PC98-- Where are we going?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, January 1998

Once, IBM innovated and everybody else copied. But those times are long gone. Now, in the chaos that?s the computing industry, it seems like everybody?s got a plan, but nobody knows where we?re all going? nobody seems to have what IBM-chair Lou Gerstner referred to as ?that vision thing?.

While no longer simply ?IBM-clones?, the vast majority of computers sold today run one or another version of  Microsoft Windows on some kind of Intel (or clone) CPU. As a result, Microsoft and Intel, who together are sometimes referred to as ?WinTel? have provided the closest thing to a platform as we?re going to find. So it should not be much of a surprise that they?ve stepped into the power vacuum to try and provide ?that vision thing?.

For the past couple of years, each Fall, they?ve published specifications detailing what they expect of the next year?s PCs. Together, last October, the two companies collaborated on a set of PC Design Guidelines, with an aim, as Intel?s Dan Russell put it, at helping the industry ?move in synch?.

While Intel does not issue logos to manufacturers who meet the specifications (and Russell noted that there are ?No Intel police?), Microsoft continues to have a logo program for hardware and software designed to work with Windows. This will be used to help move product development in the directions set out in the PC 98 guidelines.

A PC98 machine (which for the first time includes notebooks as well as desktops) will feature at a minimum:

? a 200 MHz MMX Pentium or compatible processor (desktops), 166 MHz (notebooks)
? 32 megs of RAM (desktops), 24 megs (notebooks)
? 256 kb of cache RAM
? Universal Serial Bus (USB), IEEE 1394 (Firewire), or PC-Card ports, with hot-swapping capabilities. Notebooks require USB, 32-bit CardBus, and InfraRed ports, with IEEE 1394 on a docking station
? USB and IEEE 1394 device bays
? Year 2000 and beyond BIOS-level support

Notebooks will need to support ACPI?Advanced Configuration Power Interface, for power management that can be better controlled by future operating systems? specifically Windows 98 and NT 5.0. Current Advanced Power Management (APM) needs to be set at the system BIOS level, permitting only minimal configuration by the operating system.

The specifications recommend changes to speed up boot time?for example, and end to the power-on video memory test, and a minimized memory test, meant just to establish the size of the system memory. Tests of parallel and serial ports, and floppy and hard drive tests at boot-up would also be eliminated, as part of a move towards eventually making PCs instant-on like your home TV or stereo? what Microsoft has referred to as OnNow support.

Machines designated as workstations have additional requirements, such as a minimum of 4 megs of video RAM, and a separate L2 cache for each CPU in multi-processor systems. These machines should also support ECC memory and 64-bit physical memory addressing. Mini-notebooks are also mentioned, as needing at least 16 megs RAM, a P133 MMX CPU, and at least 640x480 video.

Perhaps more consequential is the move to eliminate the venerable ISA bus. This 16-bit expansion slot standard was first used on 1984?s IBM AT, and has survived attempts to replace it with IBM?s Microchannel, EISA, and VLB-Local Bus. Those alternatives are mostly memories, but the ISA bus continues on today?s machines, along with PCI slots. The continued survival of legacy ISA components however, is the biggest reason that Plug and Play on today?s machines so often more resembles Plug and Pray.

Still, Microsoft and Intel don?t think that manufacturers are quite ready yet to bite the bullet and completely eliminate the ISA bus. As a result, inclusion of the ISA bus is an option for 1998? but it?s widely expected that support for this classic but outdated piece of technology will be removed from the PC99 specs. It?s hoped that by then, higher performance USB and Firewire peripherals will be common, and that ISA devices will no longer be needed or wanted in new systems.

As part of the move to USB and Firewire, expect to see external device bays, so that devices that now are typically added only by removing the PC?s case and fiddling inside, will simply be plugged into an external bay. Compaq showed off such a system at November?s Comdex, with two bays in the front of the PC?s case, which allowed fast and easy installation of DVD, CD-ROM, hard drives and more.

Operating system-wide support for these proposed changes can be expected next year with the release of Windows 98 and NT 5.0. In the meantime, Windows 95B SR2.1 includes USB support, with device drivers being written by peripheral manufacturers.

Intel has always had ?the vision thing?? they?ve known where they want to take us. Sometimes, in this industry, though, we don?t seem to get there as fast as expected.

For example, six months after Intel introduced the Pentium-II, redesigning motherboards in the process, there?s increasing evidence that the P-II?s Slot-1 may not provide much of a performance increase over earlier system designs. Customers are noticing that higher-priced P-II systems seem to providing only a small performance gain over more affordable Pentium or clone Windows 95 systems. Similarly, impartial tests found a minimal 5% performance increase comparing top of the line 300 MHz P-II systems to less expensive 266 MHz systems.

The result, for Intel, has been lower than expected sales of Pentium IIs, followed by price cuts. (233 and 266 MHz P-IIs are currently offer a good price/performance ratio). To questions about performance, Intel?s response is to ?just wait for Slot 2?? the next generation where, presumably it will be done right. Slot 2, however, will initially limited to workstations and servers. In addition, it?s expected that in 1998, Intel will be phasing out current Socket 7 MMX Pentium CPUs in favor of a new P-II design lacking the current model?s L2 cache RAM on the card. The result will be sold at a lower price, but offering lower performance. On the high end, expect to see 400 MHz Pentium II models sometime around February.

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