This morning, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates will kick off the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2005 with a keynote address that will tout the x64 releases of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, as well as the company's next major Windows version, code-named Longhorn. Microsoft is also providing show goers with a set of DVDs that includes, among other things, a pre-Beta 1 build of Longhorn. Here's what I've found out about the events at the show from both official and unofficial sources.

Microsoft is using WinHEC to begin touting what it calls "the third decade of Windows." The first decade, I was told, was characterized by 16-bit versions of Windows. The second decade saw the migration to a 32-bit code base with Windows 95 and Windows NT. Now, in the third decade of Windows, Microsoft is moving Windows to 64 bits. And the OS that will form the foundation for the next 10 years, the company says, is Longhorn.

"2005 is the 20th anniversary of Windows," Microsoft Lead Product Manager Greg Sullivan told me recently. "And all the pieces are coming into place for transition to 64-bit computing: the availability of mainstream 64-bit processors and, now, 64-bit versions of Windows." Microsoft will announce the immediate availability of the x64 versions of Windows 2003 and XP at the show, Sullivan said.

Most interesting for x64, in my opinion, is how quickly Microsoft expects the platform to take off. According to Sullivan, x64 will be the mainstream server platform by the end of 2005. The client will lag behind until the Longhorn timeframe. At that time--late 2006--x64 will take over from the 32-bit hardware that's predominant today.

Since WinHEC is, by definition, a hardware show, Microsoft will take this opportunity to show off some hardware advances that will ship publicly in the Longhorn timeframe. The company will show off three innovative prototypes of upcoming mobile technology: a 9-inch ultrathin Tablet PC, a touch-panel Tablet PC, and more advanced auxiliary displays for notebook computers and Tablet PCs. I'll provide more information about these products after I've seen them firsthand.

As for Longhorn, WinHEC attendees will get build 5048 of the product, which is billed as a Longhorn Developer Preview. This build doesn't include the advanced Longhorn UI elements--called Aero Glass and Aero Express--although a subset of the Aero UI will debut in Beta 1 this summer. Instead, build 5048 is aimed squarely at developers and visually resembles the WinHEC 2004 build we received a year ago.

Gates will provide a glimpse of the new Aero Glass user experience during his keynote address this morning. Today, the UI in Windows has to be compatible with the lowest common denominator for graphics capabilities. But that's all changing in Longhorn. "It's no longer 'one size fits all'," Sullivan told me. "Today, most PCs have advanced graphics. Games look awesome, but Windows doesn't. The Longhorn user experience will automatically scale and tier itself, based on your hardware. If you have the right level of hardware, Longhorn will offer a very rich experience with transparencies, vector graphics, shading, 3D, and animations."

These effects aren't just for show, however. "It looks cool, but it's not just about being cool," Sullivan noted. Instead, Microsoft is working on something it calls "visualize and organize," a new way of storing and managing data on PCs. "People assumed when we took WinFS out of Longhorn that all of the search stuff was out," he added. "That's not true. We can do the vast majority of the \[search\] scenarios we discussed \[at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003\] in the Windows shell without WinFS. The Windows shell is a constrained environment. People are going to be pleasantly surprised by how nice this is."

Longhorn will include all the data visualization and organization tools that Microsoft previously showed off, including stacks, queries, and rich metadata support. "We will support multiple views of data and let people manage data in very flexible ways, even without WinFS," Sullivan told me.

Sullivan had an interesting message for Apple Computer, which is touting the search capabilities in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger," which will ship much sooner than Longhorn. "Search is great," Sullivan said. "We have desktop search with MSN, and we'll have it in Longhorn. But our contention is, if you're searching, you've lost something. We are building an automatically organized system where you don't lose it in the first place. The system is smart enough to understand the data itself and how different types of data relate to each other. What we're doing is much more impressive than the 'Hail Mary' pass of search, which often returns lots of irrelevant results. Don't get me wrong: Search is important. But it's only part of the story. The system we are delivering won't force you to search for your data."

Microsoft will also show off Longhorn technologies, such as Avalon and Indigo, and a new high fidelity printing subsystem. A new Designed for Windows program will be rolled out for Longhorn that will be broken out into two levels: a gold tier and a silver tier.

Unexpectedly, Microsoft will not announce minimum system requirements for Longhorn at WinHEC. However, Sullivan did tell me that mainstream PCs with Pentium 4 processors, 512MB of RAM or more, and a dedicated graphics adapter should run Longhorn just fine. Systems with lower specifications--for example, notebooks with integrated graphics adapters--also will run Longhorn, but will do so with a scaled-back Aero Express UI or an evolved XP-like interface. All the other Longhorn features--such as data visualization and organization--will work just fine in the scaled-back Longhorn user experiences.

I'll have more as soon as the Bill Gates keynote concludes. Stay tuned to the WinInfo Daily UPDATE Web site for continuous updates.