All the coffee in Seattle couldn’t dispel the somnolent atmosphere at WinHEC and, given that Seattle is the home of Starbucks, that’s an awful lot of coffee. The annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference showed that the Microsoft world is in stasis awaiting the much-delayed release of Vista. The launch pad is ready, the Vistanauts are in their seats but clouds still obscure the sky and the countdown is on hold.

In his keynote, Bill Gates did stir up a bit of enthusiasm by announcing the simultaneous release of second beta copies of Vista, Windows Server ‘Longhorn’ and Office 2007 but the rest of the presentation followed a familiar format.

First we had the broad-brush picture of the Vista landscape, followed by a truly stunning look at Windows Server virtualisation. Then a friendly customer gave thanks to Microsoft and we all gasped in awe and anticipation at a vignette of life after Vista. The finale was a plug for Windows Live developments and a final morale-booster from Gates.

It was Jeff Woolsey, lead programme manager for the Microsoft Windows Division, who gave the show-stopping demonstration of virtualisation. Just after Gates revealed that the Longhorn future is a 64-bit world, starting with Longhorn itself, then Exchange 12 and the next Small Business Server (codenamed Cougar). So it came as no surprise that Windows Server Virtualization will also follow suit.

Virtualisation is tipped as the next great return on investment trick. An underused server will be able to be populated with several server operating systems, or instances, running in their own windows, simultaneously. Woolsey’s performance resembled a magician pulling servers from a hat. First we saw a Windows Server 2003 instance running in 32-bit mode on a 64-bit server. Next he pulled out Red Hat Linux Enterprise Edition running alongside it. Mutters of “’Tis the devil’s work” ran through the audience though it was not clear whether this meant the virtualisation magic or the sudden manifestation of the Linux Daemon and all its evil works at a Windows show.

The final window was a 64-bit version of Server 2003 running on dual processors with the promise that the finished product will virtualise anything up to eight-way servers.

Woolsey the Mystic then showed how a network card could be added without stopping the server and finally conjured up extra allocated memory from thin air without the server even blinking. Microsoft claims that this trick is unique but, with a year to go before launch, competitors like VMware and ZenSource will be adding something similar to their repertoires before long.

Later in the day, Bob Muglia revealed that virtualisation will be built into Windows. So maybe Microsoft’s adversaries will be preoccupied as they compose their letters to the Department of Justice about unfair competition. A different trick requiring smoke and mirrors.

After this, the pace dropped. Media Center will be improved, Tablet PC technology is maturing, and Vista will be the interface that launched a thousand personal entertainment devices. Time to step on the gas.

Who better to supply this than the oil and petroleum company Chevron? Well, to be honest, there are several better ways to inject pace than to bring on a Microsoft vassal to pay homage. It is hard to remember what Alan Nunns, general manager for global technology and strategy at Chevron, actually said other than how great a team Microsoft and Chevron make but mutual back-slapping deserves a reward – and a gift was duly delivered. From behind the rostrum Gates produced a framed edition of the “triumvirate of major products”. In other words, the beta DVDs in gold. Not real gold, of course; Microsoft’s shares have not been performing that well lately.

The next fifteen minutes should have been preceded by a warning for those of a nervous disposition. Mika Krammer, director of the Windows division, led us into the fantasy world of Vistaland. The scary part was not the fantasy but the over-effusive disposition of the supremely confident Krammer and her hard-edged voice, reminiscent of a young Margaret Thatcher. On the plus side, she is much easier on the eye than any of the other Microsofties on stage, only equalled by her able assistant for the morning presentation, Shanen Boettcher, director of Longhorn development and eye-candy for the women.

Krammer is well-versed in MS-speak and kicked off with, “What I would like to show you today are the great customer experiences that our software can enable together with your products. So, I would ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, pretend that I'm an ad exec, and let me invite you over to my office.”

Given the marketing push that followed, disbelief was not hard to suspend. With 12 greats, nine amazings and three innovations, she certainly sounded like an ad exec.

Starting off at her office she demonstrated the rather good touch screen technology in Vista. This is a feature of the small Origami Tablet PCs that will accompany Vista’s launch and will bring an end to the expensive little pens lost down drains and gathering dust under heavy furniture rendering current Tablet PCs unusable.

This introduced Gadgets. These are small movable, interactive icons that form the basis of Microsoft’s Windows SideShow feature. Krammer’s icon showed the current weather forecast for Seattle (rain followed by showers, as usual). As her finger moved across the screen the icon followed obediently. But SideShow goes beyond this. On Krammer’s desk was a picture frame, from the UK company A Living Picture, which changed images at regular intervals.

Microsoft helping to invent moving pictures is not the end because other Gadgets can be displayed on the picture frame’s screen. Apart from revolutionising the executive’s mandatory picture of the spouse and kids, A Living Picture brings functionality to the picture frame. The UK company has designed a WindowsCE-based device that uses SideShow’s Auxiliary Display Controller to download information by Wi-Fi. This can be any Gadget created in Vista so Outlook appointments, current emails and all manner of useful personal information can be stored.

SideShow is due to become a pervasive technologies because it fits anywhere and in all kinds of shapes and sizes: on the back of laptops so the busy exec can see information without having to power up the computer or carry another device, on the desktop in keyboards and mousemats, on remote controls to show tonight’s viewing, on fridge doors to display recipes. An excellent example, yet to appear, would be on the car dashboard showing the next appointment’s details and linking to the GPS to get you there. Vista and SideShow will be anywhere and everywhere – but when?

The lasting impression of WinHEC is that there is a lot of investment in hardware products from Microsoft’s partners who are on hold waiting for the launch of Vista. Everyone is feeling a bit jittery because Microsoft insists that it will not launch until the product is right but equally emphasises that the January release date will see boxes on shelves.

Hardware has a much longer manufacturing cycle than software and many vendors have already committed to the previous October release date. The limited release to major commercial organisations promised for then means that everyone will be fighting for a thin slice of the pie until 2007. Microsoft’s assertion that it will not release the product until it is ready is commendable but cold comfort to those sitting on the launch pad waiting for the burn.