There’s been a lot of talk on the Web lately about Palladium. If you don’t have strong feelings about it, it’s probably because you’re not a bleeding-edge computing enthusiast. That’s OK. You’ll hear about it in time.
Basically, Palladium is Microsoft’s initiative to reinvent the PC and make it more secure. There’s a big uproar about it because it reeks of ulterior motives. Some fear Palladium means you will surrender all rights to your PC and cede them to Redmond.

I’m not totally convinced this is a bad thing.

First off, it gives Microsoft a chance to show its true colors. There are people who will never admit that Microsoft is a ruthless monopolist with nobody’s interests but a select few executives in mind. This is because Microsoft’s behavior doesn’t affect them–they get all the software for free. Microsoft can change pricing or the terms of license all they want and it doesn’t affect the pundits (and self-styled pundits). So Microsoft can do anything they want, including releasing new versions of Windows and Office that offer no improvements over their predecessors other than new features from Microsoft’s super-secret brain-dead Bob project (and a new, higher price, of course), and these people will fall all over themselves to recommend you and I buy it, so their gravy train keeps on rolling.

They know Microsoft can give them a whole lot more than you and me. Microsoft’s got the software. You and I are just a book or magazine sale–we’re worth two bucks to them. At most. (Remember, I wrote a book–I know how and when authors get paid, and how much.)

Palladium’s a good thing because finally Microsoft’s about to do something that’ll hurt them. Suddenly, these pundits who blindly upgrade to Palladium because they’ve always blindly upgraded their Microsoft products will only be able to listen to their MP3s on the computer they created or downloaded them on–never mind that the computer in the living room has a much better sound card and a better set of speakers. And they won’t be able to look at their dirty pictures on just any of their 20 PCs anymore either. (Yeah, I’m stereotyping, but the percentages are on my side.) And maybe their favorite piece of old software won’t run because Microsoft deems it “insecure.” (Whether due to lack of time to test everything or due to its savagely competitive nature.) They’ll get annoyed. And they might finally say something about Microsoft that’s more than half true.

The annoying thing about Palladium is that it’ll require brand-new hardware to give you all the features. Which leads me to the other thing they don’t want you to know. Any modern computer is plenty fast. They’ll have you believe that a real computer runs at least at 2 GHz. Reality check: I edit and produce video on a 700 MHz computer. I’ve got complaints about that computer, but CPU power ain’t it. I wish I had another 256 megs of RAM in it, and I wish I had a 36-gig hard drive in it I could dedicate to holding clips. I’d settle for 7200 RPM, though 10,000 would be better.

Meanwhile, some people would have you believe you need a 2.5 GHz computer to run Word.

Remember, these are the people who get their hardware and software for free. When your computing dollar isn’t competing with the car payment and the rent and the kids’ college education and groceries and hobbies (you do have some hobby other than that expensive hunk of silicon, right?), you can have top-of-the-line standards.

If money were no object, I’m sure we’d all love to have dual-processor 2.5 GHz PCs. We’d also like to drive red Lambourghini Countaches to the grocery store. Or maybe you’re the more practical sort and prefer a Bentley. At any rate, you get my point. Buying a 2.5 GHz PC for word processing and e-mail is like buying a Lambourghini to go to the grocery store.

Which brings us back to Palladium. Microsoft’s target date for Palladium’s release is 2004. The only thing Microsoft ever releases on time is its financial statements. Let’s be generous and say Palladium will ship in 2005. That’s three years from now.

Think back to 1999. In 1999, a fast computer was 550 MHz.

Is it a stretch to imagine that in 2005 we’ll be looking at 10 GHz computers? Not much of one.

Which begs the question of what we’ll do with all that CPU power. Maybe video games will be doing real-time 3D raytracing with it. That’s the only use I can think of for that kind of horsepower. If you’re not big into video games, and you’re not trying to make the next Jurassic Park in your basement, you have no use for a 10 GHz computer.

So the sane masses will (I hope) putt-putt along with a 6 GHz computer with no special anticompetitive security features and an older version of Windows (or, better yet, Linux–remember, it won’t be standing still either) and never realize how unhappy they should be.

This will eat into the revenue streams of co-conspirators Microsoft, Intel, and AMD. It’ll make them less powerful. It’ll benefit companies that give you the degree of freedom over your data and the programs you run that you deserve. (VIA, for one, isn’t necessarily in on this, and they have enough technology to make an entire computer.) They’ll gain power.

And the landscape will be a better place.

The industry rebelled against IBM in the late 1980s when it tried to seize too much power. It brought out a line of computers called the PS/2 with a new bus called Microchannel that had a lot of compelling new features, but the machines easily cost 3x what anyone else would have charged for them, and third parties couldn’t make much of anything for it without paying IBM a licensing fee. Within 5 years, IBM had lost virtually all of its dominance.

Microsoft, Intel and AMD are powerful today. But they’re not much more powerful than IBM was in 1987. They may even be less powerful–the IBM of 1987 was capable of being completely self-sufficient, making their own hard drives, memory chips, motherboards, video chips, and they even made their own CPUs, licensing designs from Intel and sometimes modifying them to suit themselves better. And at the time IBM was co-developing operating systems with Microsoft. About the only things they were outsourcing were floppy drives and power supplies.

No single entity wields that kind of power today. And Microsoft, Intel, and AMD don’t exactly trust each other totally. It’s a fragile alliance.

Palladium may well be the next Microchannel.