It's Bill vs. Bell at WinHEC, where Microsoft unveiled two important discoveries -- the wheel and the telephone. Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin discusses the implications for the most popular wireless data type.
Its a sad statement on the state of the PC industry when, as the Windows group is trying to lead the industry with an outreach, the UK division of MSN steals its thunder by leading the industry to the outhouse. Poke fun all you want at the iLoo; rumor has it that over a thousand have already been ordered, and some forecast that there may be an even bigger market outside the Gates mansion.
But for those who could focus their attention toward WinHEC, where Microsoft routinely recycles some industry vision, there was an unusually retro theme. First, Microsoft announced that -- now that the form factors of its various devices have reached irreconcilable differences -- it will use the crusade of user interface consistency to reinvent the wheel. The XEEL interface should provide a common navigational aid across various Microsoft platforms, much as the jog dial has done for Sony. Hence, expect Microsoft to apply great XEEL to products such as Pocket PC and SPOT devices. It may not be a revolution, but not everyone can invent peanut butter in a tube.
Not content, however, to claim the birthright to one of early mans great inventions, Microsoft is going after one from more recent times, the telephone. Of course, its not just the telephone. The Athens PC, which Microsoft codeveloped with HP, has a toaster-like chassis and widescreen LCD, a 20" version of which the company predicts will cost around $400 by next year. The combination is reminiscent of Apples G4 Cube. However, Microsoft and HP have tacked on some "real-time" I/O features, including a Webcam to facilitate video conferencing and a telephone handset for voice. Its the latest of several dalliances that Redmond has had with the telephone, which have included the TAPI protocol and the ill-fated Microsoft Cordless Phone.
Athens may be a desktop PC, and indeed this is the segment Microsoft and its partners most desperately needs to reinvigorate, but the architecture makes a lot more sense for notebook users. Its one thing to save a little space on your desk by getting rid of the phone, but tasks like managing voice mail, videoconferencing, and integrating with a PBX will become even more important when youre away from the office. To wit, Microsoft also announced at WinHEC that a low-cost version of Windows CE would be increasingly targeted toward such devices as VoIP phones, and the software behemoth is not alone. PalmSource also recently stated that the next major release of Palm OS will include voice-specific features.
The 12-button phone interface has indeed met its match in dealing with todays complex voice mail interfaces. The short-term ideal would be for Microsoft to treat voice much as it has ink in the Tablet PC. The data types are not really first-class citizens but they at least leverage the traditional PC capabilities of storage, retrieval, and transfer. For years, for example, CTI applications have been able to time-stamp and record calls and manage conference calls. With Caller ID, they can even capture some identifying features and return calls. To truly replace the phone, though, Microsoft will need to at least provide better searching capabilities for voice; this technology has been around long enough that the company can surely include at least a basic version.
Microsoft, however, should not underestimate the competition that the humble telephone provides. Its reliability has set the standard for consumer services and for most tasks, its interface is quite simple. Indeed, for most of its life, it too had a wheel interface of sorts. The last things most users need getting in the way of the workaday phone call are laborious wizards (Step 4: Please enter the fourth digit you wish to dial.), annoying confirmation requests ("Do you really want to dial this number?") and apologetic "features" like resuming a call after a system crash.
Should the future of the PC revolve around real-time communications or is Microsoft all talk? E-mail me.Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.More from Ross Rubin: