Hardware and Software are in a State of Flux
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1998. First
published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, March 1998
We?re in a transition period? in this space in past
issues, we?ve looked
at up and coming gizmos and gadgets designed to overcome the
and design limitations that plague current hardware. A collection of
acronyms that taken together can easily leave the head spinning: USB,
AGP and more (as well as the thankfully acronym-less FireWire).
And we?ve seen how many of these advances have
stalled? the hardware?s
ready (mostly), but until the next generation of operating system
there?s no built-in support. And with few products on the shelves,
little consumer demand. And with little consumer demand, few products
it to the shelves.
As well, the products that DO make it out haven?t been
Despite promising blazing video speeds, for example,
the first generation
of Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) video cards have been only modestly
faster than the PCI cards they aim to replace. Generation 1 Digital
Disk players are unable to read the gold CD disks made by increasingly
popular CD-Recordable units (some newer DVD models no longer have that
limitation). Universal Serial Bus performance has been as slow as the
Even Intel?s next-generation Pentium-II CPUs fail to
provide as noticeable
performance boost as many expected.
To an extent, product manufacturers blame Microsoft.
(A popular refrain
these days? though I?ve yet to hear the weather being blamed on
it seems like almost everything else is). The interim drivers for AGP,
USB, et al are a patchwork sort-of-solution added onto Win95, and not
for perky performance. Hopefully, the next generation Windows 98, with
future-hardware support built-in will do better.
But while these next generation operating systems
provide some answers,
they also raise a new set of questions.
Microsoft has promised that Windows 98 and NT 5.0 will
share a common
hardware device driver model. The Windows Device Model (WDM) will let
developers write a single driver usable by both the mass-market Win98
the high-end NT 5.0 operating systems.
But there?s a catch. WDM drivers should work happily
on machines running
either of Microsoft?s next generation systems, but will be incompatible
with the installed base?100 million + machines running Windows 95 (as
as the several million running NT 4.0). And many if not most of that
base is not going to be in a rush to upgrade to Win98 (et al)? at least
not until they purchase a new machine that comes with the operating
You can develop old-style Win95 drivers? these will
continue to work
with Win98, but won?t work with NT 4.0 or 5.0.
If you?re producing hardware add-ins (sound cards,
video cards, and
the like), or are distributing such products, this is a dilemma. For
new products, should you develop WDM drivers, for the new Win98/NT 5.0
users? Should you develop backwards-compatible Win95 drivers? Should
play it safe and develop both (at double the cost?)
Larger companies with deeper pockets will probably
play it safe. Creative
Labs, for example, is promising to follow that strategy (though Windows
3.1 holdouts will increasingly be out of luck). Universal Serial Bus
from smaller companies may include WDM drivers only, on the reasonable
assumption that few Win95 users actually have USB ports. Add-in cards
for the legacy ISA bus may continue to include classic Win95 drivers
leaving NT users with complaints, just as now.
All in all, not a pretty picture.
Two issues ago, we looked at Microsoft/Intel?s PC98
plans? an outline
of where the two giants want to move the industry. Not this year, but
they?d like to see us all abandon the 1984-era ISA bus? dropping
for those familiar 16-bit cards that, with their limited IRQ numbers
non-intuitive installation make it difficult to implement real PC Plug
and Play, and drive up support costs.
Intel has released some specifications aiming to help
during the transition. Their Low Pin Count interface (LPC?here?s yet
3-letter acronym!) is designed to make it easy to redesign motherboards
to move traditional components like parallel, serial, and keyboard
along with hard disk and floppy disk controllers off the ISA bus. (Even
though most motherboards now have these devices built-in, they?re
actually part of the ISA bus).
National Semiconductor has used the LPC spec to
release its PC87360
Super I/O chip, integrating all those devices, resulting in lower cost
while taking up less space. Future LPC products will include memory and
system management controllers, along with motherboard-based sound
Intel envisions a three-phase transition along the way
the ISA bus. First, current motherboard devices will migrate from ISA
LPC, while systems retain the ISA bus for compatibility with legacy
devices (most often sound cards and modems). In the second phase, as
and FireWire devices become more common, systems will drop the ISA bus
entirely, with users adding PCI cards internally, or using USB and
for external devices. Finally, as a wide-range of external peripherals
such as printers become available for the new external ports, support
legacy parallel and serial ports will be dropped entirely.
LPC is, according to Intel, a key step along the way.
It allows system
designers to upgrade existing designs with relatively minor
while upgrading performance? the ISA bus runs at a leisurely 8 MHz,
LPC uses the PCI bus?s 33 MHz clock. Its reduced pin count saves on
and power, and runs cooler, making it especially attractive to notebook
designers. Quoted in InfoWorld, Intel?s Platform Component division
manager, Jan Camps claims LPC ?will result in lower costs and improved
efficiency for hardware OEMs and developers, and make the benefits of
technologies available more quickly for PC users. Intel has opened the
specification so the industry can quickly adopt the technology and
it into motherboard legacy I/O peripheral development.?
Technology pushes change. Despite our sense of
constant product obsolescence,
however, the very success of the personal computer has created a huge
base that is demanding gradual evolution. These contradictions require
careful planning from designers, manufacturers, wholesalers and
down to retailers and ultimately end users. Know where the industry is
heading, and you?ll be able to manage the coming transitions.