The PC needs improvement, Microsoft exec says

In a presentation that would have been familiar to any user that has grumbled about their Windows-based computer, a Microsoft executive called on Taiwanese hardware manufacturers to help address a long list of PC shortcomings, saying improvements to both desktop and laptop computers were needed to increase consumer demand.

In particular, the goal should be to eliminate much of the complexity that is associated with PCs and make them as easy to use as common consumer electronics devices, said Tom Phillips, general manager of the Redmond, Washington, software company's Windows Experience Group, speaking at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) here this week.

"Take the VCR as an example. There is no service pack, there is no updating of firmware that is going to be necessary to keep this device working and working well within my environment," Phillips said. "Those are the kind of things that I think are absolutely mandatory if we're going to address this market and get the kind of customer products that bring the increased levels of satisfaction that will drive a much higher demand level."

Despite the breadth and complexity of many of these issues that must be overcome to achieve this level of improved usability, most of the improvements being considered by Microsoft engineers are evolutionary in nature, rather than revolutionary. And most can be applied using the Windows XP operating system, Phillips said.

In an example of an evolutionary improvement, Microsoft engineers have developed a prototype system that can help make setting up a PC easier by partially eliminating the need for users to worry about how and where external devices are connected to a computer.

Phillips demonstrated a Windows XP-based PC that incorporates this prototype technology and is able to automatically determine what analog devices are plugged into which ports on the computer, instead of requiring users to connect each device to a specific port. By detecting differences in the impedance characteristics -- the electrical resistance to a direct current -- of different analog devices, the PC was able to identify a microphone and then a set of speakers when each was plugged into the same jack on the machine.

Extending the benefits of this technology beyond setting up a PC, computers could be designed so that if a microphone and speakers were connected, the OS would automatically activate voice-chat features in an instant-message application, for example, Phillips said.

Another example is battery life. Instead of laptop computers that measure battery life in hours, Phillips hopes to see batteries that will offer enough power to last for several days. Microsoft also would like to see laptops that are cooler than existing models and desktops quiet enough to be used with high-grade audio applications and in environments where extraneous noise is a distraction, such as in living rooms, Phillips said.

In addition, hardware makers should look at changes that can be made to address different market segments, he said.

"The opportunity for the industry is to not get over-focused on trying to make one size fit all but instead making the kind of pragmatic changes in the device that are very meaningful to specific geographies and types of customers," Phillips said.

"Effective system designs aren't just software, aren't just hardware, aren't great user experiences. It's the combination of all of those," he said.

Microsoft isn't the only company pushing hardware makers to rethink how computers are designed. Intel Corp. has also wooed Taiwanese hardware makers, calling for the development of upgraded computer designs that address many of the same concerns raised by Microsoft at WinHEC here.

At the core of Intel's vision for the future of PC designs is its Big Water initiative. So far Intel has revealed little of what Big Water PCs are likely to look like. The company plans to release the finalized Big Water specification in 2003, in time for the first PCs based on the design to hit the market in 2004.

Intel sees the Big Water design relying heavily on PCI Express technology -- a concept that was echoed by Phillips in his presentation. Big Water PCs will also be designed for greater flexibility, offering add-in modules based on PCI Express technology that will let users easily upgrade various PC components, such as a hard disk drive.

In addition, Big Water designs will likely be smaller than existing PCs and will be designed to be mounted in places where most users would hardly consider putting their current PCs, such as on a wall. Big Water PCs will also be designed to handle the increased levels of electromagnetic interference (EMI) caused by faster microprocessors.

Related to its Big Water initiative, Intel is meeting with major Taiwanese hardware makers, such as Asustek Computer Inc., Wistron Corp., Foxconn Electronics Inc., Mitac International Corp., and others, as part of a group it calls Desktop Form Factor Directions. The group's first meeting took place during the Intel Developer Forum in Taipei on April 23, with a second meeting expected to take place in six months' time.

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