Richer Platforms Demand Developer Discipline

When it comes to designing the next-generation computing experience, developers must strive to keep things simple.

Microsofts Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, held last week in Seattle, emphasizes the still-growing importance of PC technologies in areas other than personal computing. The continuing convergence of entertainment, personal productivity and enterprise management is going to change our expectations and habits in each of those domains.

/zimages/4/28571.gifMicrosoft offered a glimpse into the future of the Media PC at WinHEC. Click here to read the full story.

Yes, the conference focus was on hardware, and thats an important connection between the enterprise desktop and the family room. I recall a microprocessor conference, several years ago in San Jose, Calif., where one of the panel discussions turned to the question of next-generation TV: Whats good for TV watchers, the panelists all agreed, is even better for computing consumers. The rising expectations of TV buyers mean rising volume and falling cost for large flat-panel displays, massive high-speed storage and the kind of processing power that used to be the province of engineering workstations.

At another conference discussion—I believe it was at the AMD forum on 64-bit computing at Comdex last November—one panelist suggested that the coming conversion to HDTV would actually end the era of TVs and PCs as separate devices. If you look at the signal-processing demands of HDTV, the argument went, it only makes sense that consumers will want to buy that kind of high-powered computing in a package that also handles advanced computer gaming and other media-intensive applications.

What Im really hoping to see, for that matter, is the Sun or Cisco box thats installed in a utility closet—the central bit pump, so to speak—that handles telephone, TV and Internet access as a unified system.

The TV in the family room will know when the phone rings and will quiet the TV if the phone is answered in the same room.

But thats a trivial trick that begs the question of how well design the next-generation computing experience. There are many more-substantial software challenges that users at home will expect to see solved—by means that enterprise developers will be quick to apply.

One of those challenges is linkage of content and action. Its possible, for example, to link TV programs with on-line shopping sites so retailers can offer you one-click purchase of an actress shoes in the scene thats currently playing or a copy of the novel that inspired the movie youre watching.

Were already seeing the outlines of this kind of linkage in Apples OS X, with its integration of the file search metaphor into online shopping and entertainment purchases. Thats also the core proposition, it seems to me, of Microsofts sales pitch for "Longhorn": Developers will find extensive communications infrastructure in that product to accelerate their use of the rich displays upfront.

Its easy to imagine enterprise applications of similar integration platforms and tools. A view of a factory floor or a retail store could be automatically linked to associated data: Click on a picture showing the line of cash registers in a supermarket, and see an animated diagram showing the rate of transaction processing by each of the checkout clerks currently on duty; click on the picture of a factory machine, and see a pop-up window with its current performance and upcoming maintenance data.

But the flip side of the challenge is making things simpler while they are getting richer. At the San Jose panel that I mentioned earlier, one participant voiced skepticism about the whole idea that TV watching would become an interactive experience. "After a couple of six-packs, any user interface more complex than loud, soft, channel up and channel down is too much," she argued.

My own attention is pretty much fully invested in the kind of interface that we have today. I wont be able to do more if it means that I have to think more or control more. Perhaps we need to borrow another key idea from the world of entertainment: the label of "boob tube."

It may not be an inspiring vision of where were going, but perhaps it will remind us to keep complexity under control.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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