George V. Reilly

FlexGo and me

Bill Gates and Will Poole showing FlexGo at WinHEC.

Nearly two years ago, I said that I was back at Microsoft, as a contractor. A year later, I said that I was moving on, because my 12 months were up. In both cases, I said that I was doing some really in­ter­est­ing work and that I hoped to be able to talk about it some day.

Now the truth can be told: I was working on FlexGo, Microsoft’s new prepaid/sub­scrip­tion versions of Windows. FlexGo was announced last Monday and unveiled the next day at WinHEC (transcript of BillG’s speech; FlexGo is at the end). The Seattle P-I article has a good overview.

My former colleague, Gokul Thirumalai, has several posts up at his blog: initial an­nounce­ment, WinHEC, and WinHEC video.

There was some spec­u­la­tion a few months ago about a secret hardware project between Microsoft and Transmeta. The spec­u­la­tion was pretty wild, but the real project was the secure hardware platform that Transmeta put together for FlexGo: Mystery deal is high-security chip for ‘FlexGo’. Someone has taken some pictures of the Transmeta system at WinHEC.

Technology Pundits Analysis:

What makes FlexGo key to the success of this program is the timing based software and security that is built into one of these low cost PC’s. FlexGo lets the Telco or Cable companies providing the PC manage the minutes used via prepaid cards tied directly to the PC’s abilities. Let’s say that a person buys a 60 minute prepaid card. The Internet connection to the system will work for 60 minutes and then it is shut off completely until the person buys more minutes. Of course, the PC itself is not disabled so they could do normal off line work. However, the system is designed so that the Cable or Telco can even shut down and disable the system via a locked down mode if someone tries to hack it or abuses it.

This is especially true of the special system Microsoft and Transmeta created. Two years ago, Microsoft paid Transmeta $10 million to help them develop what turns out to be a truly secure system in which the cable or telecom provider has control of the system and it is virtually hack proof. AMD uses the Secure BIOS from Phoenix in their offerings but it does not work the same way the Microsoft/Transmeta system does. That is because Transmeta created specific en­hance­ments to their 1.1 GHz effecion processor and tied their secure layer to CMS and not to the BIOS itself. This co-de­vel­op­ment work was critical to Mi­crosoft­’s thinking about the project; in fact, they own this special system and design which has to be licensed directly from Microsoft along with the special XP Home edition and Transmeta just gets a royalty on every processor sold.

Fun­da­men­tal Theorem of Software En­gi­neer­ing: Any problem can be solved with an extra level of in­di­rec­tion.

Andrew "bunnie" Huang’s Hacking the Xbox (site, Amazon) was required reading.

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