During his keynote address at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2006 in Seattle yesterday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates talked up several upcoming products and technologies, but the eyes of the world were on Windows Vista. Gates didn't disappoint: He announced the immediate availability of Vista Beta 2--as well as simultaneous Beta 2 releases of Office 2007 and Longhorn Server--as other executives at the show proclaimed they were "confident" Vista would not be delayed further.

"We're announcing today the beta of ... the three most important Microsoft products," Gates said, referring to Vista, Office, and Longhorn Server. "We've never had this synchronized in this way before, and we think that's a great thing for us in terms of seeing how they work together."

Gates highlighted several milestones in his talk. Over 250 million PCs will be sold worldwide this year, he said, up more than 10 percent from last year. And that growth is coming across all customer segments: businesses, home users, and education. 64-bit computing is finally heading to the mainstream, and Microsoft is responding by moving its product lines, over time, away from 32-bit systems and to 64-bit. Multicore processors are also taking off: By 2009, Microsoft expects all processors to be multicore and all server and desktop chips to be 64-bit; at that time, fully 85 percent of mobile processors will be 64-bit as well.

One of the more impressive demos shown during the keynote was for Windows Server Virtualization, a free add-on for Longhorn Server that the company plans to ship about 180 days after Longhorn Server ships in late 2007. Windows Server Virtualization adds machine virtualization technology directly to the OS via high-performing and low-level "hypervisor" technology, eliminating the need for products such as Virtual PC or Virtual Server. In the demo, Microsoft's lead program manager, Jeff Woolsey, showed off multi-core, 64-bit virtual machines (VMs) to which it was possible to hot-add memory, processors, and other resources.

Gates also touted his company's Windows Live initiative, which he said would provide seamless experiences for people moving between traditional desktop software and software services. He announced a host of Windows Live-compatible hardware devices, including Windows Live Messenger-compatible VoIP phones, headsets, and Web cameras. Gates also talked up a pilot program called FlexGo, which seeks to bring rent-as-you-go computing to emerging markets. "It's a pay-as-you-go model," Gates said of the program, which lets low-income families in emerging markets purchase usage time for rented Windows XP-based PCs.