It's time to dump soft limitations

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

Opinion - Indianapolis (IN) - Companies like Intel and Microsoft often impose what are called "soft limitations" on products. These limitations aren't due to limits of hardware or design, but rather are employed only to make sure a particular product stays within a given "niche market" or price point. I believe these limitations are stifling to innovation and keep powerful products away from end consumers, and it's time for these practices to stop.

To give an example, in September, 2008 Microsoft sent out a specification for NetBook and NetTop platforms to its Top 20 OEMs. It said Windows XP machines:

1) Could not have more than a 16 GB built-in flash drive, and no hard drive larger than 160 GB.
2) Graphics capabilities could not be greater than DirectX 9.0.
3) Could not have more than 1 GB of memory.
4) The CPU had to be single-core, and could not be more than 1 GHz except for Intel Atom models N270, N230, Z500, Z510, Z520, Z530 and Z540), Intel Celeron 220, or AMD Geode LX, Athlon (2650E and Sempron 210U), or VIA C7-M ULV, Neon (U2300, U2400 and U2500). Note: None of these are dual-core CPUs, though several of them are well over 1 GHz.
5) Netbook screen sizes could only be up to 10.2 inches. Large screen Netbooks up to 14.1 inches. [Note: 
No limit was given for NetTop max screen size.]
6)
For Windows Vista Basic, the built-in flash drive could be 24 GB.

All of these are soft limitations. There are no hardware reasons why these have to be limiting factors. As such, there should be no reasons why a consumer couldn't have a dual-core Atom-based NetBook with 64 GB of memory, a 256 GB built-in SSD drive as well as several Terabyte hard drives and DirectX 10.1 capabilities if they wanted it, if a manufacturer wanted to build it, and if they could afford it.

If some company wanted to build that machine, they should be allowed to do it. It's their money, it's their risk, it's their R&D. But today, it is only these "soft limitations" which prevent us from getting really exciting machines.

Recently, Nvidia developed its Ion platform. It works with Intel's Atom CPU and is based on Nvidia's MCP79 chipset. This powerhouse solution provides full DirectX 10 support via an integrated 9400M graphics processor, and is far-and-away more capable than the current requirement/limitation Intel is imposing regarding its i945xx chipsets.

Recently I wrote an article about how modularity needed to be in all electronics devices. This follow-up to that article should provide information about why such technologies are not always allowed.

We are facing limits based on hardware manufacturer determined market segments, and software provider determined price points. These have nothing to do with physical machine capabilities or theoretical maxims. They are imposed solely to generate cash flow at given points, such that high-end NetBooks or NetTops don't impede into the notebook markets, and that high-end notebooks don't replace PCs (although nothing can stop that now).

It is  a comprehensive effort by the big industry players to keep us (the consumers) from having real choices.

Personally, I'd like to have a wide-screen NetBook, something on the order of 17" or 19", but one which has a low-end CPU. I don't need a lot of horsepower for my portable computing, but I would like to be able to see more on my screen. As it is today, to receive such a high-end screen I would have to buy a notebook costing well over $1000. I would like to just pay for those components I need, such as the high-end screen, and leave the rest to lower-end components.

How much computing power does one need to check email, surf web pages and write some computer code? One of Intel's dual-core Atoms would be more than powerful enough. Why shouldn't I, the consumer, be able to buy the product that I want? And if there are enough out there like me (in any given area or of any given design), and the market has such a demand for it, why shouldn't manufactures be able to build whatever it is they feel the market would buy?

I think it's time more consumers took note of that fact.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.