Cybersurfers never had it so good. The efforts of Apple’s Steven Jobs to revive his legacy mean that we can order the iMac in one of five “flavors.” Thanks, Steve. Bill Gates wants you to be able to go anywhere you want on the Net — as long as Microsoft escorts you on the journey
To a large degree, that is what passes for choice on today’s Internet. You want to go online? Unless you’ve got one of the few fancy new cell phones, you’ve got to boot up some version of a PC to climb aboard. As Henry Ford used to say, his customers could have any color car they wanted, as long as it was black.
That sorry state of affairs is about to end. In the next year or two, there will be an explosion of Internet-capable devices that offer users access to the Net — and the information that they want or need — in a manner best suited to their individual lifestyles. Do I really need a computer for e-mail if I’m using a cellular phone all day? Why bother with the PC when I really just want to download new games for my PlayStation?
Greg Galanos — founder, president and chief technology officer of Metrowerks Corp, an Austin, Tex.-based company that develops programming tools — offered some perspectives in an interview last week.
“We are going to see a renaissance in the diversity of technology we use,” Galanos said. “What you use and how is a very, very personal choice. Pagers, phones, PCs — there will be no de facto standard worldwide in electronics.”
His reasoning is simple: Processors continue to get more powerful even as they shrink into the microcosmos. Right now, we are on the verge of a critical transition from 8- and 16-bit microcontrollers, chips with small memories that run in assembler (a type of language), to 32-bit processors.
“The pipe is much bigger, which means the entire market is becoming software intensive. D-RAM prices have gone through the floor, so random access memory is going up in every embedded device with very fast processors. The only thing that differentiates them from the desktop is that they are specialized for different markets — game consoles, cell phones, GPS systems,” Galanos said.
Computers shrank and got faster, so look for the same trend in other digital appliances. In fact, the first wave is already upon us.
Think of the increasing functionality of cell phones. Caller ID, e-mail capability, voice recognition: All those features were once restricted to larger models. Or compare that PDA in your pocket to the sluggard you used to own. Bigger (yet smaller), faster chips means that programs and applications we once associated with the desktop are now going to migrate to the item in hand.
“We are looking at a more diverse technological infrastructure than we ever had before,” Galanos believes. “Electronics are a counterbalance to the desktop. Personal digital assistants, cell phones, car navigation systems — the issue becomes how to connect people. For years now, Sun has been saying the network is the computer; they were just a bit ahead of their time.”
Galanos is no disinterested observer. The programming tools that his company Metrowerks makes (they prefer to call their Codewarrior software an “Integrated Development Environment”) are the applications that software writers use to write their own programs.
Programmers write code in a computer language — Pascal, C, C++ or Java, for example — for a particular target (a microprocessor, chip or operating system.) Metrowerks provides the software that lets them write that code most efficiently and make sure that it isn’t buggy. It’s real nuts and bolts stuff, but it is essential to the migration of computing power to hand-held devices.
Founded in 1985, the company has become the second-largest tools group in the industry, after Microsoft. CodeWarrior has over 100,000 registered users worldwide; over 75 percent of the people writing code for the Mac use it.
Metrowerks is “OS-agnostic,” said Galanos. That means that while the company has targeted four major markets — desktop Windows and Macintosh, embedded proprietary chips, real-time operating systems of Windows/CE, and Java — it will work with anyone that needs software. In addition to the big folks just mentioned (Apple, Microsoft, Sun), the company has established or is pursuing partnerships with such companies as 3Com, Motorola, Hitachi, Sony Computer Entertainment and Nintendo.
Someone has to write the programs for the chips that let those gadgets do all their neat new tricks. Churning out processors or assembling computers just won’t suffice any more. So, one interesting implication follows from Galanos’ take on the future: Japan, traditionally known for its hardware, is going to have to become more more of a software-intensive culture. That ride may prove a bit bumpy.
“In any transition from a hardware-based culture to a software base there are teething problems and training problems. All of our partners understand this and have identified it as a major issue.”
The transition will not be easy, but Galanos is confident that the obstacles can be overcome.
“Japan is an engineering culture. Its largest resource is its human capital,” he says. “Look at the game business. It’s worth $8 billion, and most of the major titles are built in Japan.
“It’s not that Japanese companies can’t write software; in fact, they have more strengths in some areas than Westerners do. Given their very strong hardware background, they can write low-level drivers and libraries for very esoteric chip sets. They have fundamental strengths. As the game business moves forward and they start using structured tools, the Japanese have the strength to come out on top.”
“I come here six times a year,” said Galanos, and then proceeded to reel off a list of the biggest names in the consumer-electronics business when asked who he meets with. “This is the play of the 21st century as far as I am concerned.” His play, our freedom. Not bad.