Where's the innovation? Right in front of you!

Written by Tim Smalley

January 27, 2009 | 14:56

Tags: #economic-crisis #gpus #hardware #innovation #recession

It's fair to say that the current economic crisis has hit the technology industry - we've seen big layoffs at many of the biggest tech companies, with AMD, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Sony and Western Digital all announcing significant workforce cuts. However, some companies argue that it's not just the recession that is killing their revenues - they're citing the rise in popularity of netbooks as a major catalyst as well.

Frankly though, the industry appears to be looking for a scapegoat and the success of low cost, ultra portable devices like netbooks seems fitting from the industry's perspective, but that doesn't make it right.

For example, Microsoft blames the rise of netbooks on its lower profit margins because it has to sell Windows at a lower price in order to compete with Linux-equipped netbooks. While that is fair enough, it is not a reason to hate netbooks - instead, Microsoft should think of it as another sale, because the netbook was and never has been sold as a replacement to traditionally more powerful machines.
The problem for Microsoft isn't the netbook - it's that the industry has been hit pretty hard by the financial crisis. Consumers just aren't buying desktops and notebooks at the moment. And that's not down to a lack of innovation like some believe - it's simply because consumer confidence is the lowest it has been for a long time.

What sparked me to write this particular blog post was some commentary on this subject I came across on ComputerWorld, which suggests that a lack of innovation since TFT flat panels and the wait for Windows 7, amongst other things, are killing sales of desktop and notebook PCs. I must admit I'm rather dumbfounded as to why - the industry has been rife with innovation in the last few years to say the very least.

I mean, where do I start? GPU technology has played a major part in shaping the future for example - and I'm not really talking about what GPUs are traditionally recognised for. Smooth, full HD 1080p video playback is possible on everything and anything from an Atom-based platform (providing Intel allows Nvidia to launch its Ion platform) to a high-end gaming machine with a pair of £400+ graphics cards installed. There's also the GPU Computing industry which is right on the crest of a wave at the moment - OpenCL and DirectX11 Compute Shaders will help to cement its position in the market and we're going to start seeing some massive steps forward in parallel computing performance.

Over the course of this year, we're going to see a major shift in notebooks and that is the increased focus on manufacturers shipping lifestyle notebooks with decent integrated graphics. That's not something that has happened overnight - it's been happening for a while - but I believe we're going to see a lot more of it this year. When AMD launched its Puma platform for example, it featured a very capable integrated GPU that could not only deliver a great HD movie experience, but it also enabled you to do some light gaming on the move. The same has started to happen with Nvidia's GeForce 9400M - Apple has adopted it and, from what we understand, it is not the only high profile notebook manufacturer adopting Nvidia's integrated graphics technology on their Intel-based designs.

I'm being fairly narrow minded here though, focusing on just how the graphics industry is evolving, but the reality is that graphics is a part of the user experience and that is really where the industry is pushing forwards. Probably the biggest showcase of that work has been in the operating system market - the highest profile example being Windows Vista, but we can't forget what Apple is doing in this space either.

Of course, Windows Vista was seen by many as a step backwards in usability from Windows XP, but Microsoft was at least partially on the right track given the almost unanimous praise it has had so far for Windows 7. The reality is that many will see Windows 7 as Windows Vista Done Right Edition - a lot of Vista's underpinnings are still very much present, but changes have been made... for the better. Whether or not that label is deserved is a matter of personal preference - I don't believe it is personally, but then the next guy may well say the opposite. Even with that said though, I don't believe consumers are sitting on the fence waiting for Windows 7 to start shipping on notebooks and desktop PCs - they're just not spending money on things they don't need right now and it's not as if the technology industry is alone in this crisis.
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