Business-like, isn't he?



Why are we still waiting?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, July 1997

There?s  a classic 1960s soul tune by Curtis Mayfield was called ?A Change is Gonna Come?.  When I started this series of columns last fall, that could have been the theme song. We?ve looked at a series of new technologies, promised for PCs for 1997?DVD disks, Universal Serial Bus, MMX processors and more.

Some of these promised technologies have arrived, either as a flood or a trickle. MMX processors, for example, have pretty much replaced earlier models? even if there?s still hardly any software that actually makes use of its capabilities. DVD drives are in the stores?at least the home entertainment versions. Presumably, the computer versions will be here ?any day now?. As predicted, EDO memory is being replaced with faster SDRAM.

But where, for example, is USB?Universal Serial Bus?

The computer I purchased last Winter has pins on the motherboard to attach a USB adapter, but I haven?t done that?in fact, I?m not sure where I could purchase the parts. Why bother? There aren?t any readily available devices to plug into it.

And yet, USB devices were seemingly everywhere at the Fall 1996 Comdex show. What?s the holdup? What?s slowing up wide adoption of USB, DVD, and many of the other technological advances promised for this year?

Consumers, vendors, wholesalers, and manufacturers are all stuck in a classic ?chicken and egg? syndrome.

Vendors cite a perceived lack of consumer demand, while consumers are often unaware of promised products that aren?t yet on the shelf. Of course, it doesn?t always work that way? when Intel?s widely-hyped MMX processors didn?t make it in time for Christmas purchases last Winter, many consumers chose to wait? there was a big jump in sales of home PCs early in the new year.

At the heart of the problem, however, is the lack of operating system support. When so-called Class Drivers are built into the operating system, as with printers and modems, it?s simple for hardware manufacturers to provide support for new models and new technologies. When these are missing, however, each new model requires a new driver, created from ground-up.

Microsoft, for example, promised to support USB in Windows 95 in 1996. It barely made that target date, shipping OEM Service Release 2.1 in December. Users of earlier versions, however, are out of luck. And since users of earlier versions of Windows 95 can?t upgrade to the B version without purchasing a new computer, there hasn?t been much call for it. In fact, few PC makers include ver 2.1, perhaps fearing that it will prove incompatible with the next widespread Windows update.

This limits the potential market, and provides little incentive for hardware manufacturers to rush USB devices to market, which gives little reason for computer manufacturers to spend the couple of dollars to provide USB ports on their systems. (Intel was also several months late providing USB controllers to device makers?adding to the delay).

So, even though it was announced back in 1995, wide-spread support for USB may have to wait for next year? if not longer. The higher-performance FireWire bus may take before it becomes a common feature?. Device makers only began to receive long-promised support code from Microsoft in April.

Let?s look at the status of some of the promised new technologies:

? Plug and Play was promised in 1994 by Intel. It is now supported by most motherboards and BIOSs, and is supported by Windows 95, but not in the current version of NT. For too many users too much of the time, it remains more like ?Plug and Pray?. New specifications being promoted by Microsoft and Intel as PC98 will encourage manufacturers to drop support for the 1984-era ISA bus? until that happens, and device manufacturers fully support it, reliable Plug and Play will remain more vision than reality.

? USB, as we?ve seen, may have to wait until it is fully supported by Microsoft in its next generation of operating systems, NT 5.0 and the next version of Win95, currently code-named Memphis? release dates pushed past 1997 to? who knows?

? FireWire has been slowed down by a desire to push the lower-cost USB first, and by the lack of even preliminary code from Microsoft. Apple has announced support in future Macs, which may help get it out the door? and if it catches on as a high-end Mac standard, there may be more pressure to get it on PCs. Don?t hold your breath!

? Cardbus has been promised as a high-end replacement for PC-Cards for notebooks? it too has been slow to catch on, though it?s available on a few high-end models. In part, it?s been delayed because there hasn?t been much perceived need? it?s big advantage has been to provide support for Fast Ethernet networking, which is not yet a mass-market item. As well, it?s been hampered by a lack of general operating system support, as was the original PC-Card specification, prior to Windows 95.

PCs are changing, gradually evolving to models that are both more powerful and easier to setup and use. As we?ve seen, more powerful processors continue to be produced, and often find wide market acceptance very quickly? consumers easily understand that a faster processor is preferable, and have tended to avoid buying models released with less-powerful CPUs, even at bargain-basement price points.

But the heritage ISA bus has proven hard to kill, even though it?s at the root of continuing problems with Plug and Play. Just at look at the failure of MicroChannel, EISA, and VL-Bus.

And until the next generation of operating system releases offers full support for the crop of hardware advances promised back in 1995 and 1996, there will be only minimal support from device manufacturers or computer makers.

In the song, it was ?A long time coming??. But as Curtis Mayfield wrote, ?But I know, a change is gonna come?.

(On a more upbeat note, next month, the continuing saga of faster CPUs).

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan