The Business of Technology: Creative Labsby Ryan Smith on October 2, 2007 5:00 PM EST
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Business and technology are forever linked together in one inseparable mass. Technology drives business: it drives new products, it drives improvements in efficiency, it drives companies out of business. Business drives technology: it drives what gets researched, it drives what gets invented, it drives the pace of technological progress. Each drives the other, the feedback from each further changing how one or the other progresses.
One only needs to look as far as the CPU industry to get an idea of just how this works. Intel has a strong business that keeps the company floating when one or more aspects of their technology portfolio are faltering, and having such wealth buys them technology advantages such as smaller processes sooner. Meanwhile AMD has a strong technology portfolio that keeps the company going even when business is bad, putting the company years ahead of Intel in in areas like the server market. Here the dynamic duo of HyperTransport and the Integrated Memory Controller have kept the company ahead of the Core2's onslaught over the past year (and will continue at least until Nehalem arrives).
It's because of the intertwined nature of business and technology that we sometimes have trouble conveying the whole situation when trying to talk about technology; some things can't make sense without an understanding of the business situation too. In recognition of that we are starting a new series "The Business of Technology," looking at companies and their technology from the side of business instead of the side of technology. From this perspective we can comment on things when it's not possible to do so from the technology side, and come to a better understanding on how for the companies we cover their business and technology situations are both driving their future.
Bear in mind that this is new ground for us, and how we go about things in the future will no doubt change with the times. We'd like to hear back from you, our readers, on how informative you find this approach, and how we can better deliver information from it. We'd like to bring everything to you in a well-rounded when possible.
The brand that started it all
With that out of the way, we're starting this series with Creative Technology Ltd, better known as Creative Labs. Creative has a long and rich history, the culmination of which was the creation of the SoundBlaster line of sound cards and the associated audio standard, which brought the full spectrum of synthesized and recorded audio to the PC. Although they have since expanded in to many other markets, Creative has and continues to be primarily a sound company, and was the king of sound cards... until recently.
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Reflex - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - link"My concerns are purely on the surface and no self serving MS articles or videos will illuminate me to the real facts."
This is not a Microsoft standard, it is an industry one. Work on it began back in 1995 and was originally pushed by Intel and several laptop manufacturers looking for a way to make machines cheaper. The AC'97 and (rarely implemented) AC'99 specs were the initial results of it. HD Audio/Azalia(UAA in Vista) is simply the latest implementation. It has been ignored from the beginning by Creative, while endorsed by the vast majority of the industry, from motherboard makers to OS venders to sound card manufacturers. The videos that were linked merely explain the MS implementation of what is an open and free standard.
"As to minimal class drivers, the only problem is that they provide minimal functionality out of a given device as i understand it. There is no room for a hardware MFR to expose new functionality unless it is adopted by everyone and as a standard. It removes the beauty of what R&D can do in moving technology forward, a minimal class driver is an unfortunate direction."
This is not true. The existing class drivers, as well as UAA, have the ability to be extensible. That means that while basic functionality is identical between them, special drivers can be created that expose additional features and abilities of the device to the OS. There is no real limitation here, and just as video cards can expose new functionality to game developers that are beyond the generalized DirectX or OGL API's, a device with a class driver can extend the interface for applications that wish to take advantage of it.
"Overall stability can never be attained, MS themselves consistently prove that, but their are other ways to move in that desired direction rather than a minimalistic approach."
This is not really the point. The point is that when you have crashes you analyze what caused them and sort them into buckets to determine what causes the most problems. Microsoft has stated publicly that 97% of all OS crashes are due to third party drivers on their OS's. This mostly has to do with the fact that most drivers in the past have been kernel mode, ie: the operate at Ring 0 and as a result can take down the entire OS if they do anything wrong. The point of a class driver is that the kernel mode portions of the driver are developed by and the responsibility of Microsoft themselves, and that those class drivers provide a 'hook' that the third party can use to write a driver more specific to thier device, but where their driver operates entirely in user mode. This improves the OS in two distinct ways when a crash occurs:
1) If a crash happens that takes down the OS, it will obviously be a bug in Microsoft's portion of the driver, and they will own all of that code and be able to issue a fix on thier end without waiting for the third party. Furthermore, such a fix will improve stability for ALL devices of the class, rather than just that specific item of hardware.
2) If the crash happens with part of the driver that the third party developed, the OS will not go down with it, and in fact can simply restart the driver safely with no effect to the end user, no data loss, or anything else. The OS stability is not in any way impacted.
This also makes driver development cheaper since Microsoft is taking on the development of the most complicated portion of the development and taking responsibility for the results, plus users benefit from a true 'plug and play' experience, everything just works, even if its not utilizing all features(need the third party driver to enable everything).
Now in the previous two paragraphs, feel free to substitute 'Microsoft' for 'Linux' or 'Apple' since they also can and are implementing this system as well.
Hope that makes some things clearer!
Ryan Smith - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkMadBoris, you're pretty much spot on. From everything I've researched in to UAA there's no real option for interfacing hardware with the audio stack; you have to use another API like OpenAL to do so. This does bring about that level of stability Reflex was talking about, but it effectively fixes everyone's hardware at a least-common-denominator (though it should be noted that you can bolt on software to the stack to do effects, Creative already does this in some places with Vista; it eats up even more CPU time though). This is great for RealTek and the like who are making low end gear, because now Microsoft is doing all the hard work for them and they can ship what amounts to a DAC with a few lines of code once they no longer support XP.
