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Someone really needs to go after guys like Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Jim Allchin for the heinous crime of voluntary wordslaughter. I'm talking about how they beat the term innovation to death.

It's nice that the US Department of Justice recognises that Microsoft abused its monopoly power. But someone really needs to go after guys like Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Jim Allchin for the more heinous crime of voluntary wordslaughter. I'm talking about how they beat the term innovation to death. One gets the impression they think they can justify their anticompetitive business practices if they simply learn to mouth the word innovation when they belch.

But don't worry. I don't know of anyone under the illusion that Microsoft innovation extends beyond the areas of marketing and licensing, so I won't spend any more time torturing that deceased Clydesdale. Instead, I'll whack on the word innovation for a while, myself.

I had hoped to dedicate this column to the people out there doing all the innovating for which Microsoft attempts to grab credit. The bad news is I haven't been able to locate much in the way of technical innovation over the past decade. Java? It's the UCSD P-System revisited. XML is a specialised subset of standard generalised markup language. Server blades are cool, but what's new about connecting computers on a backplane? The most innovative things about Linux are not technical but philosophical, like how the project grows and improves. Indeed, most open-source software intentionally mimics Windows applications to make the transition easy; therefore you won't find much innovation there.

A handful of window managers take a fresh approach to handling open applications, for example. (Window managers are essentially graphical user interfaces for X11, which you may know as X Windows.) The most unusual, and my personal favourite, is called Ion. You can read about this and other distinctive window managers in a series of articles I wrote for sister IDG publication LinuxWorld, starting with "The Desktop Beyond GNOME and KDE". But as nice as these window managers may be, they are clearly the exception, not the rule, and few people use them.

Perhaps the grand prize for least innovation in technology over the past decade goes to the PC itself. A reader named Robert made this point quite well in an email response to my column suggesting that game consoles are better computing platforms than PCs. I was talking about the stability of the hardware and APIs, but he drew my attention to the lack of innovation in the PC hardware.

Take, for example, the Nintendo GameCube. There's only one obvious way to plug in a controller, and the controllers plug into the front of a console. Why is that, do you think? Is it possible that's where you intend to use the controllers? Don't we also use keyboards and mice in front of the PC? Or consider the fact that wireless controllers on a GameCube are (gasp!) wireless. The receivers sit right on the GameCube itself. The receiver for my so-called wireless keyboard has a long wire so that I can place the receiver on my desk.

And can we finally shoot and stuff the inventors of PS/2 plugs and any other round connectors one has to twist to find the sweet spot for pushing them in? At least you have only a 50% chance of frustration with a USB connector, because the worst you can do is get it upside down where it doesn't fit. But it should be illegal to produce ribbon cables without the tabs that prevent you from plugging them into your disk drives the wrong way, or to produce a motherboard with connectors that allow you to plug the cables in wrong even when the cable has the tab. I haven't seen the new serial cables for the upcoming high-speed IDE drives, but I hope they won't have this problem.

The bottom line is that there is plenty of room for useful innovation, and some of it requires no more than a two-digit IQ. So I hope key people take the hint and deliver some results over the next decade. I even promise not to complain if Microsoft takes the credit.

Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Hayward, California. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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