A trend toward softness. (Reminiscence - software, stores and magazines) Bill Gates.
Microsoft has been directly involved in the most exciting events in personal computer history: the first personal computer (the sometimes forgotten Altair), the Apple II, design of the IBM PC, the Radio Shack Model 100, and most recently, the Apple Macintosh. However, one of the most interesting discoveries for me came in 1973, even before the Altair, when Paul Allen and I started working with the first general purpose 8-bit microcomputer, the Intel 8080. It was then that we discovered two principles that would shape the industry.
The first was that, over time, general purpose devices with less and less specialized "programming" would replace specialized devices. We saw this initially when microcomputers replaced discrete circuitry. The first use of a microcomputer was to simplify a calculator; later, even the logic of the microprocessor was replaced with a microcode program on the microcomputer chip itself. Specialized word processors are being replaced by general purpose microcomputers. The Trend Toward "Softness"
I call this a trend toward "softness." Today we are talking about "writable control stores" in which the microcode in a microprocessor can be changed, allowing for specialization of the instruction to gain efficiency based on the specific problem being solved.
Even in software this trend has become obvious. Rather than build up from a bare machine, a general operating system is used to allow the specialized application to be simpler. The operating system is now evolving to include graphics, as in the Microsoft Windows system; multitasking; and higher level data mangement operations. This even further reduces the amount of work required to specialize a machine since all of the new subroutines in the operating system are available.
This trend toward general purpose devices may seem illogical, since a specialized device can be simplified and streamlined for its particular purpose. However, the benefits of this tuning are being increasingly outweighed by the extremely low cost of the general purpose device which is being sold in very high volume and the design of which is receiving the very best design expertise. Both hardware and software improve greatly when volume is high and the best talent is applied.
In the future, software packages will become even more general purpose as they remember all of the user's input and mold to his profile and communication techniques. Of course, this is a form of artificial intelligence, which is a very advanced form of "softness," since it attempts to create a device so general purpose that it can deal with a vast number of inputs and recognize important patterns. Third Party Support
Another crucial principle is the importance of designing open systems that allow everyone to build on them and building a "standard" by encouraging third party support. Microsoft, Apple, and IBM all owe their success in personal computers to this approach. Because the Intel 8080 was the first chip, everyone wrote software for it.
When the Motorola 6800 came out years later, it wasn't enough of an improvement to justify rewriting all the software and despite its superiority, it did not do as well as the 8080 simply because Intel had encouraged software development and good development systems.
Likewise, Microsoft Basic gained a position because of the incredible number of books, courses, and applications which employed it. The momentum that these third party investments can create is amazing. Today there are faster systems than the IBM PC, but software solutions aren't as widely available. The Apple II was designed more than six years ago yet it is still a best seller. These de facto standards were created because the world at large was encouraged to take advantage of these products.
Standards are so beneficial to end users that they can hold back technological advances for a short time, though innovation eventually requires a new generation. In every new generation, however, many, many products are engineered but only a few are merchandised to developers in ways that allow them to become successful. The investment Apple has made to encourage applications for the Macintosh is a result of their understanding of the value of widespread support.
I realized the value of third party support when I saw that the Intel 8080 software quickly became better than minicomputer equivalents simply because so many companies were building and sharing software tools. It is for this reason that Microsoft has always made its product very open.
Despite the instability of companies in the personal computer industry (our first 12 customers all went bankrupt) where surprises are commonplace, the use of general purpose devices and third party support have proven to be the principles that drive the industry.