clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Innovation is PC path to success

In the personal computer industry, innovation is the path to success. This reality is widely understood by small and large companies alike.

That's why makers of PCs, microprocessor chips, peripherals, software applications and operating systems incorporate new features continuously. It's why hardware and software improve so rapidly, even as prices fall relentlessly. It's wondrous for consumers, wondrous for the economy and unprecedented in any other industry.It's truly exciting to work in an industry that is so motivated to always do better. The pressure is intense but the pace is thrilling.

Every product on the market today will be obsolete within a few years. The only question for my company is whether we'll be the ones to replace our products or whether some other company will do a better job. Everybody here knows it, and so do our competitors. If we don't keep up with technology and the market, we'll quickly become irrelevant.

Innovation is particularly important for an operating system, the software that coordinates the elements of a computer - including its applications and peripherals, so that information can flow. The more functions the operating system coordinates or assumes, the easier the computer is to use.

Customers value this simplicity. Even sophisticated users of personal computers have limited time and patience. They want to get access to information quickly. They don't want to have to figure out how to make a lot of pieces work together. They just want a computer to work.

Integrating features to achieve power and simplicity has been a hallmark of the PC industry.

A single Intel microprocessor chip now contains features that once required dozens of chips, including math co-processor chips. That's why PCs are faster, smaller, cheaper and less likely to fail than they were only a few years ago. But to remain competitive in the chip business, Intel must continue to sweep new features into the microchip.

Software applications also compete by rapidly incorporating new features. The evolution of word processors, spreadsheets and other office applications has been breathtaking. Remember when word processors didn't have built-in spell-checkers?

Today's PCs have built-in modems, CD-ROMs and other peripherals that not so long ago were add-ons that could be a hassle to get to work. But as operating systems evolved to support these peripherals, manufacturers started making them standard equipment and people started taking them for granted.

Version 1 of Microsoft's first operating system, MS-DOS, didn't let you use hard disks. Information could be stored only on cassette tapes or floppy disks. If we hadn't integrated hard-disk support into the operating system in 1983, few people today would even remember the name "MS-DOS."

The essence of Windows, its graphical interface, was an add-on to MS-DOS when it first came out. If we hadn't developed Windows, we would have lost the operating system market to a graphical competitor such as Apple.

Just as countless new features have been integrated into automobiles, home entertainment systems and dozens of other pro-ducts over the years, many software features that began as separate parts have been integrated into Windows. These include fonts, memory manage-ment, disk compression, CD-ROM support, networking and Internet access, power management for laptops and scores of other capabilities.

Often the new capabilities make it easier for people to access information from an ever-widening array of sources - recently including new kinds of storage devices and wireless links to the Internet. Many people take Web browsing for granted now, because it's easy to set up and run any brand of browser, but that simplicity is based on supporting technical features we built into Windows. Before, only the technically adept could figure out how to configure a PC to connect to the Web.

The reason my company has thousands of people improving and testing Windows is that computer users have a choice of operating systems, including older versions of Windows. If we don't make big strides forward, people won't bother to upgrade - or they'll switch to another operating system.

Competition for operating systems also comes from "middle-ware" - products such as Lotus Notes, which takes over some of what Windows offers consumers. Sun has similar ambitions for Java, which it sees as an operating system as well as a programming language. Netscape hopes to expand its browser software into a platform that makes conventional operating systems irrelevant.

Microsoft's response has been to keep prices down and innovate rapidly, integrating features into Windows to meet the consumers' needs. (Yes, these innovations include Internet Explorer, now the subject of a court challenge.) Every few years we release a whole new version of the operating system, but along the way we offer incremental upgrades. Some of these, such as network and Internet support, take the form of interim releases that later are folded into the operating system.

It's common for makers of operating systems to release modules in stages, as they become available. Apple does it. Vendors of many of the flavors of UNIX do it. Microsoft is no different.

Customers and computer manufacturers are eager for incremental improvements, from bug fixes to big, new features. When we have something good and well-tested, we often don't hold it for the next major release of the operating system. We get it out there.

So what comes next? We'll see operating systems that support speech and visual recognition, letting PCs interact with people more naturally. We'll see incredible on-screen graphics. We'll see high-speed connections to rich information from all over the world.

Every operating system will offer these kinds of incredible features, because innovation is the path to success. Any software company that doesn't innovate won't be around long.