supports both lossless and lossy compression. It requires no complex math or special hardware support, and it is based primarily on add and shift operations, with few multiplies in its inner loops. Memory requirements are also minimal, in part because the algorithm supports encoding and decoding imagines in stripes that only need small buffers.

The format can accommodate 8bits, 16bits or 32bits per channel. It supports unsigned integers as well as fixed- and floating-point numbers.

WMP implements a relatively broad color space, which Crow defined as scRGB. Future enhancements of the format will allow for cropping and saving a compressed image without losing data, as well as allowing progressive decode.

To preserve compatibility with existing systems, WMP uses the current TIFF "container," including its approach to metadata. Using TIFF, however, limits file sizes to as much as 4Gbytesa restriction that Microsoft said it will address for high-end users in the future. Microsoft will also release tools to support WMP on existing Windows XP systems.

Targeting a broad group of licensed development partners, the company has released a developer's kit, including source code for WMP, that will let chip and system makers build support for WMP into their products.

Crow would not say whether camera, printer or chipmakers will release products supporting WMP when Vista is launched. In a sign of how quiet Microsoft has kept the effort, some chipmakers at the presentation were not even sure whether they had been informed about the technology.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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