Most of the press coverage of the Windows hardware engineering conference concentrated on Bill Gates' comments about NCs.
There was more going on, inside and outside the San Francisco conference, involving Microsoft, but this preoccupation at least gave wide coverage to Gates' view of why we all have to buy new kit so often. "The true thin client," he said, "does not include its own software and therefore does not need upgrading every few years."
So there it is. The reason the useful working life of the average PC is so limited is that it comes with software. And who supplies much of that software? Need you ask?
The simple fact is that the supply side of the industry cannot afford to let us run our machines until they fall over. Who can say how long that might take? What will the suppliers live on in the meantime? Instead, we have to be persuaded to upgrade at regular intervals. One of the forms this persuasion takes was also evident at the San Francisco event.
Microsoft, Intel and Compaq proposed a new series of standard architectural elements in the PC98 spec. Radical changes to bus and ports are also in prospect. The trio also want PC manufacturers to build something called a Device Bay into their designs.
The Device Bay will, in theory, make it easier to field-upgrade future PCs.
How the industry will respond to the offer of a new bus architecture remains to be seen. PCI has effectively superceded the old ISA standard, which dates back to the mid-Eighties, but it still hasn't altogether replaced it. At the same time, PC manufacturers may recently have noted that the 10th anniversary of IBM's Micro Channel Architecture passed almost unnoticed.
There was, after all, nothing to celebrate.
On the other hand, Microsoft will certainly exert pressure on manufacturers to fall into line. There are two big cards it can play: the technological direction it takes Windows, and the marketing pressure on other suppliers to be compatible.
The direction Windows is going is Memphis. Apparently Gates expects the NetPC to run Memphis, so the old hardware/software perpetual upgrade cycle is, obviously, good for a few rotations yet.
At about the same time as the windows hardware engineering conference, Microsoft also announced its intention to buy Web TV Networks, a company which makes set-top boxes to allow people to enjoy the mysteries of the Internet via their televisions. In the light of the foregoing comments about software and its baneful influence on the life expectancy of hardware, this is an interesting move.
People tend not to upgrade their televisions "every few years". Just as it is bad news from the PC manufacturers' point of view to have people visit their showrooms no more than once a decade, so it is also in the TV industry. They may soon be able to do something about it.
As far as I'm aware, Microsoft has no interest in promoting sales of TV sets, although the sets will surely burn out more quickly with kids surfing cyberspace at all hours. On the other hand, once Microsoft gets its software into those set-top boxes, the prospect of rolling upgrades in the mass market becomes a real possibility. Look out for Web TV units with built-in Device Bays. Roll on Plug and Play.
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