Microsoft Personal Computing Appliance and Other WinHEC Tidbits

(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.