AT LARGE: Which widget?

AT LARGE: Which widget?

A week or so ago, I was sent an e-mail by a friend, who had found an article on some Web site written by some commentator. The article was basically saying that, because computer hardware is so cheap these days, people will surely stop buying expensive software, such as that sold by Microsoft. This will result in a waning of Microsoft's power and influence, and general happiness for the rest of us. My friend extrapolated from that conclusion that this was great news for users and resellers of the Apple Mac.

I was in the middle of finalising the menu for my wedding reception - particularly the weighty question of BĂ©arnaise versus Hollandaise on the roast beef - so I whipped off a quick "yay team" and thought no more about it.

Then, just last night, I woke up suddenly in the wee smalls, with this thought in my head: "How bleeding daft." And no, I wasn't thinking about sauces.

Inexpensive PC hardware means only one thing directly: it will be harder for PC manufacturers to make profits. Differentiation should be the order of the day - but any manufacturer that does anything vaguely innovative becomes "difficult to support" and users are put off.

Which was the core of Microsoft's argument in the remedy stage of its antitrust trial. If hardware manufacturers are allowed to innovate freely, it will impede Microsoft's own efforts to innovate (yes, there is irony in my tone, I don't know if you can see it).

Microsoft's answer to this is the Xbox. Yes, it's a game console. But it's a console built almost entirely out of stock-standard PC parts. Right now it plays games. Soon it will surf the Internet and do e-mail. Then - hop, skip, jump - you're running Windows on it. By introducing its own hardware platform, Microsoft is then able to dictate the direction of innovation.

People like a "normal" to aspire to. PC operating systems have gravitated towards a "normal" that Microsoft controls. Applications, likewise, have gravitated towards that norm - people like to have the same brand of word processor as their OS. It's not necessarily rational, but it's true.

Controlling hardware, operating systems and applications is a major factor in what has kept Apple going. Steve Jobs praises his company because it's "the only one that makes the whole widget". People like to have an Apple computer with an Apple OS and a bunch of Apple applications - one brand, front to back. Just ask anyone from Adobe how they feel about iPhoto or iMovie to find out what power that consistent brand experience has.

An Xbox that runs Windows and Microsoft Office, along with a few Microsoft-branded multimedia applications, gives Microsoft control of its own widget.

Remind me again how that will help Apple?

Matthew JC. Powell doesn't control any widgets. Send any spares to

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