Archive for November, 1996

COMDEX ‘96 and Parting Advice

Tuesday, November 26th, 1996

(This column first appeared in the November 26, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

Well, this appears to be my last PCGR column, at least for the next couple months while I go on sabbatical, so I figure I had better make it count…

This was my 10th COMDEX/Fall, and while I usually leave the show with some bad cold or other easily contracted illness associated with shaking the hands of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have done the same with other countless people, any of whom could be ill, this time was different. I was counting my healthy blessings after returning home Thursday… Until I got a paper cut, on my left cornea. That’s right, a paper cut on my eye ball. My wife Linda’s first reaction was to laugh hysterically and then blame it on the COMDEX curse. She’s probably right. Anyhow, it only took two doctor’s visits, a patch and a day to heal. I guess I’ll avoid COMDEX for a couple of years to see if my health improves.

However, stories of stupid injuries aside, I went to COMDEX to bring you back some insights, so here, in no particular order are the things I learned at COMDEX this year.

Jake’s Best of COMDEX
Best New Hardware Product: Trinity Video Production System by Play Inc. (http://www.play.com)
Best New Hardware Runner-Up: Web TV from Sony and Philips/Magnavox
Best New Software: Tomb Raider by Core, published by Eidos
Best Product Roll-Out Entertainment: Mystere by Cirque de Soleil, courtesy of Microsoft Windows/CE
Best Bowling Score at Graphics Bowling Night: 168 (mine)
Best Adult Spin on a PC Game Title: Duke Screw’em 38D (vs. Duke Nukem 3D)
Most Bizarre Booth Show Concept: Samsung’s Fashion and Technology fashion show for high tech women
Most Annoying Pre-COMDEX Occurrence: Press releases sent as attachments to e-mail
Best Way to Get Your Car Quickly From a Valet: Tip valet $5 when you drop the car off

The DVD/DOS Dilemma
While talking to the folks at ProCD (they make those frequently updated CDs with everyone’s address and phone number) at the ShowStoppers media-only event at COMDEX, I discovered ProCD has already mastered a DVD-ROM packing the contents of their 5 CD set onto a single DVD disc. However, in the process of doing this, they discovered an interesting flaw, at least under older operating systems. It turns out, that unless you have an operating system with 32-bit FAT support, like the latest releases of Windows 95 and Windows NT, you can only access the first 2 gigabytes of a DVD-ROM. That’s because DOS, Windows 3.1, and the initial versions of Windows 95 have a 2GB drive address limitation. That’ll put a real damper on some DOS game titles that currently require more than 4 CD-ROM discs for a complete game. It also means that Microsoft’s goal to force the world to its newest and latest operating systems will be aided, because DVD-ROM will be next to useless on anything else. I’m sure Bill Gates will be laughing all the way to the bank.

The Direct3D/DOS Dilemma
Direct3D (D3D) was the promised panacea to all of our 3D ills and woes on the PC, especially if we were game developers.

DirectDraw was the intended 2D panacea. Well, it appears game developers still aren’t biting. I’ve had the “pleasure” of being a judge for the Software Publisher Association’s annual CODIE awards in the category of Adventure and Role-Playing Games. Of the 27 new titles I’m judging, guess how many are Windows 95 only? Two. The rest are predominantly DOS based, and several are pretty heavy duty on the 3D side. The only use of Windows 95 that’s evident is that some of the DOS games use DirectDraw to get the frame buffer address for the graphics board, and then they continue running exactly the same code they use for the DOS-only games. Not an accomplishment Microsoft should be proud of.

So far, other than the two games Microsoft has published (HellBender and Monster Truck Madness), I’ve only seen one other Christmas ’96 title (HyperBlade) shipping with D3D support.

Sure, there are many companies which have promised to ship D3D games, but where are they? Running on DOS, with hardware specific 3D support. Long live DOS.

However, it is heartening to learn, for Microsoft’s sake, that VRML browser and tool developers seem to be hopping on the D3D bandwagon with total abandon. What this tells me is that D3D is good enough for applications which run at a few frames per second (fps), but not ones that require 15+ fps. I’m sure this isn’t Microsoft’s intention, but it is what their attempt to dominate PC 3D graphics APIs has wrought.

Windows/CE – Hands-On

As a member of the press, I had access to a loaner Casio Cassiopeia Windows/CE handheld computer during COMDEX. It was a great way to get hands-on experience with Windows/CE.

Let me provide a quick review in terms of pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Windows 95 GUI. While I’m still not a big fan of Windows 95, I must admit that its user interface has grown on me. I really like the task bar (when none of the applications have hung or crashed). Windows/CE offers the same look and feel, and made it very easy to start using the Cassiopeia.
  • Touch screen. All Windows/CE devices have a touch screen and a stylus you should use to select stuff via the touch screen. I found the touch screen easy to use, even with my large, meaty fingers.
  • Convenience. You can turn off a Windows/CE machine at any point, and turn it back on again and resume where you left off, pretty much instantly. While some notebook computers do this, you can do it one-handed with a Windows/CE machine, which just happens to fit in a jacket, or, if you’re daring, in your back pocket.
  • Backlighting. Don’t even bother looking at any personal organizer, PDA, PC companion, or handheld computer if it doesn’t have backlighting, which the Casio Cassiopeia does.
  • Keyboard. For such a small device, the keyboard is surprisingly usable. That’s especially important for those of us whose handwriting is beyond the recognition of devices like the Pilot or Newton.
  • Applications. It’s nice to be able to use a reasonable word processor, spreadsheet, task manager, and calendar program on a handheld PC, and even better when you can easily move data back and forth between your desk top PC and the handheld. Windows/CE provides all this (although not without flaws, see Cons)
  • Size. While still a little larger and heavier than I would ideally like, the Casio Cassiopeia and other Windows/CE devices I checked out seemed to pack a lot into a little package. Under a pound, and it fits into a pocket.

Cons:

  • Performance. I was disappointed by having to see an hour glass appear whenever I pulled up or switched to a new application on the Casio. It reminded me of the way Windows 95 brings my powerful desktop system to a crawl. Everything is in RAM and ROM, with no disk access required. So why is it so slow? Because everything’s been written in horribly inefficient, but portable, C++ code. A faster processor probably wouldn’t hurt either.
  • RAM/ROM. Bill Gates made a big point about how technology has only recently come to the point where Windows/CE was affordable. I beg to differ. Windows/CE and its related applications could easily run on half the RAM and ROM a base system ships with if only Microsoft’s engineers had been willing to write space efficient code in a lower level language than C++. But it’s not Microsoft’s place in life to compromise…
  • Battery Life. I would have been willing to overlook all the other flaws of a Windows/CE handheld device (and buy one at the special press price I was offered) if it had decent battery life, but after “on” time of only 5 hours (on AA batteries), and inserting a standard PCMCIA modem card, I got a warning that I should switch to AC power (an additional costly option on the Casio Cassiopeia) immediately if I wanted to use the modem card. For a device that promotes communications freedom, tying yourself to a AC outlet (along with the adapter you need) is plain ridiculous. My goal had been to plug the modem into my cell phone so I could check e-mail from wherever I happened to be – in a car, airport, hotel lobby, trade show floor, etc., but it wasn’t going to happen withthis device. By the way, average “on” time for current Windows/CE devices using AA batteries appears to be less than 10 hours.
  • Price. I think $499 for a basic model is still a bit steep. But, compared to a Sharp Zaurus, it isn’t all that bad, I guess. However, compared to the immensely popular Pilot from U.S. Robotics, it’s a lot of money. Still, it’s more than I’m willing to pay.
  • Synchronization. When it works, it works great. When it doesn’t work, watch out. I tried to transfer my schedule from my PC notebook to the Cassiopeia right after I got it, and got nailed by a “feature” in Microsoft Schedule+ that readjusts all the times when you change your machine’s time zones. This resulted in all my COMDEX appointments being listed three hours off on the handheld. Windows/CE provides no way to brute force an update from the PC – everything always has to be synchronized and play nice. The only way to start over is to remove the batteries from the Windows/CE device and loose everything in memory, and then reload it. That’s about a 20-30 minute, annoying effort. Argh.
  • IrDA. For those of you who don’t know IrDA, it’s a fancy name for the infrared port most notebooks ship with these days. Well, Windows/CE devices have IrDA as well, but it appears you can’t use it to transfer data between a notebook and a handheld. It’s use seems to be limited to communicating solely between Windows/CE handhelds. That’s very limiting.

Net result? I’d buy a Windows/CE device if I could get it with a much better battery life, better performance, and a lower price. But I wouldn’t buy any of the Windows/CE devices now shipping.

Microsoft Logos
In closing this column, I’d like to remind you all about the threat that Microsoft’s hubris is to our industry, and most others as well, with a current example of the Redmond behemoth’s excesses.

This warning all started with a phone call I got from a concerned graphics hardware company a couple of months ago. They called to complain about what they considered to be unfair practices on Microsoft’s part. In particular, they were complaining about WHQL – the Windows Hardware Qualification Lab. That’s the place  where hardware vendors get their Microsoft conformance logos.

These conformance logos are of great interest to large systems OEMs like Gateway 2000, Micron, Compaq, IBM, and countless others, because if all the hardware components of a given PC have the logo, then the PC gets the logo as well, and the systems manufacturers gets a nice fat discount from Microsoft on a Windows 95 or NT bundle. Microsoft justifies this discount by stating that having a conforming PC lowers Microsoft’s support costs for the PC, which then get passed on to the PC manufacturer. However, the OEMs are responsible for supporting the PC users and not Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft will send people back to the OEM for free support of OEM versions of Windows.

That doesn’t change the fact that PC manufacturers are requiring graphics hardware companies that want to do business with them to pass WHQL’s certifications tests, putting the fate of much graphics hardware in the hands of Microsoft’s WHQL.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be too bad if WHQL used published compliance standards for its testing, and stuck to them. But that is unfortunately not the case. It appears from accounts from a number of graphics hardware companies I’ve spoken to that WHQL tends to be quite arbitrary in their certification process. For example, if whoever is testing a given board/driver combination at WHQL doesn’t like some aspect of the driver’s user interface, the board and driver are automatically rejected, with a vague explanation. However, nowhere are these types of user interface requirements clearly documented, leaving hardware companies guessing as to what might pass and what might not.

Even more serious are sudden changes in direction WHQL has recently made, most notably publicly (at a vendor forum) refusing to certify any driver which uses GDI by-pass, whether that feature can be disabled by the user or not. This approach has been used by several leading hardware companies to squeeze better performance  out of Windows by avoiding sluggish GDI core code for years, but now all of a sudden WHQL considers it illegal. And because a graphics hardware company needs WHQL approval to sell to its biggest customers (OEMs), such companies have no choice but to follow where Microsoft leads.

What Microsoft is doing here is nothing short of forcing conformance to ever tightening (and frequently undocumented) standards, leaving graphics hardware manufacturers, especially those using similar silicon with little room for product differentiation. A homogeneous sea of sameness in the graphics hardware market will not benefit consumers.

It’ll get even worse when hardware companies are required to adhere to the PC 97 specification to get their conformance logo. Microsoft bringing some order into the universe of driver-of-the-week benchmark performance tweaked, non-regression-tested code is probably a good thing, but in an intensely competitive market area, where software differentiation is the name of the game, the WHQL process is too heavy-handed.

What are your options? Band together and refuse to get any of your products WHQL certified. Will this happen? No, because someone will always be trying to cozy up with Microsoft to gain the upper hand against his/her competitors, regardless of the long term outcome of such behavior.

In Closing
Now that I’ve gotten my final anti-Microsoft tirade out of my system (and hopefully into yours), let me say adieu.

It’s been fun. Keep in touch.

The Computerization of Television

Tuesday, November 26th, 1996

(This column first appeared in the November 12, 1996 issue of PC Graphics Report)

As I write this column, I’m sitting in front of my 35-inch television, watching typical Sunday afternoon mindless, but nevertheless entertaining, TV drivel.

That brings to mind something that’s been bugging me for a while. Earlier this year, I had a chance to play with Gateway 2000’s Destination system – the first PC to integrate a Wintel machine with a television. It was interesting. Interesting enough to others, apparently, that several major PC manufacturers are coming out with similar TV/PC combo systems — several of which will be on display at COMDEX next week.

These new products are all part of an on-going trend of convergence of computer and television technology. Back in 1993, in my first Richter Scale column for PCGR (see PCGR, 16 November 1993, p.750), I reported on the state of interactive television (IT). IT was the original concept that the term “convergence” was applied to. However, thanks mostly to the Internet, IT in its original form has pretty much gone by the wayside, to be replaced with PCs and NCs connected to the Internet and TVs in one way or another. Which brings us back to the Destination and its newer brethren.

Convergence
Convergence is the new holy grail, as companies ranging from Intel, Toshiba, and Compaq, to Sony, Zenith, and Sega will all attest to — if not by words, then at least by actions. While convergence happy companies are churning out products, technologies, and standards at a feverish pace, there appears to be great disparity in their offerings and implementations. Everyone knows that convergence offers enormous market potential, but no one knows exactly how or where. The only common factors they all seem to agree on are that convergence involves the Internet, a CPU, and a display.

Just as implementations vary, so do the end results. Some companies feel that the TV is going to evolve as an extension of a PC. Others see convergence as a means to guarantee on-going use of specific computer components. Still others see computers evolving into a new type of A/V component, in the same vein as a VCR. Many of these companies have done market research on what consumers are looking for in a combined computer and TV, and it appears from the results that they are getting a lot of conflicting answers.

Let’s take a look at a few of the different implementations of this so called convergence:

The PC as TV Tuner
The Gateway 2000 Destination is an excellent example of the “PC as TV Tuner” concept. The Destination features a 31-inch monitor, which acts as the system’s PC display. The Destination is a PC first and foremost, and a TV second. This results in a powerful PC limited by a measly 640×480 display (I’d expect at least 1280 x 1024 on a 31-inch display), and a TV with artifacts resulting from a perpetually digitized image.

As best as I can figure, the Destination is targeted at the same people who buy A/V components based on which one has the largest remote control. In this case, the remote is an entire PC, along with the heat and power consumption of a PC, and all the pitfalls of a PC. Imagine not being able to watch TV because it won’t boot. (I wrote a humor piece on this very topic a couple of years ago –you can find it on my new Richter Scale web site (see  http://www.richterscale.org/humor/tvboot.htm).

Another limitation of a system like the Destination is that not everyone wants a 31-inch TV. Some folks want 20-inch TVs, while others want 35-inch or larger sets. Gateway would have been better off selling the PC component of the Destination as a standalone item, letting consumers buy their own TV. However, that points out another flaw of the current state of convergence – today’s TVs can’t even clearly display the paltry 640×480 resolution the Destination’s PC requires.

Perhaps the biggest drawback I see of Destination-like systems is that the focus is on the PC and not the TV. I know that when I sit down on my living room couch to watch TV, I’m there to vegetate. I do not want to have to boot my TV. I do not want to have to enable TV mode. I want to just turn it on, surf some channels, and relax. However, if I want to pull up a Web page, switch over to a video game, or something my TV can’t currently do by itself, I’d like the ability to enable the required device, change my TV’s input source (or better yet, using my Picture in Picture (PIP) feature) and get the results I’m looking for. This still means that my TV is the center of my living room universe, and not a PC.

The PC as TV Companion
A more plausible approach towards convergence is a PC acting as companion to a TV, which is the pitch Intel is making with its Intercast technology. Intel is trying to get users to plug their computers into their TV transmission stream (cable, DSS [Digital Satellite System], antenna, etc.) so that at the same time they are watching TV, their computers can be pulling up all sorts of viewing program specific information from the Internet. Examples Intel provides include real time sport statistics during a football game, up to the minute news coverage, and most importantly, automatic downloads of information from advertisers.

As with everything Intel does, Intercast stresses the requirement for a PC, preferably one with an Intel Pentium or better processor, and lots of hard disk space to handle all the downloads of excess information from various networks and advertisers. The need for the hard disk for caching such information, as well as the implied requirement of a Pentium grade CPU is what Intel claims will prevent Network Computers from being able to support Intercast properly.  In my mind, that’s a great argument in favor of an NC.

The Intercast approach is compatible with both the Destination model of convergence, as well as that of the PC as an A/V component (see below). The PC can also be used completely independently from the TV. This approach allows for greater flexibility in terms of PC usage and integration with the TV.

However, I’m still not sold on Intercast itself — I have absolutely no interest in having my hard disk filled with advertisements. It’s bad enough I get a bunch  of unsolicited spams via e-mail each week.

A/V Component
The direction I’m most comfortable with convergence taking is in making the computing device just another A/V component of the entire entertainment experience. The TV acts as the main output device, allowing you to switch between the regular TV transmission stream, and specialized A/V devices like VCRs, video disc players, video game consoles, and now, Web enabled devices.

The latter category includes things like the Web TV-branded units from Sony and Philips, rumored DVD/Web machines, the Sega Saturn with NetLink, and a number of other products in the development pipe. In terms of volumes, International Data Corp. (IDC) predicts that these types of devices are going to out  sell all other types of Internet-enabled non-PC devices. Sales in 1997 should hit 1.2 million devices, and 4.6 million devices in 1998. Note that IDC separates set-tops into a separate category, so those units are not included in these figures.

As I pointed out above, PCs can be A/V components, as long as you’re not having the PC act as the device controlling what you see on your TV. There’s nothing quite like playing a first person game like Duke Nukem 3D or Hexen on a large screen TV, with full surround sound blaring around you.

Set-top Box
I’m personally not sure where my designation of A/V component ends, and the designation of a set-top box starts, in terms of convergence, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the difference is that the set-top box combines the management of the TV signal feed with Internet access. Simply said, you take your existing cable or DSS box, and add Internet access capabilities to it. Outside of some cable trials, I haven’t come across any such devices.

