If you have been in the PC business for more than a few years, you might remember the time when Windows compatibility was a big issue. If you've been around even longer then you might even remember when DOS compatibility was an issue. The fact that this isn't spoken about anymore is testament to the power of Intel and Microsoft in determining standards, in particular Microsoft's PC97/98/99/etc spec. These days, no one would produce an add-in card that does not have Microsoft WHQL approval, but not so very long ago AMD felt compelled to put the Windows logo on their processors to confirm full compatibility. Compatibility is assumed. For the operating system, compliance is mandatory and so as an issue it is dead. As a user, I have to be frank and declare that this makes life easier and I'm glad for it even if it is at the sake of creativity. The fact that I write a Word document and I can pretty much guarantee that I can send it to almost anyone and they will be able to read it as an email attachment is marvellous. The occasional Lotus SmartSuite user is an annoyance in this respect. But there is one area where compliance is not guaranteed. The issue is very much alive, and freedom and chaos rule. Games. There is a war being fought in the PC industry and no one in the mainstream of the IT business is aware of it. 3Dfx fired the first shots and now the battle is raging to and fro. Let me explain. For running Windows, Office and business apps the war is over. Microsoft and Intel won it by a mile. But as soon as you finish work and start playing games, the whole picture changes. AMD's K6 with 3D Now! is a considerably better processor for games players than any offering from Intel (today). Aureal makes considerably better sound solutions than Creative Labs. Nvidia and 3Dfx are fighting for the 3D graphics market and on it goes. How does one manufacturer beat another in the war for the games player? The answer is they get the games developers to support their hardware and advertise the fact on the box. An endorsement (or better still an optimised game) for a manufacturers hardware for a big title like Tomb Raider is a major, major plus. Intel completely missed this point -– AMD did not. These days, games developers are treated like kings but they have a difficult set of decisions to make. Gamers are the very, very best PC customers. They know the PC inside out. They spend money upgrading to get the best possible performance out of the PC and they want the latest hardware money can buy. They cannot guarantee compatibility unless they get these things. What's more, gamers are gurus. These are the guys in your office, at home or the pub that people go to for advice on what PC to buy or what hardware to upgrade to. Gamers are the prize in the new standards war. There is money to be made from gamers, and the market for 'gamer spend' is growing. A web site called Champion's League
tracks people playing Quake online every evening all over the world. It shows that there are over 500,000 people playing this game alone every evening. This doesn't include online flight sims, god games, RPGs etc. Anyone that has seen the screen shots for Quake III:Arena will tell you that this figure is going to get much, much larger still. For one thing, it may enable you scan in a picture of your face and then paste this on to your character's 'skin' to allow you to be recognised during game play. Microsoft is trying to get in on the action with its DirectX initiative, but it's hard for them to support all of the different graphics and sound hardware without the software being a 'jack of all trades'. For the games developer who wants to produce the very best game with the greatest atmosphere and effects, then they will continue to want to make games for the best hardware that will be most widely adopted. This is 3Dfx's trump card and AMD's edge, but 1999 will see fresh assaults from Nvidia and Intel. The war rages on... ® Roy Taylor is joint managing director of VML.