PCs, '99-Style

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, July 1999

This business started off as ?IBM Personal Computers?. Then it became ?IBM PCs, Clones and Compatibles?. But somewhere along the line?perhaps when its PS/2 hardware and OS/2 software failed to set new directions for PCs, the ?IBM? label sort of faded away, as that still large company no longer set the standards for the industry.

What replaced it has often been characterized as ?Wintel??Windows software running on Intel-defined hardware. Even if your customers are running non-Microsoft Linux (or even IBM OS/2) on a computer built around, say, an AMD K6-3 CPU, it?s still a Wintel world.

And where do Microsoft and Intel go to give their orders to the computer industry? While the various Comdex shows get the most attention, perhaps more influential is the annual WinHEC conference?the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, held each Spring.

For the past few WinHECs, the powers-that-be unveiled PC98 and PC99 specifications?what Microsoft and Intel expected as minimum hardware standards for up-coming years.

In those specs, the dynamic duo proposed a hardware standard that would evolve away from the antique ISA bus?dropping internal ISA slots in favour of the PCI bus, and eventually dropping standard serial and parallel ports, in favour of connecting via Universal Serial Bus.

But conspiracy theorists may be disappointed to learn that the PC industry received their marching orders, but only listened with one ear. My newest PC, built around an new ASUS motherboard, for example, still had 3 ISA slots along with the regular serial and parallel ports. Ironically, the machine that most exemplifies the spirit of the PC99 specification may be Apple?s new blue and white G3 towers, with PCI slots along with USB and Firewire for connections to outside devices. Of course, with its PowerPC CPU and MacOS, I guess we can?t really call it a Wintel machine?though it can run an emulator like Virtual PC pretty darn quickly!

Perhaps because of the non-adoption of the PC98/99 standards, there was little talk of a PC2000 at this year?s conference. Instead, here?s some of what was being talked about:

  • PCs are too hard. Microsoft proposed a number of technologies to make life easier for PC consumers?part of a strategy to bring PCs to the 50% of households that have avoided them so far. Microsoft hopes in 2000 to release what is now being tentatively touted as ?Consumer Windows??a follow up to Windows 98. This replaces plans to merge the Windows 95/98 stream with NT/Windows 2000. Consumer Windows will be focusing on consumer-related multimedia and entertainment technologies like digital photography and music. Microsoft rep Bill Zolna suggested a goal for Consumer Windows was the ?it just works concept?.

Along with Intel, Microsoft is continuing to push the Easy PC Initiative. They want hardware manufacturers to increasingly add features like: Instantly Available/On Now to minimize the time spent rebooting by expanding notebooks? Suspend for desktop machines. Shades of PC99, the Initiative wants to expand use of USB at the expense of the ISA bus. As well, they call for a simplified initial setup and more innovative PC designs (are we hearing echoes of Apple?s iMac here?) One eye-catcher was a purple CD drive from AMD, with the CD spinning vertically?and visible through an open door.

Together with that, Microsoft?s Steve Ballmer discussed Windows Server Appliances?a class of simple to setup network servers due by the end of the year. He demoed a unit where the first thing on boot-up was a Configuration Wizard that set up network printers along with file and Internet connection server?target price US$2,000.

Ultimately, the goal is what Ballmer described as ?appliance-like ease of use?, not just for network servers, but for all PCs.

  • Digital Photography will experience dramatic growth. Microsoft announced a Windows Imaging Architecture to build on existing technologies to provide consumers with a consistent imaging interface that could work with any WIA-compliant device. Microsoft?s Carl Stork claimed ?The goal is to make it really easy to get pictures in,"
  • Universal Plug and Play will extend outside the box, across the network, and finally across the home or office. Microsoft hopes the UPnP will start by making network setup and Internet setup much easier than it is today. With over 50 vendors signed on, UpnP consumer products available next year should include digital TVs and VCRs, network printers, disk drives, and cameras, and home control systems. (Some will notice a resemblance to Sun?s Jini initiative).
Farther on down the road?
  • 3D interfaces. Microsoft Research Labs? Dan Robbins demoed a 3D user interface in which he ?strolled? down a virtual hallway?on the walls were tacked-up Web pages, with Java and ActiveX applications running on them. Robbins? virtual hand carried a collection of common applications, along with more Web page icons that could be tacked up onto the wall.
  • 64-bit Windows 2000. Microsoft President Steve Ballmer showed a demo of 64-bit Windows 2000, running on Compaq Alpha hardware. They claim that the 64-bit version is being developed together with the 32-bit version, so that 64-bit versions of Windows 2000, Visual Studio, and BackOffice will be available together with Intel?s upcoming 64-bit Merced CPU.
  • Of course there?s hardware?What technology conference doesn?t include faster hardware? Intel got its chance to shine, with v-p Pat Gelsinger?s keynote showing off what?s on their plate. Coming this Fall?4X Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), Rambus Direct RAM super-fast memory, built on Intel?s 820 chip set with 133 MHz front end bus. Hard drives supporting ATA66, transferring data twice as fast as current models.

Intel?s hardware visions got some competition from AMD, who showed off their K7 CPU, demoing a 600 MHz version running on a 200 MHz bus system?requiring an innovative AMD chipset for the motherboard. Initial versions of the K7 should become available this summer.

Not all WinHEC dreams come true, however. Cyrix was showing off higher speed versions of its M-II CPU, which may never make it to market as Cyrix?s owner National Semiconductor has put the

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