Tangled Webs

   The PC99 Manifesto
Issue 3.12
Nov 24, 1998

What's in it for Microsoft?

Few things in this world make me reach for my malarkey shovel as quickly as computer companies claiming that their actions are based on consumer demands and trying to convince us that they have only our best interests at heart. Needless to say, I have been somewhat skeptical of Microsoft's PC Design Guide.

Computers that are built to the specification are permitted to display a "Designed for Microsoft Windows" logo. The PC99 Design Guide can be downloaded in, but of course, Microsoft Word format at http://www.microsoft.com/hwdev/pc99.htm. The specification weighs in at a monstrous 2.5 megabytes, and in the introduction, Microsoft states quite clearly that the contents have nothing to do with a computer's ability to run Windows.

That being the case, what's this massive document all about? Much of the specification contains genuinely good ideas -- things like standardized icons for ports and jacks. However, it also provides a way for Microsoft to gain control over the hardware platform, and that is not necessarily a good thing for consumers.

For example, Microsoft has been pushing the Universal Serial Bus (USB) for some time now. Consumers, however, have shown little interest in it. There are few USB compatible devices out there, so it makes little sense to spend extra money for a USB port. Microsoft has solved this problem by simply declaring that all PCs must have a USB port; two USB ports for entertainment class PCs.

I have always considered putting TV tuners inside computers to be a consummately stupid idea, and the market has backed me up on this. Despite unending hype, computer buyers have consistently and soundly rejected paying extra for such useless functionality. Microsoft, however, has invested a lot of money in this technology, so the PC99 specification requires all entertainment class PCs to have built-in TV tuners.

What's in it for the Vendors?

It's easy to see why Microsoft would want to gain control of hardware standards, but it's harder to understand why the hardware vendors would willingly give them up. A careful reading of the Design Guide, however, reveals that everybody wins. Everyone except the consumer.

The standard will ultimately increase manufacturer revenues. Requiring that all companies include things like USB ports and TV tuners increases the cost of computers across the board. Manufacturers also get the advantage of throwing out their less profitable low end machines. The design guide calls for a minimum of a 400MHz Pentuim II although Microsoft maintains that Windows will run fine on a x486.

Perhaps the most obvious bone thrown to the hardware manufacturers, however, is the elimination of upgrades. PCs have always been upgradable. Rather than spending $3,000 on a new computer, an owner can spend $400 to upgrade a single component and achieve the same result. Needless to say, this costs the computer industry millions in lost sales.

The PC99 spec recommends, but does not yet require, that end users be physically unable to upgrade the CPU, the motherboard or even add more RAM to their computers, thus ensuring that consumers must purchase a new computer -- and a new copy of Windows -- long before it would otherwise be required.

Can This Actually Happen?

It's worth noting that Microsoft has been issuing these guides since 1997, and is still not really dictating hardware standards. The PC99 Design Guide is not mandatory, and there is still a great deal of consumer choice available. Whether Microsoft seizes control of hardware standards depends on how badly they want to. All that is required is an advertising campaign to connect the "Designed for Windows" logo with the concept of "Approved for Windows."

This is similar to what Microsoft did with its Windows95 logo program for software. Getting the Windows95 logo had little to do with whether the software could run under Windows95, but strong consumer doubt meant that software without the logo was at a significant competitive disadvantage. Most Microsoft's "competitors" decided it was wiser to simply do as they were told.

The release of NT5, recently renamed Windows2000, will provide Microsoft with a similar environment of consumer uncertainty. With proper marketing, consumers will perceive models without Microsoft's stamp of approval as being unable to run Windows correctly, and no corporate purchasing agent will stick his neck out by recommending the purchase of machines that are not approved to even run the operating system.

The industry press is, of course, falling all over themselves heaping praise upon the PC99 Design Guide. It seems not a few people think it's about time all those confusing choices we have are eliminated. There are, in fact, many worthwhile ideas in the PC99 Design Guide. However, while reading through it, one can't help but wonder if we are seeing the manifesto for a new mainframe era -- one in which a single vendor will once again dictate the hardware and software standards and set the prices.

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© Copyright 1998, Tim Romero, t3@vanguardjp.com
This article fist appeared in the November 11, 1998 edition of The Japan Times.
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