Microsoft innovates most devious market killer

Microsoft innovates most devious market killer

Corel had a big win late last month when it announced a bundling deal with PC Chips Group, the largest PC motherboard manufacturer in the world.

Corel will ship about 18 million copies per year of Corel WordPerfect Suite 8 through this deal alone. As it happens, WordPerfect is my word processor of choice (a lucky thing, too, in light of the Microsoft Office-related Melissa virus outbreak), so I'm obviously pleased that my favourite word processor has some added longevity.

Unfortunately, my sources tell me that Microsoft is about to respond with a product plan that may make Corel's move irrelevant. In the long run, it may even wipe out all competing Windows application software.

Microsoft is working with Intel on a new motherboard design called the Winboard. A Winboard is a complete PC on a single motherboard that works on the same principle as a Winmodem.

Like a Winmodem, the operating system and software drivers instead handle many of the tasks that would normally be processed by special purpose chip sets. And like a Winmodem, you must be running Windows in order for the hardware to work.

The benefit of this design is that you get a much cheaper motherboard, because there are far fewer chips involved and no need for expansion slots. The first 500MHz Pentium III Winboard is expected to sell for just $US70 more than the cost of the CPU, yet it will deliver the equivalent of a current motherboard, plus a 56Kbps modem, a 10/100Base-T network card, a 16MB 2-D/3-D display card, a high-speed SCSI controller, and a 16-bit 64-voice sound system.

As with the Winmodem, there are consequences to the fact that the Winboard shifts the workload normally handled by special purpose hardware to the CPU and system memory. For example, it requires a lot more installed memory to run a Winboard system than a normal system, primarily due to the way the display technology works. There is no display card per se, so the system has to map anywhere from 8MB to 64MB of system memory directly to the display output (depending on the resolution and colour depth).

There are also rumours that the first Winboards will need a 500MHz Pentium III processor to run about as fast as a normal motherboard equipped with a 333MHz P II and the equivalent in peripherals. Microsoft is promising that later Winboards will meet and even exceed the performance of more expensive motherboards and peripherals.

How will Microsoft solve the inherent performance problems? The answer lies in a plan more devious and ingenious than any plan Microsoft has innovated to date. The Winboard is a joint effort between Microsoft and Intel, but Microsoft has managed to appropriate the entire specification for the Winboard drivers. Microsoft has determined that it will not release the API to other developers.

This means that all third-party Windows software will have to continue to use the existing Win32 APIs in order for that software to run. Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to release special versions of its application software products that run only on Winboards, starting with Microsoft Office. This new version of Office bypasses the layer between Win32 and the Winboard drivers. As a result, Microsoft Office will be significantly faster and more stable on a Winboard than any other office suite.

Winboards will be so cheap in large quantities that you can expect traditional motherboards to disappear within a few years. If the Winboard replaces the traditional PC, Microsoft will probably squeeze out all competition in the office suite market by the year 2003, and all of the remaining software categories by 2010.

Yes, it is possible for the open-source community to reverse-engineer the Winboard specification in order to make Linux or any other operating system work on the Winboard. But by the time these drivers appear, Microsoft will have sewn up both the desktop and server markets.

In view of all the above, you may be wondering why Corel would choose this moment to cut a deal with a motherboard manufacturer? It's possible Corel is trying to steal a little mindshare before the axe falls. Or it's possible Corel doesn't even know the Winboard exists. In fact, I'll bet most people at Microsoft don't even know it exists.

That is, unless they know how to recognise an April Fool's column.

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