Archive for April, 1996

Tying Up Loose Ends

Tuesday, April 9th, 1996

(This column first appeared in the April 9, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

It’s been a long, rough week. Two and a half conferences, way too many parties and dinners, and a vacation that’s taken me 700 miles by mini-van in 4 days. For those interested, there are no garlic-oriented restaurants in Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world; lots of Germans visit Yosemite during Easter; the Redwoods are majestic; and Eureka as it exists today does not inspire one to shout out its own name.

However, the real news is what happened, or didn’t happen, at the Computer Game Developers Conference (CGDC) and WinHEC last week.

More on Microsoft’s Personal Computer Appliance
Last week I regaled you with my “vision” that Microsoft will enter the consumer electronics market by the end of the year. Well, at WinHEC I had opportunity to attend a Press luncheon, where our featured Microsoft hosts were none other than Carl Stork, Microsoft’s technical VP big whig, and John Ludwig, VP of the Internet Division. Seeing as I would have no time better than then, I asked both Microsoft representatives “Are there any plans for a Microsoft branded home computing appliance?”

The response? A pregnant pause, nervous laughter, and a comment from Carl saying “Gee, I don’t have any such plans <giggle giggle>, do you, John?”. Of course, John chuckled a little rigidly and indicated that he personally had no such plans either. The consensus from fellow members of the press around the table I was sitting at was that I appeared to have stumbled onto something.

Something interesting is definitely brewing at Microsoft with respect to such a device, and time will tell for sure what exactly it is. Any bet takers?

By the way, did you know that Microsoft is the Java company? If they say it, it must be true, right?

Booths Better Left At Home
When wandering through exhibit halls at various shows and conferences, I most often see exhibit booths that are just plain bland and boring. More rarely I see booths that just by existing evoke an internal response. Some of these responses are positive, and some are not.

At CGDC, the Creative Labs booth caught my attention. The first thought that ran through my mind was that they hadn’t had enough time to complete their 20×20 booth set-up. Then, I realized it was intentional. For those of you not lucky enough to attend, Creative’s booth consisted of a bunch of scaffolding with monitors set in weird places, and booth staff wearing construction hats. For the life of me, all I could think of is that Creative is trying to tell people that its products are always “under construction”, and never quite ready for market. I doubt that’s the message they were trying to present. The lesson? Next time your company tries to do something clever in a trade show booth, get a couple of outside opinions so that the message doesn’t get lost in the spurt of creative energies that came up with the original booth idea.

NVidia Does Windows
Thanks to Diamond’s great marketing staff, I’ve had a brand spanking new Diamond 3D Edge board (based on the NVidia NV-1 3D chip) in my office since the beginning of the year. And in my office is where it has stayed. The one time I had the time and urge to install it in my system, I discovered that it didn’t have any Windows 3.1 display drivers – it only had drivers for Windows 95, since that’s what the Sega games that were ported to the chip required.

Seeing as at the time I spent most of my time in Windows 3.1, the 3D Edge board stayed on the shelf. Even when I moved over to running Windows 95 most of the time, it still stayed there, because I still occasionally need to run Windows 3.1, and I don’t want or care to have to swap graphics boards to do so. Well, at CGDC I discovered that I’m not the only one with this problem, and NVidia is in the process of getting an accelerated 2D Windows 3.1 driver out the door, and Diamond will soon have it available as well.

The moral of this story is: Don’t bet everything you have on a Windows 95 specific solution. Make sure to offer backward compatibility, and you’ll almost definitely sell more product, whether it be hardware or software.

Have I mentioned that Microsoft is the Java company?

3DR is Dead! Long Live 3DR!
It’s sad but true. I spoke with a senior technical person at Intel, and 3DR, Intel’s aborted attempt at a 3D API, is effectively dead. Microsoft doesn’t want Intel to promote it, and in typical fashion, Intel has bowed to the Great God of Redmond. The only 3DR effort still going on is the support of an ever dwindling number of 3DR users. Once that number  hits close to 0, expect 3DR to disappear from the face of this earth entirely.

Bag It
In closing this week’s column, I’d like to complement Microsoft (the Java company) and its partners for creating and handing out the best show bag I’ve ever received. The WinHEC canvas bag has more zippers, hiding places, and straps to carry and secure the whole thing than any other I’ve ever seen. Plus, it has enough interior volume to carry loads of material, notebook computers, and more.

That bag contrasts sharply with the ATI/Microsoft bag handed out at the Microsoft Game Developer’s Seminar II, which, when coincidentally carried by a friend of mine who happens to work for ATI, had a strap snap, plunging his notebook computer to the concrete floor below.

I’m not sure what the lesson here is, but seeing as pretty much everything else in my column this week has preached a lesson or moral, I’d guess at: Don’t put your company’s name on an inferior bag, because everyone will remember it.

Microsoft Personal Computing Appliance and Other WinHEC Tidbits

Tuesday, April 2nd, 1996

(This column first appeared in the April 2, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

It’s been just about a year since last year’s Microsoft hardware lovefest, known as the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, or simply WinHEC. By the time you read this, you’ll either be in the middle of WinHEC, or more likely, WinHEC ‘96 will have come and gone, and along with it, the usual controversy WinHEC brings with it.

WinHEC Web Site
The first bit of WinHEC news is something I found extremely amusing. Apparently, if you are trying to locate the Microsoft Web site that covers WinHEC, and use Digital’s AltaVista search engine (http://altavista.digital.com) using keyword “WinHEC”, guess what the first match is? The Richter Scale column about WinHEC ‘95, written by yours truly. I have my own Web site where I repost all my various columns, including The Richter Scale (http://www.strokeofcolor.com/richter), and the AltaVista search engine, with all its innate artificial intelligence, chose the best source of information about WinHEC to present first in its list of matches. That certainly explains the sudden interest people have had in a one year old column I happen to have on-line.

Of course, the fact that AltaVista didn’t place the official Microsoft site (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/events/winhec.htm) at the top of the list looks like it may lead to some serious commercial opportunities for Digital. They can now add another priority criterion to their match sorts – how much money someone is willing to pay to come up first in a search results list. I’m sure that’s one way search engine companies (all of whom give their service away for free in exchange for high visitation rates so they can sell advertising) could increase their revenue.

Browsers Belong in the OS
Bill Gates, the soul of Microsoft, speaking at the first Internet & Electronic Commerce Conference & Exposition in New York City, just a few days before the start of WinHEC in San Jose, said he foresees Internet browsers becoming an integral part of computer operating systems. His reasoning was that Net browsers are currently larger in code than word processing or spreadsheet programs, and that when you add the add-ins such as “RealAudio” and “ShockWave” that people use, the code gets much larger. His view is that such code fits better in an operating system. My view is that his math is a little off. If you figure out how much space Microsoft Word for Windows takes up on the hard drive, along with all of its add-in modules, you’re talking over 20MB, versus around 7MB for the latest Netscape Navigator 2.0 Gold Beta. As far as memory loaded code goes, it won’t matter if it’s in the OS or in a separate program. Either way the code will have to be there.

Gates then went on to say that a browser contained in an operating system will then allow a single view to be presented to a user — whether the information looked at is on the Internet or on a local disk. Last I knew, most browsers already allow you to look at local or remote files. Granted, the URL syntax differs a little between the two. The real story behind this comment, according to a qualified source, is that Microsoft has already committed to integrating a Web browser into Windows 97, with said browser (I assume it’s some version of Internet Explorer) also being used as the help file viewer, since Windows 97 help files will be a derivative of HTML 3.0.

For once, I agree with Bill. A Web browser should be an integral part of an operating system, but whether or not that OS or browser will be from Microsoft is a story that’s still developing. It might be Sony or Netscape… I do know that thanks to Netscape Navigator 2.0 and its Java capabilities, I finally bit the bullet and am running Windows 95 – the browser’s capabilities were more important to me than those of the OS.

Simply Interactive PC (SIPC) – The Real Story
I predict that the biggest splash of hype, by far, at WinHEC will be Microsoft’s Simply Interactive PC white paper and presentation. In an effort to sink the hype surrounding Oracle, Acorn, Sun, and many other proponents of Internet Computers (IC), Microsoft is going to try and out- hype them so that it doesn’t loose OS market share in the home. Microsoft desperately wants Windows (or some Microsoft-controlled derivative) to run on every IC that gets sold, if any get sold, and if IBM’s former weapon of Fear,  Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) is the best one to use to get its way, that’s what Microsoft will do. FUD, thy name is SIPC.

However, disguised behind the hype is a very real threat to the entire consumer computing industry.

