During my latest trip into Silicon Valley, I had the pleasure of speaking to a couple of the gentlemen responsible for the Sound Blaster. One of them was kind enough to share an instructive insight into how this product became one of biggest hardware successes of the 90s.
How It Began
Back when PCs ran at 12MHz, they didn’t usually have anywhere to plug your headphones in, or any way of really playing music, or making sound effects. They mostly had an internal speaker designed to bleep on demand, and that’s about it. There was a few rare and expensive expansion boards called sound cards which let the computer make music roughly equivalent to a cheap Casio synthesiser. (Do you remember when polyphonic ring tones came out? This is similar.)
After a little while, two products came to the fore to provide sound functions, giving software (mainly games) the ability to play music and sound effects. These were:
Of these two, the Ultrasound was the superior product. But it didn’t win.
How the better product lost
The difference in product quality between these two was significant. The Ultrasound was years ahead of the Sound Blaster in technology terms – some could argue that the Sound Blaster never really caught up. But while Gravis was busy building product, Creative made two clever moves.
- Creative realised that people don’t buy sound cards, they buy a better gaming experience. Hence, whenever a game developer came to Creative for a driver for their particular title, Creative turned it around. This focus drove an important network effect – customers knew that if they bought Sound Blaster, their card would work with most games.
- When Windows 3.1 was released, Microsoft built multimedia support into the OS for the first time. They approached Creative for a driver, but didn’t want to pay for it. Creative agreed, but with a caveat. If Windows tried to play a sound when no sound card was present, Windows would inform the user that a Sound Blaster or Sound Blaster compatible card was needed for audio.
So, suddenly, your operating system is telling you to fix an error by going out and buying something. That ended up being worth a lot more than a driver development fee to Creative – in their droves, people obeyed their computers.
If you’re walking on eggs, don’t hop
The moral of this story is this: if you build it, they will not necessarily come. It’s useful to think more deeply about what drives a customer to purchase, and figure out how to attack those consumer insights.
If you’d like to read a little more about the sound card battles of the 90s, this page is an excellent resource. Try listening to how the music from Descent rendered on the Gravis versus the original Sound Blaster.
While you’re there, also listen to the AWE32, a successor Creative launched in 1994. You’ll find that it’s better, but still muddy. Bear in mind that the Gravis released in 1992, while the technology behind the AWE32 drove the Sound Blaster product line until the Live! was released in 1998 – six years later.