Inside Report #105 Articles from Back Issues of...
IR Logo Top Nov. 15, 1994

Where Do We Go From Here?

Microsoft wants us to go to the bank, etc.
The industry is at yet another set of crossroads.

Cruising among the parties of COMDEX this year, I was struck by a sad feeling that the false euphoria of the pre-Christmas season would not last even as far as Christmas. The computer industry, now grown up into something much larger and more mature, has also become more show-biz, more sizzle, less steak. The mouth-watering technology promises so much and delivers so little.

IR 105 pullquote Case in point: Microsoft's online service, to be unveiled along with Windows 95. The talk of COMDEX was of little else, despite the fact the neither will be available until well into 1995. FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) has become institutionalized with the Las Vegas COMDEX in November of each year. The industry suffers from a bad headache in January as reality sets in.

My idea of attending COMDEX is to stroll the aisles looking for people, get together with insiders in hotel rooms to gawk at stuff under non-disclosure agreement, and go to parties. Trying to get to the morning keynote on time on the first day of COMDEX in Las Vegas is like fighting inch by inch to get into a Tokyo subway at rush hour. The best secret of COMDEX is to watch the keynote later that evening on COMDEX TV in your hotel room.

Microsoft's Bill Gates put on a keynote show this year that rivaled former Apple chairman John Sculley's Knowledge Navigator video in pure hype. The COMDEX folks at first tried to charge extra for the keynote, but Gates got wind of it and demanded that they stop charging. Microsoft then proceeded to charge extra for the videotape.

The best part of the video was the wireless, card-based transactions involving no cash. Gates' idea for a wallet PC is cool, except some people (myself included) would be nervous at having Microsoft software running my finances.

What was truly novel for Microsoft was having Gates stick his neck out with this futuristic vision thang. Gates is more believable than Sculley because, for one thing, Gates can argue about software all night long and sound like he knows what he's talking about.

Gates is prepared to back his vision with a $100 million international marketing campaign to build and enhance the Microsoft brand identity, based on the slogan "Where do you want to go today?" I know that when I first saw the slogan, sitting in a traffic jam in Las Vegas trying to make an appointment at COMDEX, I wanted to be somewhere else... Where even Microsoft couldn't take me.

I also admit to being baffled at first. Was Microsoft getting into the airline business? You can't get too far in one day by car (certainly not in California).

Microsoft's first attempts at brand-name marketing in the real world was met with confusion. I predict they'll go back to the drawing boards on this campaign, and soon. Branding is an important marketing concept in the consumer marketing world, the notion has barely trickled into the computer industry over the last couple years, mostly through Apple's efforts at SuperBowl Sunday Macintosh sales.

On what, exactly, will Microsoft's name be used as a brand? The software industry is evolving into a service industry. Microsoft will offer both services and the underlying technology (which will not be branded). Gates has gone as far as to say that he sees no reason for companies investing in development of underlying technology to embark on megamillion advertising campaigns.

Will Gates practice what he preaches? Or will there be a "Microsoft Inside" campaign to coincide with the rollout of next year's set-top devices? Only time and TCI will tell.

One thing is certain: the industry must take its destiny into its own hands. The "less government is better" attitude sweeping the political landscape gives Microsoft a green light. If a company wants to challenge Microsoft in any of the market segments that Microsoft dominates, it must be willing to go for broke.

Apple is clearly not up to the task of going for broke in the operating system sector of the industry. Neither is IBM. Windows 95 sailed into prominence at this COMDEX, and it is not going to ship for six months. Meanwhile, OS/2 Warp is shipping now, but no one takes it very seriously. The PowerPC chip is faltering as a platform because IBM won't (or can't) use the Mac system and provide a unified API for developers.

The next battle will be the set-top device wars. The Western Cable show will feature a number of new devices, but not much in the way of interactive TV trial results are available because the trials have been delayed. The darkness and confusion, two states brought on by FUD, give Microsoft the time it needs to mount an offensive. The only contender on the horizon is Scientific-Atlanta, which picked up Kaleida Labs' set-top operating system technology.

Another battle coming soon is the online service war. Stephen Case of America Online (AOL) is already crying foul over Microsoft's efforts to create a network that connects all Windows 95 users (with client software that ships with Windows 95). AOL bought NaviSoft Inc., which develops online publishing tools (including reporting and billing), and BookLink Technologies, which develops Internet access software, to make Internet access easier for AOL subscribers.

Case believes that AOL will remain more attractive than basic Internet service, and more competitive than Microsoft's network, because AOL offers editorial value in its selection and presentation of online material. But the growth of the Web has demonstrated how diversity improves the model. The various styles of Web pages, and the growth of editorial focal points in the Web, are far better than anything AOL has to offer.

The exception to this point is the installation and connection hassles encountered by the average user trying to access the Internet. AOL has a tremendous advantage with easy installation as compared to basic Internet and Web browsing, but this advantage is not so much compared to Microsoft's opportunity to embed its network client software built into Windows 95. And Microsoft can leverage this clout to make the kind of deals that ensure its domination, such as the Microsoft and Visa International joint effort to develop software to let PC users shop with credit cards electronically.

So where do we go from here? Microsoft is clear about its direction. The rest of the industry can fall into step, or challenge every step. Conventional wisdom had it that the existing online services would prevail over publishers starting their own services, but Microsoft's Network announcement exposed this myth. Microsoft, now one of the largest publishers in the world, can single-handedly change the course of online technology by wedding it to the desktop operating system. What other company could do as much? What? Did you say Apple? So much for conventional wisdom. --TB

Orphan Child of Multimedia

Marc Canter, founder of Macromedia, has often been quoted as saying that audio was the "orphan child" of multimedia; by that he meant that support for high-quality sound was mostly an afterthought.

Who would have thought that there would be another, more accurate, scenario for this phrase, and that it would apply to Kaleida Labs? For it is Kaleida, the result of a pairing of Apple and IBM, that will soon be abandoned to fate by its parents.

It seems that neither Apple nor IBM really wanted Kaleida to be successful. For Kaleida's original ScriptX strategy to be successful, Apple and IBM had to promise to bundle players, and ScriptX had to migrate to the networks and become the platform for development of interactive TV services. A Kaleida operating system for set-tops would have provided a direct, clear, challenge to Microsoft's set-top efforts.

The people who had religion (i.e., the notion that multimedia could play independently of the operating system underneath) were encouraged, and the people who were pragmatic (supporting the notion that an operating system was essential) ran into the indifferent walls of Apple and IBM, which are working on their own set-top operating systems.

Kaleida reorganized and refocused on ScriptX. Unfortunately the company has no magnificent tools to showcase ScriptX development. The company needs the equivalent of a Macromedia Director to assemble presentations and animation, the equivalent of Adobe Premiere to edit video and provide special effects, and so on; it has nothing.

The company was recently hurt by the bad press surrounding the recent IBM-Apple partnership on the PowerPC architecture. Many journalists looked back on other partnerships, such as Taligent and Kaleida, and found them to be seriously irrelevant.

Which leads to the question, who will buy the troubled ScriptX developer? Is Kaleida even for sale?

I'd like to speculate first about what would happen if Adobe Systems bought Kaleida.

Adobe could use the ScriptX language to add scripting capability to Premiere, which would turn the most popular video editing software into an authoring environment. Adobe could also integrate Photoshop, Premiere, and ScriptX authoring tools in a colossal multimedia bundle. The philosophy of ScriptX, which is to provide device-independent multimedia playback, fits right in with the Adobe philosophy for PostScript. The two companies have the same enemy in Microsoft and the same friends in Apple and IBM, and they could enrich each other's competitive research (Kaleida's in multimedia, Adobe's in printing). Not a bad combo.

Let's try another one: what if Kaleida was bought by Macromedia?

This idea is not so far-fetched when you consider that Macromedia could buy itself a future growth path into object-oriented tools, bolstered with the flagship Director and Lingo. Macromedia is, after all, already providing part of the solution that Kaleida has strived to offer: cross-platform authoring capability.

A variant of this scenario could have Apple closing down Kaleida, moving the effort to Macromedia on a contract basis, and investing in Macromedia. Stranger things have happened in the name of multimedia. --TB

Across the Universe

It's my job, and perhaps my sad destiny, to point out that conventional wisdom is often wrong.

One example is the notion that a standard cross-platform document format could be defined by committee and agreed to by vendors. All efforts failed. What succeeded was a format developed for online use. I predicted years ago that the online service that succeeds the most will be the most capable of establishing a document format.

This has finally happened: Internet's World Wide Web is the most successful cross-platform network, and its document format, HTML, is the de-facto standard. It was designed not by committee but by academics, which goes against conventional wisdom again, which states that standards usually evolve from commercial applications.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the web-heads are amassing an infrastructure of hyperlinked web pages that relies on the common interest to carry the network. The government will soon be out of the Internet support business, leaving it up to private enterprise to continue bolstering the existing links. But businesses by the thousands are putting up web pages each week and taking advantage of the info-gathering capabilities of Internet access.

While the industry pays closer attention to financial transaction technology for the Internet, the rank and file PC users are rediscovering the joy of cross-platform communications using the Internet's Web pages as a medium and HTML as a "typesetting" language for the "online press." Microsoft Word 6.0 supports HTML, and it is likely that the Mosaic-compatible network browsers that understand HTML will be widely used, obviating the need for Acrobat-like playback software.

Think of it as a revolution of structure over form. No longer do we care if the formatting is preserved, as long as the structure is preserved, so we can apply our own formatting automatically. Thus, HTML has become the cross-platform document standard. --TB

Copyright © 1994 11/28/94 by HyperMedia Comm. Inc.
Written by Tony Bove (TB) and/or Cheryl Rhodes (CR)