Microsoft’s DNA and the Primordial Pond

There’s been a ton of buzz in the past few years about the future of the desktop PC, and of Microsoft in particular. But is the PC really dying ? It depends on what you mean by ‘PC’. Digital hardware continues to evolve, and as with organic evolution things are always dying. But also being born.

The first decade of this new century of computing was characterized by the network. We built out the online world using Java and web browsers, which led to a somewhat generic vision of a computer as a box with a pixelated screen, mouse, and internet connection. In reality, one size does not fit all; nor will it ever. Fundamentally, digital hardware and software has always been highly complex, differentiated, and evolving. That’s what the PC platform represented, and what it still facilitates today. It’s a central hub where hardware vendors, experimenters, business people, researchers, technical specialists, highly niche-oriented fields, and novices of all kinds could come together and figure out “What’s Next.”  The essence of the PC platform is not a box under a desk somewhere, it’s an affirmation that evolution happens naturally and spontaneously, and needs an ecosystem that supports it.

The essence of the PC platform is not a box under a desk somewhere, it’s an affirmation that evolution happens naturally and spontaneously, and needs an ecosystem that supports it.

The PC is about democratized evolution, having helped give rise to several other platforms, systems, conventions, and interface styles. It’s a place where the digital world can mix and match new things, and emerge with new flavours or discover “sticky” paradigms. Apple’s very core has depended on that natural process; there’s no way that one single company can do it alone. It’s easy to overlook the multitude of innovations that were necessary before a single iPhone could even be built. Consider the evolution of 3D hardware, for example, which PC gamers supported through its very rough infancy with their thirst for ever increasing visual richness. Those smooth graphics you see on phones and tablets these days rely on the innovation and evolution within those 3D chips. That happened to a large degree on the PC platform, with different vendors and hardware architectures constantly trying to leapfrog each other while reducing cost to consumer levels. Take away the market functions of the PC, and you take away the most powerful tool for hardware companies to leverage innovation or to reach potentially unforeseeable customers.

Take away the market functions of the PC platform, and you take away the most powerful tool for hardware companies to leverage innovation or to reach potentially unforeseeable customers.

Graphics hardware is just one example. You could consider the rise of Novell as an office networking standard, with boards that could just be plugged right into your existing office PCs without having to buy an entirely new system. Anyone remember SoundBlaster, the proprietary sound card that captured the games industry ? And then the conglomeration of video, audio, input devices, and speaker systems from various makers that became collectively known as the ‘multimedia PC’ ? Or Xbox, an evolution of hardware based on the DirectX software standard ? How about steering wheels, or experimental haptic input devices ? The genre of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games rose to commercial success largely on the strength of Microsoft’s installed user base. Let’s not forget non-mainstream uses, such as academic researchers plugging in robotics boards or engineers connecting oscilloscopes and signal processing hardware. NASA opted for Windows on its space shuttle laptops, and for safety & reliability reasons used old, certified Intel chip architectures (popularized from the days of DOS) in critical space shuttle hardware. I’m missing a ton of other obscure niche stuff here, but hopefully the point is made.  There’s still great potential for new forms of hardware, too. How about a new line of ‘Raspberry Pi’-style devices that leverage Microsoft’s support and development tools and connects them to its vast corporate user base ? Cultivate all manner of peripheral “appendages” for that device, and the amount of emergent innovation there could be huge.

Some will say that these prior innovations are a “done deal”, and now that we have them we don’t really need to look back. But the point here is not about looking backwards, it’s that past is prologue. We’re still looking at many years of experimentation and innovation to come. The pond of evolution always bubbles up new forms, sizes, or appendages, but what doesn’t change is evolution itself. It’s a necessary part of life. Many variations of things mutate, morph, converge, synergize, die, and are born anew, and Microsoft’s platform innately supports this. It’s greatest contribution (which was ironically the source of most consternation and frustration among its users) was the ability to invite all manner of hardware, software and end user “fish” to swim in the same pond. This despite the sometimes awkward interactions between species that didn’t quite get along; indeed the PC is infamous for hiccups in software & hardware compatibility. Not cool. Still, it’s a perpetual gathering that lets them interact in a common but evolving language. It allows new relationships to emerge that sustain further innovation.

If the PC doesn’t seem cool these days, however, neither is it dying. That’s because it’s not a single piece of old hardware, it’s a huge, living primordial pond.

If the PC doesn’t seem cool these days, however, neither is it dying. That’s because it’s not a single piece of old hardware, it’s a huge, living primordial pond. A variety of form factors, novel hardware, differentiated performance trade-offs, diverse business interests, new ways of interacting – these will be with us forever. They all need a place to live in; no pond, no evolution, no life. It’s an inherently messy process, but well suited to Microsoft’s talents. It’s time Microsoft remembers its own DNA, reflected in the water that fills this evolutionary pond. Its best chance of success going forwards is to be the glue that binds the strands of evolution together, whatever our notion of ‘hardware’ may turn into. Let others build any walled garden they want to right next door. A garden still needs to be watered; an apple tree to be nourished.

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