While Microsoft will be presenting SIPC as a technology, along with a sample hardware reference design to implement an SIPC system, Microsoft is in an excellent position to finally launch itself, solo, into the consumer computing appliance market, a superset of the fabled Internet Computer. In the past, Microsoft’s forays into the hardware market have been limited to peripheral devices, like mice, keyboards, and sound boards. Now, however, Microsoft has already given a hint that it’s getting far more serious about competing with its OEM customers – a few weeks ago, it announced that it will be co-branding a new series of consumer PCs with Hewlett-Packard. I believe the next step will be the Microsoft Personal Computing Appliance, based on its SIPC technology. The MPCA will be a sub-$500 box the size of a toaster that can connect to your TV or a computer monitor, includes an Intel-compatible CPU (486DX2/66 or faster), small (80-120MB) hard disk, 3.5” floppy disk drive, 28.8 modem (upgradable to ISDN and cable), infrared keyboard and pointing device, a “lite” version of Windows NT or 95, and a full featured Web browser (Internet Explorer) which includes e-mail, newsgroup support, 3-D display, ActiveX, and Java. The goal would be to start shipping such a device by the fall, in time for the Christmas buying season.

Of course, the question might be why Microsoft would want to do this. Two significant reasons exist.

The first reason is what I mentioned earlier – Microsoft (and Bill Gates) want to guide the world into their vision of future computing, and that can only happen if they control as many computers as possible, which they can do if all those computers run Microsoft operating systems. By coming out with the MPCA, Microsoft can preempt efforts by Oracle,  Sun, and others to produce devices which would limit Microsoft’s OS presence in the personal computing appliance (PCA) market.

The second reason is more capitalistic in nature – Microsoft wants to make money. The PCA has market potential that far exceeds that of ordinary PCs. The PCA can be more easily sold into markets where computers don’t exist because it will be turnkey, and sites (homes and businesses) which already have PCs can still benefit from the PCA as well. And, the more systems out there that run Microsoft OSes, the more systems Microsoft can sell software into, whether on floppy or via Internet micro-transactions.

If you take a look at Microsoft’s actions over the last year or two, you’ll see that many of their actions have been moving them towards the release of the MPCA. Let’s take a look at how Microsoft could accomplish this.

  • Brand recognition
    You may recall recent surveys where Microsoft has brand name recognition on par with the Big Three car companies – some huge percentage of regular people know the Microsoft name, and respect it. This is thanks, in no small way, to the amazing number of dollars Microsoft spent in promoting Windows 95 last summer. Ergo, Microsoft is a brand name consumers seem to trust.
  • Intimate Systems Knowledge
    Microsoft probably understands PC systems design better than any other single company, because they have had the benefit of working very closely with every single major developer of PCs, both targeted at the consumer and commercial markets. Additionally, as a result of Microsoft’s brave attempt to make Plug and Play work, they have an intimate understanding of virtually every type of add-in peripheral which exists for PCs. Microsoft’s derived knowledge includes both technical and manufacturing expertise necessary to efficiently design and build the MPCA. And the experience they don’t have, Microsoft can easily buy.
  • Low Software Costs
    If you take a look at the sample Internet Computer component costs put forth by Oracle, you may see that software licensing costs for the OS and Web browser consume a significant portion of the overall cost of building an IC. Microsoft, by virtue of its ownership of its operating systems, can contribute an OS at no real cost to the bottom line for  the MPCA. The same applies to Internet Explorer. Microsoft currently pays a royalty to Spyglass for Internet Explorer, since IE is based on the Spyglass’ version of the Mosaic Web browsing software. However, that relationship goes away with Internet Explorer 3.0, due this summer, when Microsoft will no longer have to pay royalties, as part of a prior agreement.
  • Extensive Knowledge of the Internet
  • Microsoft has been rapidly making up for its initial underestimation of the Internet with a vengeance.  They have been collecting information and knowledge about the Internet at a dizzying pace, trying to overtake Netscape and others. Again, what they haven’t been able to develop themselves, they have gone out and bought.
  • Lots of Resources
    Did I mention that Microsoft has lots of money? Money talks. In addition to money, they also have lots of people to throw at things.
  • FUD
    As I mentioned above, using FUD to keep the market and consumers unclear about what to do while it’s readying the MPCA is a great tactic that has proven itself to work in the past for IBM and other companies.
  • Data Communications Company Relationships
  • What appears to be a small news item from Microsoft’s Internet Professional Developers Conference is a major key in getting the MPCA hooked up to the outside world (i.e. the Internet). What I’m referring to here is the ISDN sign-up program Microsoft is offering on its Web site. In setting up this sign-up program, Microsoft has struck up business relationships with every major US phone company, a key component in hooking the MPCA up to phone lines and ISDN lines. Additionally, in the last couple weeks, Microsoft announced a deal with DirectTV to provide software support for linking Windows with data downloads via digital satellite. The only other type of relationship missing is one with cable companies, and I’m sure such deals are in the works.
  • On-Line Financial Transactions
    Microsoft has spent considerable resources in trying to be a prominent proponent and developer of various on-line financial transaction systems, ranging from home banking to charging pennies for individual Internet transactions. What a great way to be able to charge MPCA users for software, either on a per-use basis, or a per-minute basis!

