At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2004, Microsoft and some of its closest partners revealed plans for the future of PCs in the business and consumer markets. Although much of this information had already been made public at other events, WinHEC marked a convergence of these plans. Here are the top 10 trends that will change PCs within the next couple of years.

10. Death of the floppy disk— As we've all been expecting, the floppy disk is dead. Mainly because of compatibility problems, the floppy never grew beyond the 1.44MB size—minuscule by today's standards for removable media. Most new systems no longer ship with a diskette drive, and that's no great loss—when was the last time you used one? Booting into DOS isn't something that you need to do anymore.

9. USB flash drives— The USB flash drive is the heir apparent to the floppy disk. Everyone seems to love USB flash drives—and with good reason: They come in sizes as large as 1GB, are reasonably inexpensive, and work beautifully on both Windows XP and Windows 2000.

8. Fanless designs— Vendors are introducing exceptionally quiet fanless designs—even for servers. Goals are to design systems that produce less than 26Db of noise (as quiet as a whisper) and extremely quiet systems that run at 10Db (as quiet as breathing).

7. No-cable designs— One glance under most people's desks shows why cableless designs are needed. A notable demo by Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin showed a network server setup in which the only cables were power cables: Bluetooth connected the mouse to the keyboard, and Wi-Fi, the 802.11b wireless standard, connected the monitor to the network.

6. VoIP— Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2003 promises to take Voice over IP (VoIP) into the mainstream. In addition to the potential cost savings of routing voice traffic over the Internet, VoIP can be the foundation for workplace collaboration and multimedia conferences.

5. Media Center PCs— Consumers' desire to combine the capabilities of a PC with home entertainment systems keeps on growing. The next version of Windows XP Media Center Edition, due out in 2005, will include UI improvements and take advantage of very low power consumption during idle times to provide an instant-on experience.

4. Wireless security— With XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), Microsoft is working with network device manufacturers to simplify wireless network configuration. Jim Allchin demonstrated an XP wizard that saved a secure wireless configuration to a USB device, then used the device to automatically configure all remaining wireless network devices. The current software defaults to using the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard, but you can manually select Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) if your wireless devices support it.

3. PCI Express— In the hardware arena, a new bus standard called PCI Express (formerly called third-generation I/O—3GIO) is emerging. The next generation of the PCI bus, PCI Express supports a bidirectional transfer rate of 2.5Gbps and aims to supplant both PCI and Intel AGP slots. The first PCI Express­based systems should ship near the end of 2004. For more information about PCI Express, go to http://developer.intel.com/technology/pciexpress/devnet.

2. Dual-core chips— Both Intel and AMD plan to begin producing dual-core chips in 2005. The emergence of dual-core processors has put the nail in the coffin of measuring processor performance in megahertz. Dual-core processors incorporate two processor cores on one die, virtually doubling processing power without an increase in size.

1. 64-bit desktops— The biggest eye-opener for me is that, thanks to AMD's 64-bit processors (AMD Athlon 64 for desktops and AMD Operton for servers), 64-bit computing is making inroads to the desktop. Unlike Intel's Itanium, which imposes a substantial performance penalty for running 32-bit applications, AMD's 64-bit chips run most 32-bit applications faster than today's 32-bit systems do. Combining performance with a low entry price, 64-bit chips will become commonplace on the desktop within the year. Within 2 years, AMD expects to be shipping only 64-bit processors. Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP 64-Bit Edition for 64-Bit Extended Systems will enable a full-featured native 64-bit desktop environment.