Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Microsoft's un-grand design

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos explains why the software company is scaling down its ambitions when it comes to convincing the rest of the computer industry to adopt design changes.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
When it comes to design, Microsoft is thinking small.

Instead of trying to get the PC industry to adopt a wide range of new technologies into future models all at once, Microsoft has shifted its tack: It's working on getting computer makers to adopt incremental improvements that are largely independent from the device they eventually get incorporated into. Because they are atomized, the changes can then be adopted into a broad variety of devices.

"We're decomposing the user experience," said Tom Phillips, general manager in the Windows hardware experience group at Microsoft, in an interview at the recently-concluded WinHEC trade show. "The way that we develop has to change. We (the industry) are still really designing to a 1980s spec."

The Xeel navigation controller is an example of the company's new design ethos. Xeel consists of a groove in product chassis that has embedded control buttons and that is shaped for a person's thumb (the evolutionary digit that separates us from the other primates). It essentially lets consumers run Web tablets or consumer electronics devices.

Want to scroll to the bottom of a Web page? Flex your middle knuckle slightly until the rubbery middle button pushes downward. Go back a page? Flick the same button sideways. Change windows? Stretch and punch the top button. Hardware makers can program the buttons in any manner they wish, but the end result is the same: a mouselike device that will be the same on everything from tablet PCs to TV remote controls. Muscle memory should carry from one device to another.

And here's another Microsoft project: Putting batteries into PC power supplies, so that if the power gets knocked out, the computer keeps running for a while.

Getting changes such as these to make their way into products has taken years in the past, Phillips noted. First, Microsoft and chipmaker Intel, for example, would draft a blueprint

By issuing less ambitious blueprints, Microsoft can shorten the adoption cycle.
for future PCs. Then they had to wait for manufacturers to incorporate it into products. Then the hardware manufacturers had to wait for software developers to tweak applications to take advantage of the change.

By issuing less ambitious blueprints, Microsoft can shorten the adoption cycle. At the same time, because the changes aren't all-encompassing, enough room exists for improvisation.

"In the past, Microsoft was a lot more specific about implementations," Phillips said. Now, "we aren't going to force everyone through 'one size fits all.' The specifics of implementation can be very different."

Intel has followed a similar strategy for years, and it makes sense: These are the companies with the power, the engineers and the money needed to take risks.

The Athens PC, a concept PC created by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, exhibits the same ethic. Athens runs Longhorn, the next big version of Windows for desktops, due in 2005. When showing off the concept, Bill Gates discussed how it could become the PC-videoconference center-telephone for workers of the future.

In contrast, engineers close to the project pointed out that the details will start to come out much earlier. A wireless keyboard, for instance, can plug into an electrical port embedded in the stand for the flat-panel monitor, for instance, so it can be recharged easily.

Invite Michael Kanellos into your in-box
Senior department editor Michael Kanellos scrutinizes the hardware industry in a weekly column that ranges from chips to servers and other critical business systems. Enterprise Hardware every Wednesday.

Additionally, the CD-DVD drive is not in the computer chassis. Instead, it's affixed to the back of the monitor. The start button is on the monitor, too. As a result of these small changes, the computer itself--the box with the hard drive, the memory and the processor--can be taken completely off the desk.

HP will start putting the CD on the back of monitors in PCs coming this fall, said Louis Kim, director of desktop product marketing for HP's business PC group.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company is also working on bladed desktops--which put the computer in a back room, leaving the monitor only on your desk--that could also take advantage of these design tweaks. Although none of these changes constitutes a life-altering experience, it's a start.