Lost at MS Sea

Francis Vale

Bill Gates, in his Spring 98 Comdex keynote, stated that he has "40 Windows machines I depend on to turn my lights on and off (in my home), and they work most of the time." Now, "most" is far removed from "always." Even Bill admitted that the incomprehensible, unhelpful error messages that pop up in his Windows system when things go wrong frustrate him. If his own Windows creation confuses even Gates, what does this portend for the hapless consumer? Because picture this: The giant consumer electronics makers and TV cable companies are dead set on bringing this mind numbing MS Windows confusion into your living room. Faustian deals are being made left and right to run MS Windows CE in many of the new Digital TVs which will be here by the end of this year. But for Microsoft, "many' is far removed from "all," which is the only way it views its Windows-centric world. Is it any wonder that consumer double trouble is brewing in this witches cauldron called DTV?

The ingredients for this hag's brew are already bubbling away in the DTV pot. ATSC (Advanced television Systems Committee) has 18 (!) different DTV broadcast formats that are all supposed to be supported in order for a new DTV to be certified as ATSC-compliant. Moreover, the new DTV sets and set top boxes will all be running on different CPUs and operating systems. Yikes! What happens if a broadcaster's DTV application decoder doesn't work because of hardware or software limitations in your XYZ DTV set? Or worse, the broadcaster deliberately munges its DTV decoder for nasty competitive purposes? Along the same mean spirited lines, might a company enforce decoder-licensing restrictions that deliberately limit the scope of DTV application execution? In the latter scenario, read Microsoft, a company that has been openly antagonistic to ATSC-DTV from day one, and which seems to specialize in restrictive OEM agreements.

Therefore, enter DASE (Digital TV Application Software Environment). DASE is a DTV standards subgroup within ATSC. Part of DASE's charter is to specify a standardized application execution engine inside the new DTV set top boxes and DTV receivers. As it happens, the very same consumer electronics makers and TV cable companies (e.g., Sony and TCI) that are licensing MS CE are convinced that if they put "100% pure" Sun Java on top of CE, they are home free and have escaped the grasping clutches of Mr. Bill. No surprise then that the DASE members just voted overwhelmingly for Java as the engine of choice.

Time for a reality check, kids. Microsoft will initially pay lip service to the DASE specs, then quickly bring its own Java-competing DTV APIs into MS CE. Microsoft will be changing those MS CE APIs so often that a Sun Java licensee will be in perennial, hamster-caught-in-a-spinning-cage catch-up mode (Remember that old saw, "DOS isn't done until Lotus won't run"?)

The patented Microsoft All-is-Borg approach will eventually, inexorably, make mincemeat of the DASE/Java application execution standard. At some point, the Java licensee's Herculean catch-up efforts will falter. And when they do, a DTV broadcaster will suddenly face a slew of confused and angry customers demanding to know why their new TV set suddenly quit working when ER came on their DTV set. If Redmond gets its way, the DASE/ATSC-specified DTV application standards will be fractured -- and in the process, Java will become even more splintered. What better time than this to demand "standard" MS CE APIs for all those fractious DTV sets! To paraphrase what Mr. Bill said to Congress recently, what's good for Microsoft is good for the America economy.

The fractious competitive battles being waged by Microsoft, plus outright corporate greed and Congressional political folly, are all merrily conspiring to bring pandemonium into your living room by year end. Not a pretty picture to contemplate, even when displayed at DTV's maximum resolution of 1080i.

Speaking of nice pictures, you have to wonder if there was some cosmic synchronicity at work when Gates plunked down $30 million for Winslow Homer's classic 19th-century seascape, "Lost on the Grand Banks." For the new millennium, just substitute Homer's hapless fisherman anxiously peering over the side of his sea-tossed dingy for Joe Six Pack unhappily gazing at the suddenly blue screen of his new DTV set. The title of this new tableau is "Lost in Your Living Room." So how much will you give me for this new oeuvre, Bill? Presuming, of course, your electricity is on so you can read this.

The Bottom Line

Home Users: And you thought getting that crappy little game going on your PC was tough? Hoo boy, wait until Microsoft gets hold of your TV!

Business Users:Get ready for your company's productivity to go right down the toilet. Your employees will soon be spending thousands of hours watching day time soaps on their DTV-PCs.

Power Users: Hog Heaven! Now you can look forward to frittering away countless days and nights getting your new Java/Microsoft-whammied DTV set working.

Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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