These devices are the progeny of yesteryear’s concept of Interactive Television. Since set-tops are generally provided by cable companies, the access to these devices by consumers is dictated less by consumer demand than by individual cable operators. Nevertheless, IDC expects that 160,000 Internet enabled set-tops to be sold by the end of this year.

I think the set-top box convergence solution is also quite reasonable, as it leaves consumers with an existing paradigm (the cable box) imbued with new features (Internet surfing). Its success depends heavily on how soon cable companies get these devices into the market – and there’s some question as to how willing they are to do so, since they cost a significant chunk of change relative to normal cable boxes, and cable companies normally subsidize such boxes with monthly fees for programming.

TV Integrated
The ultimate type of convergence, one that several TV companies have been working on, is the integration of TV with an Internet compatible computing device — all in a single box. While the aesthetics of an integrated Internet TV are appealing, I would have some concerns about being able to upgrade the Internet access component of the TV to keep up with the on-going revolutionary changes occurring on the Internet. The benefit of external devices is the ability to upgrade them, either piece by piece or by complete replacement.

It is interesting to note that in this area the U.S. is woefully behind the times. Our TV has only recently started offering closed captioning (one form of an additional data feed on a TV signals) as a standard feature, and then only because of an act of Congress.

In Europe, in the meanwhile, most TVs have been offering Teletext for many years. Teletext is a perpetual data feed during the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI) between image frames on TV. The data feed sends a new page of text information each frame. The TV doesn’t need any serious data storage because each page is repeated every few seconds. For example, when visiting my brother in Germany, I was able to check out the ski conditions at Val D’Isere in France by enabling the Teletext menu on his TV for a popular German TV channel, entering the page number for the menu of ski conditions, and after a couple seconds once the right page had been displayed, selecting the page number for Val D’Isere. The wait was no longer than waiting for today’s Web pages. Teletext even offers simple graphics.

But, Teletext offers no bidirectional data traffic – it’s purely a polling system. However, each channel of TV programming offers its own Teletext feed, which greatly expands the content options. Even better, on channels where fixed programming was offered (such as a specific movie or series), you could use the Teletext interface (also built into German VCRs) to automatically record a program selected off a Teletext screen, and even self-correct the time in case the program was moved. This was three years ago. Heck, we still can’t do that here.

So why has Teletext worked so well in Germany and elsewhere? I’m not sure it’s government mandated, but because the technology has been built into the TVs and VCRs en masse, at basically no extra charge, it gets used and widely adopted. Can the same thing work here with the Internet? Maybe, if the price is right or TV sets are required to adhere to some basic Internet standard. Sure would be a lot better than that foolish V-chip requirement for content censoring.

But I digress…

The Meaning of TV
The reason I wrote this column is that I still sense that what many computer companies are missing in terms of convergence is that TV is part of a culture built around cheap, usually mindless entertainment. Expecting anything more of consumers (myself included) is a matter of self-delusion on the parts of  these companies. We want to be entertained in front of a TV – we don’t want to have to work or think much, other than during Jeopardy or a good mystery,  perhaps. And some of the proposed convergence solutions aren’t taking that into account. So, if you’re in a company trying to target the TV viewing public, follow the lead of a consumer marketing and entertainment expert like Sony, and not the lead of a computer, chip, or software company.

So Long, For Now…
Next week’s COMDEX may be my last one for some time. Following COMDEX, I’m going to be taking a couple months hiatus from the PC graphics industry while I try to figure out what I’m going to do for the next decade or two of my life.

I’ve been directly involved with the personal computer industry since 1979 – almost 18 years – and to be honest, I’m feeling a little burnt out. And thanks to the examples Microsoft and others have set for the rest of the computer industry in terms of never-ending product announcements, “standards”, and strategic redirection, I have recently started feeling rather overwhelmed by the sheer volume of knowledge I need to digest to stay ahead of the pack.

At this point in my life, I think I want to concentrate on raising my family (a 17-month-old daughter, and a new baby due in April), becoming a more rounded human being (mentally and spiritually – I’m already too round physically), and giving something back to our environment and society (stay tuned).

I’m not sure where my upcoming introspection will lead, and I’m not sure if I’ll be back in these pages as a regular contributor after the two month sabbatical I’m taking. However, many of you have made a profound difference in my life, and I hope many of you will continue to stay in touch, because I certainly intend to do so.

Regardless of what path(s) I decide to take, you’ll be able to track my on-going rants, musings, and activities through my two Web sites: Stroke of Color and The Richter Scale.

Your friend,

Jake