Friday, March 24, 2006

The evil delays

So for about five years now, Windows XP has been the latest and most advanced workstation PC offered. For four years the PlayStation 2 has reigned over Sony’s immobile console line. And for about three years Office 2003 has been the top-of-the-line word processing programme for businesses, schools, and homes. Before then, their companies have had a habit of releasing version after version after version yet of their products. But Microsoft has realised that it was no longer possible for them to feign contention over one operating system that had two versions that were essentially upgrades from two other versions it had released; Windows XP Professional was the step up from Windows 2000, and Windows XP Home Edition was the upgrade from Windows Millennium Edition (albeit skipping the Tahoma-font interface step that Windows 2000 took). Sony’s release of the PSP showed the public that its computer entertainment division was indeed in the midst of change; even before the PSP was first proposed speculation on the PS3 was rife. And Microsoft’s Office XP software paled in comparison to Office 2003, which many workstations adopted from Office 97 or 2000 since they didn’t have time to go the extra step.

The first part of remedying this stint was to announce the names and features of entirely new products. Sony’s PlayStation 3 boasts a hard drive and an online gaming network that’s already being beefed up in an attempt to emulate another thing Microsoft can brag about, Xbox Live. Microsoft, however, has released beta versions of Windows Vista to valued supporters and subscribers to the corporation website and intends to release the final product in November to large companies — but it admitted that it wasn’t even near ready to take the product to market for home PCs. And Office 2007 hasn’t even left the drawing board yet, and even at that stage reviewers have criticised Microsoft’s option to discard the traditional menu-and-toolbar interface that characterises most products that run on a Windows machine. (They do so as well for products such as Windows Defender.) And Internet Explorer 7 betas have been released twice, both with serious holes that needed to be repaired and showed that it would never be compatible with Windows XP or lower-grade PCs. And they responded late to the urge to restrict compatibility to Windows XP by allowing Windows Live Messenger only to run on that operating system — and there exists no sign of a definite release date for that programme.

The reason for the lag can be traced back to the scheming that le to the products offered by the two companies. Office was released as an alternative to the faulty Microsoft Works programme (which is still on market but offers no compatibility with .doc or .xls files), Windows itself was the result of stealing the idea of a graphical user interface from Xerox, and Sony’s PlayStation consoles emerged from black-ops consultation with researchers from Nintendo. The first two eventually overshadowed Apple (who strangely haven’t released an new operating system in about five years, instead resorting to development of peripherals such as the iPod), and the PlayStation was released in 1993, three years ahead of the Nintendo 64 — thus walloping Nintendo in the videogame market by capitalising on slow reaction time. When the PlayStation was officially declared obsolete, Sony was about to move onto plans for its successor when a surprise onslaught of indicia made for Nintendo — more Mario games, the introduction of Pokémon outside Japan — caused a disruption. So plans were sped up and the PlayStation 2 was brought to market, coinciding with the new millennium.

If Sony was able to produce quality material under these constraints, we figured, it would be able to release the PlayStation 3 before Christmas with no problem. However, this is the point in which these consoles no longer are being restricted to playing games and offering multiple controller ports — they now have their own IP addresses and connect to a server just like the computer. Microsoft’s Xbox console achieved this shortly after the initial release, although Sony had promised these services just mere months before the PlayStation 2 was released. Not even two years ago the PS2 was able to do this — and last November Microsoft compounded the dilemma by bringing the Xbox 360 to market. However, this caused yet another problem that would lead to suspension of production of that console and the compromising of releases of Vista, which were promised for mid-2006. Microsoft’s research and development money situation had just taken a very sickening turn, propelled by doubt as to whether current hardware would be able to support the operating system at all.

So what happened?

Looking from the viewpoint of the companies that manufacture PCs and hardware — Dell, Intel, AMD, HP — the progress of technology in that sector, which has been rendered a mere tertiary industry by computer marketing and the creation of the programmes and games for those systems, is not fast. In order to support Windows Vista, Pentium will have to: a) release a new Pentium processor or b) create a version of Celeron or Pentium 4 that goes beyond the HT technology that was created to better support Windows XP. Depending on the size of upgraded programme files, new hard drives may have to be marketed to support the operating system, and low-end PCs that were shipped with Windows 98 but later were reformatted with Windows XP may not be able to upgrade to Vista. And don’t get me started on the amount of required DDRAM. Unsurprisingly, the potential insufficiencies of existing technologies provide an excuse for Microsoft to delay the operating system.

Another problem would be the servers. Windows Server 2003 is an emulation of Windows XP that is supposed to provide better support for these operating systems than Windows Server 2000 or NT. Here we have to ask whether Vista will work well with any of these network operating systems. If not, Vista should have a seventh flavour to Vista — Vista Server perhaps, or maybe another version of the Enterprise flavour. Of course, that would only drag the release date down further, so the smart thing would be to make Vista work enough like Windows XP to be compatible with network operating systems for the time being and prevent the Open Group and Novell from racing to the drawing board to create and commission new versions of UNIX and NetWare.

If entanglement with NOS manufacturers wasn’t enough to worry about, Sony has yet to create its own servers, thus refraining from an undependable ad hoc gaming network. Microsoft has luckily been a step ahead of this by creating gaming servers and allowing more than 10 people to be in rooms at the same time (which, of course, results in the proverbial Assault match on Halo 2). Current ad hoc networks such as Nintendo’s WiFi programme and peer-to-peer workstation networks lack a common service and thus are underpowered because the source for required files or gaming venues will shift from workstation or console to workstation or console. The PSP has this weakness as well, although it makes up for it by playing Internet browser when it’s given a computer network to hook up to (although it can’t participate in ad hoc computer networks). Hopefully when the PS3 is out and plans for the sequel to the PSP begin, the ad hoc technology will be scrapped and the new console will be able to connect to others via the servers that support the PS3, if ever they exist.

Then we have the Blu-ray dilemma. This technology — which is supposed to increase playing quality and storage space for CDs and finally make them directly writable on the computer — has been delayed for years on end now, and Sony’s mistake was trying to invest in this technology to include, in any primitive form, in the PS3. Because of the diversion of money to this and the letdown that occurred, Sony is hard-pressed to develop just the right technology for the PS3, so the product remains on the drawing board for more months now.

Finally, you have expectations from the consumer. Office 2007 is expected to provide XML support and specific features for different areas of work (such as government work or school). Whilst it promises new features, the mounting criticism it has received for its ‘innovative’ toolbar interface has reached breaking point — it’s not exactly in the style of Microsoft to eliminate the menu bar at top and force the icons to change once a certain situation such as track changing and macro recording arises, and it’s certainly the goal of the company to provide enough access to make everything they want readily accessible. So the concept is constantly being revised, thus delaying the release of the new version. As for the PlayStation 3, the consumer will not want to depend on loose memory cards, but instead will want a hard drive that can be transferred from one console to another, a concept that is currently being considered. And when Windows Vista ships out, it should for starters include more resistance to threats than Windows XP has and than Internet Explorer 7 currently carries — bye-bye Norton!

When you look at the small print, you start to realise that the delays of the PS3, Vista, and Office are founded in more matters than we really have control over. When Windows XP came out, it was released in two significant versions to upgrade two older operating systems, 2000 and ME. Now that Vista is coming in seven flavours geared for business, the home, school, and third-world countries, more research will have to be done to ensure that the final product both meets personal standards and is compatible with existing versions and is prepared for future releases that require the use of the operating system. And when the PS3 is released, it should come in a format that helps — which means adopting a proper network standard for once and ditching the Spiderman font on its cover.

No comments: