Originally Published: Wednesday, 3 May 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

It Used To Be About The Hardware

I remember the crowning moment of the PC industry well. It was one of the big mistakes IBM made that inadvertently pushed the IBM PC to the forefront of computing. When Microsoft asked to retain licensing rights to the Disk Operating System they were writing for IBM, IBM said "sure, whatever". Why did they do this? The answer is simple. IBM assumed that hardware was the key to the PC revolution, not the software.

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The Past

I remember the crowning moment of the PC industry well. It was one of the big mistakes IBM made that inadvertently pushed the IBM PC to the forefront of computing. When Microsoft asked to retain licensing rights to the Disk Operating System they were writing for IBM, IBM said "sure, whatever". Why did they do this? The answer is simple. IBM assumed that hardware was the key to the PC revolution, not the software.

After the PC's hardware and BIOS were cloned by COMPAQ life changed for IBM. Soon other companies could make a computer that behaved like an IBM PC. Due to IBM's misunderstanding of the importance of software, Microsoft's MS-DOS made application software act the same on all of these PC clones. In the years following, IBM found their PC market share dwindling until they were no longer the market force they had once been. The availability of cheap, interchangeable hardware propelled the PC ahead of competing designs. Now that beige box is what the average user equates with a computer.

The Present

Now that the PC is more pervasive than thirty-minute infomercials for abdominal muscles exercisers sponsored by washed-up sitcom actors, Microsoft Windows is beginning to be the thing most users equate with the computer. Microsoft drives hardware specifications by attaching the "Windows certified" moniker for hardware that meets minimum speeds, multimedia capabilities, hardware support for legacy devices, etc. The latest requirement is a PC that finishes BIOS POST in less than seven seconds. Odd, considering that Windows 2000 Professional takes over three minutes to load on my Pentium II 400 MHz (I guess they want us to stare at the Windows logo instead of the brand name of the manufacturer or BIOS vendor).

The push to make a computer identified by its software instead of its hardware is the newest trend in consumer computing. Look at WebTV and Windows CE devices. Both are focused on the interface, not the box. The iMac isn't a traditional PC, but it's ease-of-use helped it gain an incredible market share in a short period of time. Moving to USB and 1394 interfaces makes the inside of the box less of an issue to the consumer, since all of the upgrade ports look relatively the same.

So maybe hardware isn't as important as it used to be. Has hardware grown to the point where it's transparent to the average consumer? The answer is a resounding maybe. People stick to what's cheap and simple to use. The PC is cheap because it's easy to make and has lots of market competition. The simple factor isn't as easy to define, since most people think of "simple" as "what I already know" (i.e. looks like Windows, smells like Windows).

But some of the more interesting designs of late don't use Microsoft Windows. Netpliance's i-opener runs QNX and it's painfully easy to use. Inside it's a weak PC. Outside it's a nifty appliance.

The Future

LINUX may be able to take hold in the future. LINUX has the serious advantage of being hardware agnostic. With the right applications, LINUX can run regardless of what's under the hood. Put LinuxPPC on a Mac G3, slap a regular keyboard/mouse on the system, stick a paper bag over the box and it looks just like KDE or Gnome running on any other distribution. As the definition of "PC hardware" shifts, a hardware-independent operating system just might do the trick.

In the end, hardware matters. You have to pay attention to hardware when you make a miniature consumer gizmo in the same manner as when you design a multi-processor server. But the user sees the screen, not what's behind it. Oz was much more impressive when you didn't know a short guy with bad hair was running the show. If the LINUX community plays their cards right, there might be a new man to ignore behind that curtain.

Brian Richardson wrote this article while waiting for his wife to meet him for sushi. He attempts works of great meaning and reflection when his blood sugar is low. When not craving raw fish, Brian works for AMI in Norcross, Georgia. Damn, I could use some tuna right now ...





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