The Lite Side

Microsoft, Intel, and the Back Ends of Two Horses

Dan Knight - 2005.12.23

You've probably seen this modern legend before. I have, and it showed up in my email again earlier this week (thanks, bro!). But this time it reminded me of Microsoft and Intel....

Railroad Gauge

Does the statement "We've always done it that way" ring any bells?

The United States standard railroad gauge, the distance between the rails, is 4' 8.5" (1.435 meters for the rest of you). That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used?

Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads.

Why did the English build them that way?

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did they use that gauge?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular wheel spacing?

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel-ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in England (and the rest of Europe ) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads?

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot, and bureaucracies live forever.

The next time you're handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right - the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Imperial Rome and the Space Shuttle

Now the twist to the story.

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit wider, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through the tunnel.

The tunnel is slightly wider that the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So a major design feature of what is one of the world's most advanced transport systems was determined 2,000 years ago by the width of a horse's ass. (author unknown)

As for Microsoft...

"Think Different" has never been the mantra at Microsoft. BASIC, Bill Gates' first project, was merely one man's implementation of an existing programming language. DOS was a virtual clone of CP/M written for Intel's 16-bit 8086/88 architecture. (CP/M ran on the 8080, Z-80, and 8085.)

Word was far from the first word processor, and MultiPlan, Excel's predecessor, was inspired by the success of VisiCalc, the world's first electronic spreadsheet and the program most responsible for Apple IIs showing up in workplaces.

Windows, which along with Office forms the core of Microsoft's success, drew much of its inspiration (to use the word loosely) from Apple's Lisa and Macintosh operating systems. (To give credit where it's due, much of Apple's work was inspired by work done at Xerox PARC - and Apple has always given Xerox credit.)

Internet Explorer, the world's most popular and dangerous browser, grew from Mosaic, the world's first web browser - the very browser that also morphed into Netscape Navigator. Microsoft once again stood on the shoulders of giants. Their only innovation was giving IE away for free to undermine Netscape.

In short, Microsoft doesn't suffer from the "not invented here" syndrome. Quite the opposite: Everything that contributed to Microsoft's success seems to have been begged, borrowed, or stolen from the innovations of others.

They just made a more popular system for following the ruts left by others.

...and Intel

Intel gave us the world's first CPU. That was innovative, and many of their CPU designs have been innovative (ask anyone who knows CPUs about the i960!). But in many ways Intel suffers from the same "extend and enhance" perspective as Microsoft.

The 4-bit Intel 4004 begat the 8-bit 8008, which begat the 8080, which begat the 16-bit 8086, which begat the 80286, which begat the 80386, which begat the i486, which begat Pentium. And Pentium's descendent were legion, each following in the architectural ruts of the CPUs the preceded them.

The few that went a different way, such as the i960 or Itanium, never found the kind of commercial success Intel's x86 line has known for a quarter century.

Intel has been innovative. Bringing USB to market was a great innovation - one port that could be used for mice, keyboards, printers, scanners, external CD burners, and devices unforeseen at the time (such as flash drives, iPods, and digital cameras). 12 Mbps USB 1.1 was fast enough in the late 1990s, and 400 Mbps FireWire, an Apple innovation, was a great choice for those who needed greater throughput. It's only in recent years that FireWire 400 has become something of a bottleneck for single hard drives.

Intel saw FireWire as competition for USB and decided to extend their invention with USB 2.0, a protocol with 480 Mbps bandwidth. And everyone knows that 480 is more than 400, so it had to be faster. And where FireWire devices has about a 25¢ royalty charge for using the technology, Intel decided to make USB 2.0 available for the same cost as USB 1.1 chips.

The good is the enemy of the better, and to save 25¢ much of the world went USB 2.0 and ignored (or even dropped) FireWire. Even Apple eventually followed their lead, dropping FireWire support from the iPod in 2005.

The only problem? USB 2.0 is an inferior protocol. FireWire allows a 400 Mbps path between devices, but USB limits each device to about 2/3 of total bandwidth. In the case of USB 2.0, that's about 320 Mbps - 20% slower than FireWire instead of the 20% faster that people intuitively expect. Worse, USB provides less power to devices, so iPods and cell phones and PDAs take much longer to charge.

All because Intel chose to extend a good standard to crush a better one.

Apple Innovation

Most of Microsoft's success and Intel's success is rooted in the past, either software invented elsewhere and copied or hardware developed in house and extended way beyond its original conception - yet almost always fully backward-compatible.

Apple hasn't followed the ruts left by others; they have usually taken the road less traveled, and often others (including Microsoft) have followed.

The Apple I and II were breakthroughs. Woz's floppy drive controller was a stroke of brilliance. Building a whole new computer system on a whole new CPU using a whole new paradigm (a graphical user interface?) and a new input device wasn't only forward-looking, it threatened the Apple II, the core of Apple's success.

Atari, Commodore, and Osborne are just a few of the companies that were successful in the 8-bit computer world and were unable to leverage that to success in the 16-bit world. Microsoft and Intel managed to leverage their past. Apple build a whole new future.

Microsoft copied the Mac OS, creating Windows. Apple worked with IBM and Motorola to create a whole new CPU architecture, PowerPC, that would power Macs from 1993 until 2006. Intel kept adding incremental improvements to its x86 architecture. Apple moved from their classic Mac operating system to a whole new one, OS X. Microsoft kept building versions of Windows that were backward compatible with ancient software. Apple announced a transition to Intel CPUs that would break backward compatibility with their "classic" OS.

Microsoft and Intel tend to play it safe. Apple takes big risks. A digital music player from a computer company? An all-in-one computer in a world of beige separates? A laptop with a built-in pointing device? A graphical user interface? A new computer architecture that breaks with the Mac's legacy OS?

Lead or Get Out of the Way

Much as the booster tanks on the Space Shuttle are indirectly designed around the width of a pair of horses, Microsoft and Intel base much of their success on the ruts of past success.

Apple is more like early aviators. There are no ruts in the sky. You have to innovate and blaze your own path. And from the sky you can clearly see the earthbound following ruts left by yesterday's chariots, wagons, and trams.

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