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Missing in Memphis?

-- by Jonathan Blackwood

Microsoft might not be the dealer in the bus technology game, but the software giant appears to be holding the trump card. The success of USB, IEEE 1394 and Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) (see sidebar "Will a New Bus Leave Your System in the Dust?") is contingent upon Microsoft adding support for these technologies to the Windows operating system. But when asked directly about plans for building in support in Memphis-the much-anticipated next release of Windows-a Microsoft spokesperson's answers skirt specifics, stating that "USB [and IEEE 1394 and AGP] will be supported in future versions of Windows and Windows NT." No word on whether that means this year.

There is no doubt that Microsoft is working on operating system support for each of these buses. But with few details available, some peripheral and system manufacturers are fretting privately that in a headlong rush to meet a ship date, Microsoft may throw some pieces of Memphis overboard at the last minute. It's a situation reminiscent of the to-do surrounding Plus Pack for Windows 95. Much of what was offered on the Plus Pack CD-ROM was originally intended for inclusion in Windows 95 but judged not ready for prime time as the launch date neared.

So what's the prognosis? It's actually pretty good for USB. Not only is Intel behind the Universal Serial Bus, its bus class driver has already shipped with Win 95 OEM Service Release 2.1. Its exclusion from the next full revision would seem to be a step backward.

The question of IEEE 1394 (FireWire) support is less clear. IEEE 1394's high-speed serial bus technology had its origins at Apple Computer some years back. Although it's roundly praised and considered a promising new standard at forums such as Microsoft's own Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, it's not being championed with any great ardor by either Intel or Microsoft. Given the circumstances, among new bus technologies, FireWire seems the most likely to be thrown over the side if last-minute development resources become a problem. But some manufacturers feel that driver support for basic IEEE 1394 functionality can be written independently if it's not included in Memphis. This approach would likely be good enough for such FireWire devices as video cameras, but it's questionable whether it could accommodate mainstream devices like high-speed hard disk drives, which almost certainly require operating system support to work.

AGP is another Intel-supported standard. It appears that Intel will push ahead and provide the port and chip support on its motherboards. And even if Microsoft doesn't deliver operating system support, parts of AGP-such as the direct pipeline from the graphics accelerator to system main memory-would be unaffected. But a major portion of AGP functionality-the dynamic memory allocation required to allow video to peacefully coexist with Windows in the same RAM space-would be missing without OS support. And since system RAM is precisely the spot where AGP is intended to store the 3-D textures and backgrounds that make it such an advance over previous 3-D methods, the lack of operating system support would effectively take the wind out of AGP's sails.

If Memphis doesn't ship with support for each of these technologies, don't be surprised if that support turns up later as dribbleware. The benefits of these new buses are simply too good for Microsoft to pass up in the long run.

Windows Magazine, May 1997, page 228.

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