I see the above items as overwhelming reasons for Microsoft to be kicking off the PCA market with the MPCA. The only negative would be alienating their existing systems OEMs, which isn’t that much of a problem, since those OEMs have no viable alternative options to Microsoft’s virtual OS monopoly. Sign me up for an MPCA to use in my living room this Christmas.

Sued For Trademark Infringement
Okay, so we all figured it had to happen sooner or later. Microsoft would develop some product or technology, give it a name, and piss off some small company which claims it owns the rights to that name. Well, it’s finally happened, although in a rather unexpected way. Turns out that the estate of Malcolm X has recently filed a ten million dollar lawsuit against Microsoft for trademark infringement as a result of Microsoft’s recent announcement of Active X. It appears that the suit also includes Direct X.

The estate of Malcolm X claims that the use of the trailing “X” in Microsoft’s new technology naming conventions diminishes the value and heritage inherent in the name and memory of Malcolm X, and in addition to the $10 million, has asked the court to require Microsoft to include a multimedia tribute to Malcolm X with each copy of Windows 95 they ship.

As one might expect, Microsoft officials claim the suit has no merit.

Conclusion
WinHEC will be interesting this year, and I hope a little less commercial than in previous years. Keep an eye out for the real meaning behind various announcements made at the conference.

Also, while the MPCA concept is no joke, the Malcolm X item is. April Fools! Although, I wonder why Microsoft would start WinHEC on April 1st. Some twisted mind set that up, to be sure.

Microsoft & VRML

Monday, April 1st, 1996

(This column first appeared in the April, 1996 issue of CAD++VRML)

This Column

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for some time, you may be familiar with my Garage Entrepreneur columns, through which I have tried to share my view of entrepreneurialism with you. If you enjoyed those columns and would like to see future ones, please drop me a note via e-mail.

In the meantime, expect to see this column, The Richter Scale, in this newsletter regularly. While the title of this column generally refers to the measurement of seismic activity, in this case it deals with my view of the world. In some Richter Scale columns I’ll provide opinions you may or may not agree with, and in others I’ll review products and offerings from various technology companies and rate them on a scale of 1.0 (pathetic) to 10.0 (earth shattering).

Microsoft & VRML
In this month’s installment of The Richter Scale, I’ll be taking a look at Microsoft’s role in the future of 3D model and world distribution, in particular with reference to VRML.

The Birth of ActiveVRML
As some of you may know, last December Microsoft released a specification for a new 3D description language called ActiveVRML – a name which many considered to be an act of hubris. After all, VRML is the name for a standard that has been developed by an industry wide group of 3D evangelists, and anyone, particularly Microsoft, using those four sacred initials in naming a product is equivalent to a virtual slap in the face. Especially since ActiveVRML doesn’t have much in the way of real VRML support, according to a number of vocal parties.

In questioning members of the www-vrml mailing list, no one seems to know if anyone actually owns the VRML name, something that’s not too difficult to believe of a group that deals more with collaborative development efforts than intellectual property protection. Unfortunately, that only makes it easier for corporate behemoths like Microsoft to trample their rights and efforts. My recommendation to any members of the VAG would be to immediately trademark “VRML” and send a letter to Microsoft to change the name of its product. Otherwise Microsoft may decide to lay claim to the name.

In any event, we’ve now learned that the “Active” part of the Microsoft specification name is part of an overall plan that Microsoft has to name similar technologies ActiveThis or ActiveThat, as in ActiveMovie and ActiveX Controls.

Microsoft Stumbles, Again
After calling their specification ActiveVRML, and submitting it to the VAG for consideration for becoming VRML 2.0, the next act of arrogance Microsoft committed was to not participate in the industry wide discussion pertaining to what will ultimately become VRML 2.0. That is, until a couple of weeks ago.

At that point, Salim AbiEzzi, product manager for ActiveVRML (and coincidentally, a college friend of mine from more than a decade ago), dropped several messages on the www-vrml mailing list. The first was to denounce the marketing efforts by SGI and Netscape in promoting Moving Worlds as the leading choice for VRML 2.0. In Salim’s words: “Unfortunately, the future of VRML became the subject of a public relations campaign and not of a technical exchange in pursuit of the better answer.”

