PCs must become more like consumer electronics such as TVs and VCRs because they are too complex and difficult to use.

In a presentation that would have been familiar to any user that has grumbled about their Windows-based computer, Tom Phillips, general manager of theWindows Experience Group called on Taiwanese hardware manufacturers last week to help address a long list of PC shortcomings.

He said improvements to both desktop and laptop computers were needed to increase consumer demand.

In particular, the goal should be to eliminate much of the complexity that is associated with PCs and make them as easy to use as common consumer electronics devices, said Phillips, speaking at the WinHEC, or Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in the USA last week.

"Take the VCR as an example. There is no service pack, there is no updating of firmware that is going to be necessary to keep this device working and working well within my environment," Phillips said.

Despite the breadth and complexity of many of the issues that must be overcome to achieve this level of improved usability, most of the improvements being considered by Microsoft engineers are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary in nature. Most can be applied using the Windows XP operating system, Phillips said.

In an example of an evolutionary improvement, Microsoft engineers have developed a prototype system that can help make setting up a PC easier by partially eliminating the need for users to worry about how and where external devices are connected to a computer.

Phillips demonstrated a Windows XP-based PC that incorporates this prototype technology and is able to automatically determine what analogue devices are plugged into which ports on the computer, instead of requiring users to connect each device to a specific port.

By detecting differences in the impedance characteristics — the electrical resistance to a direct current — of different analogue devices the PC was able to identify a microphone and then a set of speakers when each was plugged into the same jack on the machine.

Extending the benefits of this technology beyond setting up a PC, computers could be designed so that if a microphone and speakers were connected, the OS would automatically activate voice-chat features in an instant-message application, for example, Phillips said.

Another example is battery life. Instead of notebook computers that measure battery life in hours, Phillips hopes to see batteries that will offer enough power to last for several days.

Microsoft would also like to see notebooks that are cooler than existing models and desktops quiet enough to be used with high-grade audio applications and in environments where extraneous noise is a distraction, such as in living rooms, Phillips said.

Obviously no one's told him about the new iMac, then.