Microsoft's vision going forward is that all audio effects will be done in software. For example, a game like BioShock will build or license an audio engine (FMOD) that can do all of these effects we've come to expect via software, then Vista lets the game see each speaker to write out the appropriate hardware. Good processing is expensive (the X-Fi and its 51mil transistors isn't just sitting on its butt), so what we get today isn't very good processing.
Things may improve with more processor power. They may also just stay the same while companies focus on graphics over audio.
BitJunkie - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkSo how did we end up in this position? What prompted MS to be so heavy handed (or radical?) in their approach to changing Windows audio? There is no major advantage to MS in dictating things in this way that I can see - other than stability.
There has to be some reason for the Microsoft Azalia / intel HD Audio standard becoming dominant, what exactly was Creative doing or not doing - with their defacto monopoly on gaming audio? All interesting questions in my view. Would be good if anyone could shed some light on them.
I can't help but feel that as consumers we've lost out because of Creative's business practices and attitude - maybe I'm being unfair in that. Ultimately though Creative have to carry the can for where they are at present.
Reflex - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - link"From everything I've researched in to UAA there's no real option for interfacing hardware with the audio stack; you have to use another API like OpenAL to do so."
This is explicitly not true. UAA does allow flexible DSP's to be developed for hardware accelleration. Re-read the spec if this is the indication you got.
"Good processing is expensive (the X-Fi and its 51mil transistors isn't just sitting on its butt), so what we get today isn't very good processing."
First off, no, its not expensive. The reason the X-Fi is 51 million transisters is because it is a software designed chip. That is a notoriously transister intensive method of designing a chip, and they have done little manual tweaking to reduce its transister counts. This is one reason that on the surface video chips appear to be more complicated than CPU's, but ask designers of both what they think and you'll find that GPU's aren't even in the same league. Creative went cheap on the design process and the result is that their chip is transister heavy.
Secondly, reviewers of Bioshock who tested it on Vista noticed that the sound was exceptional. I would suggest looking into that. It really had no serious issues although it did have a bit of a perf hit(but this was mostly due to audio drivers not being mature).
BikeDude - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkAt first I thought "great, let us see what is going on with Creative then", but the article left more questions than answers.
I would love to learn why Creative's drivers "suck" under Vista. I can't remember seeing an article explaining how Vista's audio stack works, nor why hw acceleration is less important.
I also see many commenters here who say MS killed EAX. How so? There are plenty of existing games supporting it? E.g. in BattleField 2, to get an echo effect inside a warehouse, you are pretty much limited to the X-Fi as other EAX implementors don't go far enough. (at least that used to be the case)
Instead of answering such questions, Anand presents us with a "why buy/sell Creative stocks". Honestly, I could not care less about the stock market at this moment... :P (not exactly stable at the moment, now is it?)
Zak - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - link"a company being forced out of business" - CL is getting the taste of their own medicine...
MadBoris - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkI was a real fan of Aureal back in the day.
I am good with that, what goes around comes around.
I just don't like the way it came around with MS drawing the line, MS is a great chess player thinking many moves ahead, where it's difficult to see where they are going.
BitJunkie - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkMS did a lot of work behind the scenes on Vista that changed the way audio is handled. For those that are technically orientated and can understand pretty techy chat there's a good video here: http://channel9.msdn.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=1468...">http://channel9.msdn.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=1468... on the vista audio stack.
For a higher level overview, there's a good video here: http://channel9.msdn.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=2155...">http://channel9.msdn.com/ShowPost.aspx?PostID=2155... in which the move from AC'97 to HD Audio (Azaelia) and the requirements for hardware design and driver programming are discussed. You can see that a lot of effort was focused on routing circuits on PCBs to avoid noise and to design hardware to minimise interference. Sounds like an OEM gave Scoble a call and bitched about the Vista logo program back in 2005 - regarding the audio stack perhaps.
It's all MS "propaganda" but gives a good insight in to their design philosophy. It also gives a better understanding of why Vista is a big step forward.
Christobevii3 - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkHow can you only blame the market?
First up creatives pricing sucks. Even an entry level card is nearly $100 on the x-fi or was when i looked. So what did this $100 offer me?
1. A sound card that can't do dts encoding for games to my 5.1 receiver.
2. Drivers that are worse than a steam update
I haven't used a creative card since their sblive in 1999 because of the drivers. It worked ok on an fic az11 but when i upgraded it crackled like hell. But not only that, when i tried to update the driver to fix it, it hard locked the os but even safe mode couldn't uninstall the drivers. The next setup of trying to get it to work failed and the drivers had grown to roughly 60MB. So I gave up and just dealt with onboard sound.
Now, I have an HT omega sound card and love it. The drivers only problem is the mic boost button has to be rechecked on startup!!! Not only that but the drivers are like 15MB 8 years later after creatives and i can do dts output to my receiver in realtime. Interesting that the $60 sound card i purchase has now gotten so popular that it is $80, but also that it uses higher quality solid state capacitors where an equal creative has old style ones suseptable to rotting out.
Last but least, screwing over aureal and then not supporting a3d. Fuck that.
cosmotic - Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - linkI can't believe no one has mentioned Sensaura yet. Its another company, like Aureal, that had a superior product which Creative bought for their IP.
Sensaura produced software that let other sound card manufacturers take advantage of A3D, DirectSound, OpenAL, and EAX 1 and 2. For years third party sound card manufactures have had this same list of supported APIs without adding new versions of EAX, most likely because Creative now owns them.