Microsoft's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) has always been a bellwether event for future hardware trends. But last year's show set a precedent that will continue this year--prepping developers, enterprises, and consumers for the many advances in Longhorn, the next major Windows release. To that end, the agenda for WinHEC 2004 won't disappoint attendees who are eager to hear about Longhorn. Microsoft will present a variety of Longhorn-related enhancements, including digital-media advances, portable devices, Media Centers, low-level graphics, and other related technologies.
  
WinHEC 2004 attendees will receive the alpha Longhorn release--the first such release since Microsoft released a pre-alpha Longhorn build at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 last October in Los Angeles. The new build will feature yet another interim theme, not the advanced Avalon-based UI that Microsoft will likely issue to testers sometime next year. Microsoft will also distribute a new release of the Windows Platform Software Development Kit (SDK), which will help developers get up to speed with the new and updated technologies underlying the new build.
  
The big news this week will be Microsoft's unveiling of Longhorn's system requirements, which are expected to be far more realistic than any earlier Windows requirements. "We are going to provide some broad guidance to hardware manufacturers about the kind of systems that will be great Longhorn systems," Lead Program Manager Greg Sullivan said. Analysts expect minimum requirements to start with a 4GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM, built-in wireless networking, and a DirectX 9-capable 3D accelerator with at least 128MB of RAM. But the recommended system could be far more powerful; either way, the requirements will likely exceed the capabilities of any PC system that's available today.
   
Microsoft will also address non-Longhorn matters at the show, which kicks off tomorrow, as usual, with a keynote address by Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin. The company will explain its decision to further delay Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) until late this summer and will likely announce that it has merged the XP SP2 and XP Reloaded projects (Microsoft had planned separate major marketing campaigns around each release). This year, the company is also shipping a suite of digital-media technologies, including a new version of Windows Media Player (WMP) and a new version of Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), code-named Symphony.
  
I'll be at the show all week with Keith Furman and Joseph R. Jones and expect to have a lot of interesting news to report. Stay tuned for regular updates.