Scoop or Sham?

(This column first appeared in the January 16, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

Last week, Electronic Engineering Times “scooped” the rest of the publishing world by reporting on a secretive in-house project at Microsoft called the Simply Interactive PC. According to a press release issued by EE Times, the publication had obtained internal Microsoft documents detailing the development of this new product, which is touted as a streamlined Windows-based information appliance, envisioned as “the best platform for entertainment, Internet access and communications” (their quotes, not mine).

The press release goes on to state that the “Simple Interactive PC” could steal the spotlight from the much ballyhooed $500 Internet terminal written about virtually everywhere in recent months. As if that weren’t enough, the release includes a quote from Carl Stork, a technical Microsoft spokesperson known well to all those that attend the annual WinHEC conference. To quote a quote:

“Simply Interactive PC is a theme that is guiding our investment in Windows, to deliver more interactivity,” said Carl Stork, a director of Microsoft’s personal systems division. However, he noted that Microsoft has not formally discussed the technology. “Anything we do until we say it publicly is highly speculative,” he said. “We reserve the right to change our mind.”

Here, in a nutshell, Microsoft has said absolutely nothing, implying everything. Back in the old days, you’d replace the name Microsoft with IBM and call the result FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). The conveniently leaked product plan, combined with the implication that Microsoft is pursuing the project, but with the caveat that nothing may ever come of it is questionable at best. However, all of a sudden the potential of a sub-$500 Internet terminal which attaches to your TV set has a shadow cast over it because Microsoft may be doing something better. What better way to diminish the threat of a device that many (including myself) perceive to be a major threat to Microsoft’s OS dominance than to sneakily sow the seeds of FUD among the masses?

I recall a similar turn of events when I started the VAGI committee at VESA to design a public domain 3-D API. Microsoft came to one of the initial meetings, told everyone to give them their ideas and thoughts on what they want in a 3-D interface, and Microsoft would conveniently analyze all the input, and produce something (which Microsoft would control – none of those pesky industry committees to muck with). Hence, according to Microsoft’s implied reasoning, no need for VAGI or any other non-Microsoft 3-D API effort (since it wouldn’t be controllable by Microsoft). Here we are, well over 2 years later, and the thing Microsoft promised to develop and provide to all of us as the 3-D API panacea (sorry) is still evolving and still not here. And, to hear certain game developers grousing about it, far bulkier and slower than it should be. FUD is an effective marketing tool alright.

Will the same thing happen to the sub-$500 Internet terminal now? Will Microsoft’s unofficial, non-committal announcement derail the Internet terminal train? Or will the unofficial disclosure of the Simply Interactive PC simply be ignored as yet more vaporware, as it should be? As with all such things, time will tell.