Signposts for the future PC

This month I visited two computer-related trade shows that will influence how you use your next PC. First up was the Microsoft Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC). The second was National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

WinHEC
At WinHEC, Bill Gates gave the opening speech and presented new concepts, products, and initiatives. Many will appear in your next PC--"PC 97," as Microsoft calls it.

Two new buses, the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and 1394 Serial Bus, will make the new PC Microsoft envisions easier to expand than today's PCs. At the same time, the new PC will be less expandable because Microsoft is pushing a closed-box concept, Simply Interactive PC (SIPC).

I first reported on USB in my February column. USB is a new, 12Mbits per second (Mbps) desktop bus that's like Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) and GeoPort. You can plug up to 127 devices into one port. USB will let you connect a joystick to NT, once NT supports joysticks. With game-support software coming to NT, you'll be able to pick the hottest titles and input devices without dual-booting to DOS.

USB will cost $.50 to implement in one new chip. By this fall, you'll see a USB port on most PCs, and Win95 drivers will support it. NT support will follow.

The other bus, 1394, is named for its Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard number--it needs a better name. 1394, a slightly modified offshoot of Apple Computer's FireWire initiative, is for interconnecting high-speed devices, such as digital cameras. Gates showed a digital camcorder connected directly to a PC--the signal never became analog. This bus eliminates the $2000 video-capture card and all attendant headaches, and provides digital benefits. 1394 also lets your PC turn the camcorder on and off. Although 1394 isn't just for video, its speed (100Mb to 2Gb) makes audio/visual (A/V) I/O an obvious choice.

SIPC and Other Acronyms
You've heard of the Internet PC, a $500 machine you hook to your TV and telephone line for cruising the Net? SIPC is Microsoft's counter offer. SIPC will have limited expansion (1394 and USB, mostly), a closed box architecture, and good NT compatibility. Even if SIPCs don't sell, the price of a basic good-quality clone will tumble. This drop in prices isn't good for dealer profit margins or customer service.

For portable computer users, OnNow is Microsoft's third attempt at power management inside NT and may give laptops decent battery life. It will be available later this year.

Another new product is Intel's MMX (Multimedia Extensions) for Pentium and Pentium Pro processors. These new CPU instructions improve MPEG2 decoding efficiency. Intel claims a 180-MHz Pentium and MMX will do full-motion MPEG2 decoding without special hardware. Intel will add MMX to its processors this year. Microsoft promised Win95 driver updates this fall, with NT updates to follow.

Future Drivers: Why You Care
An important announcement at WinHEC was the Windows Driver Model (WDM)--unification of the Win95 and NT drivers, which improves system stability and confidence. WDM will let NT access more hardware faster.

Because WDM drivers are written as minidrivers, they don't require as much code. Good drivers are hard to write; engineers at WinHEC made many pleas for better support in writing them. My advice: When NT 4.0 ships, view new drivers as buggy until proven bug free.

NAB: NT to a T
With what I learned at WinHEC, I went to NAB, the TV and radio broadcasters' show. I asked several NAB vendors about supporting 1394 for connecting A/V products and connecting both to computers. If I can easily push moving pictures in and out of my PC, why do I need a $100,000 switcher? Most didn't know about 1394 or its significance. Only Sony had an answer (Gates used Sony's $4000 consumer digital camera in the WinHEC demo). According to Sony, 1394 won't be ready for broadcast in 1996, but the company is shipping consumer cameras with a 1394 port. Expect more next year.

For connecting A/V with an open architecture using every kind of bus, one company that shined was Play. Its Trinity video-processor box has open architecture and third-party hardware support. If Play can deliver a basic video switcher and processor for $10,000 by next year, it will forever change video production.

What's this mean to small businesses using A/V? High-end A/V will suffer the same nasty price-collapse that minicomputers experienced. If connecting via 1394 is also easy, desktop video production becomes more accessible.