Boo hoo. For once, Microsoft’s fabled marketing engine was out marketed. The issue of whether ActiveVRML is technically better than Moving Worlds has been debated vociferously, but without Microsoft coming out the clear winner or clear loser.

In addition to the above statement, Salim provided a technical rebuttal to SGI’s comparison of Moving Worlds with ActiveVRML.

Unfortunately, with the polling for VRML 2.0 support just a scant week or so later, it was a case of too little too late. Salim and other Microsoft staffers were openly chastised for not having participated in the open discussions that had been going on in the months since ActiveVRML was announced and the time Microsoft decided to counter SGI’s claims.

In Microsoft’s defense, the company is not used to having to justify itself to anyone. In the PC industry, which many of the VRML participants are not part of, when Microsoft issues a specification, folks rally to Microsoft’s banner, paying as much homage as they can. In the case of the ActiveVRML announcement, I gather they kept waiting for someone to show, and that just didn’t happen. By the time they apparently realized it, SGI and Netscape had stolen their thunder.

As part of the damage control, Microsoft let www-vrml participants to download an alpha version of the ActiveVRML browser, but that required downloading a beta 12MB ActiveX SDK, as well as many more megabytes of a beta DirectX driver set. Those few brave soles who had enough patience to download all this stuff (I got about 2/3rds of the way through after 4 days of trying) couldn’t get it to work. All this in the last few days before the VRML 2.0 polls closed.

As part of the discussion Salim initiated, it came out that Microsoft has no intention of dropping ActiveVRML in favor of anything the VAG might approve as VRML 2.0. Quite to the contrary, Microsoft intends to market ActiveVRML, assumedly against VRML 2.0.

Microsoft’s Motivations
Why would Microsoft want to go against industry consensus? Well, it all comes down to control. Control is a concept that Microsoft’s Chairman, Bill Gates, has imbued his company with. Microsoft has learned through past lessons, control is the key to the future. If Microsoft can’t control standards, then it can’t maintain an edge over its ever diminishing base of competitors.

At a conference I was at a couple of years ago, I asked a panel of interactive television proponents if they believed in standards. The spokesman from 3DO piped up and said “Sure, 3DO believes in market standards… providing we own them”.

Microsoft has followed the same philosophy, a philosophy, that while critical for self preservation, is one that also tends to alienate socialist technologists (most anyone that believes in committee and consensus driven standards).

Perhaps the alienation wouldn’t be as extreme if Microsoft didn’t bully people into submission. However, the alternative would be working in a committee, which would give someone else that isn’t Microsoft control, and that just wouldn’t work for them.

I have first-hand experience with Microsoft’s ability to derail committee-based standardization efforts when such efforts threaten the future as they perceive it to be. Back in the fall of 1993, I was vice-chairman of the Video Electronics Standards Assocation (VESA), and had also kicked off the VESA Advanced Graphics Interface (VAGI) committee. VAGI’s mission was to create a cross- platform, royalty free, low-level 3D API and implement it on a number of reference platforms. Shortly after VAGI got its start, Microsoft charged in, presented OpenGL as its solution to 3D and told us not to bother with our efforts, since OpenGL already did everything we needed. When that didn’t fly, Microsoft offered to take everyone’s input on a true low-level interface, and produce something that would make everyone happy. They would integrate the result into what would ultimate be called 3D-DDI.

A number of VAGI participants jumped ship at that point, and that was the start of the end of VAGI, which folded the following summer, after a specification was actually close to being completed. The death knell was that not enough companies would commit the necessary resources to implement the specification, as the appropriate resources were, in many cases, committed to support 3D-DDI.

The irony is that 3D-DDI has come and gone, to be replaced by Direct3D, which as of this writing still isn’t shipping. However, it took the purchase of a leading 3D API company, RenderMorphics, to get Microsoft reoriented towards what VAGI had been working towards in the first place. The only difference? Microsoft controls Direct3D.

Conclusion
When it comes to Microsoft, control is key. If they express interest in some technology, but don’t seek to control it, either directly or by introducing competing technology, then they aren’t truly interested. If they are truly interested, they will seek to control.

But, Microsoft isn’t always successful. Look at PenWindows, Bob, 3D-DDI, and many other mis-steps they’ve taken over the year. However, you can’t say Microsoft hasn’t learned from those experiences.

Will ActiveVRML be a Bob or a Windows 95? Time will tell.