COMDEX ‘96 and Parting Advice

(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.