Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 10/91 - scanned

BATTLES OF RAGING HIGH AND LOW (column) - networking benefits

[While the main players compete for corporate bucks, the benefits are filtering through to the desktop. But, says David Tebbutt, the operating system lambs are mostly a load of sauce.]

Gosh, just when you think you understand the game, some silly idiots go and move the goal posts. I am referring to Apple, IBM, Novell and Digital Research, to mention but four.

I decided to go away for a couple of weeks recently. By the time I got back, IBM and Apple were holding hands in public and Novell had announced its intention to absorb Digital Research. Just a few days later Microsoft made it clear that its special relationship with IBM was no more.

Add to this spicy mixture the fact that Compaq, Digital Equipment, Microsoft, MIPS, SCO and others had formed an advanced computing consortium called ACE, and you begin to see how the attention of the major players is being diverted away from the desktop and into the network, and the advanced servers and workstations that are going to drive it.

IBM took a fancy to Apple because of its advanced operating system, code-named Pink, and because of its QuickTime dynamic media (video, sound, animation and so on) technology. Without plunging into too much detail, Pink is very much aimed at high end computers, above anything that Apple produces at present. It is also designed to run on a variety of underpinning hardware. QuickTime, on the other hand, runs on any Macintosh with a 68020 processor and above. The aim with both these systems is not only to make them run on IBM and Apple kit, but also to supply them to other manufacturers.

IBM brings technology to the partnership in the form of its powerful RS/6000 chip set, and Motorola, Apple's traditional supplier, has been invited to squash this logic onto a single chip and to manufacture it. Apple is expected to produce machines based on this chip. It is worth mentioning that the RS/6000 is pitched against MIPS processors (chosen by the ACE consortium) and Sparc processors, which are at the heart of Sun's machines.

Novell is the biggest supplier of PC network systems and Digital Research is the company that was beaten by Microsoft to supply the IBM PC operating system. Since then it has worked hard to produce better operating systems in the form of DR DOS and other real-time and multi-user operating systems.

Novell's acquisition reduces its dependence on Microsoft and improves its reach into workgroup computing. Novell is pushing towards the integration of Unix, DOS and its own NetWare. Unlike the other groupings I've mentioned, Novell isn't aligned to any particular hardware. It does, however, have a marketing agreement with IBM. I wouldn't blame IBM at all if it wanted to turn that relationship into something more substantial.

With this background information, you can see that the attention of the main players is very much focussed on what they see as the battleground for the business bucks; the networking of corporations and the incorporation of high-powered workstations and servers is far more important to these companies than the sale of the odd desktop to someone like you or me.

Having said that, they dare not ignore any source of revenue, and desktops, when connected to corporate networks, sell in their thousands. This is why we're seeing another battle raging at a lower level: the user interface battle. Macintosh, as far as I'm concerned, wins this one hands down. Everyone else is trying to dress up their operating system mutton to make it look like a deeply thought-through lamb. The truth is that good user interface design starts before you write the operating system. It's not some gloss you splash on top.

All the other operating system folk are twiddling around with ways of prettying up their user interface, while trying to avoid a lawsuit with Apple. (Apple is suing Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to prevent them mimicking the Macintosh user interface.) Thus Unix is being fronted by Open Look or Motif; NeXT has NeXTStep; OS/2 has Presentation Manager. All recognise that usability is a key issue, especially in the corporate networks where computer phobia is a seriously limiting factor on how many machines can be installed.

Now we come to the ordinary user of a single, unconnected machine. We've been battered by the hype for Windows, but most of us continue to use DOS. (That's when we're not using our Macintosh Classics. ) Our sheer numbers means that someone's got to take notice of us. Microsoft twigged that when it decided to publish DOS 5.0 and sell it as an upgrade package. (If you're interested, in my opinion, I actually like it better than Windows and, in presentation terms, better than DESQview. I now hop happily between DOS 5.0 on my 'noname' 386, DESQview on my Toshiba TIOOOXE notebook and my Macintosh).

The courtroom tussle between Compaq and Dell has been both entertaining and instructive. Dell claimed that it could provide similar functionality at significantly lower cost than Compaq's suggested retail prices. By winning the case, Compaq has told the world that deals can be done on its machines. It's a bit of a smack in the chops for anyone who's recently paid full whack for a Compaq desktop or notebook. But it's just another step towards a world in which computers for the desktop and downwards are simply commodity items, like telephones, faxes and answering machines.

Users of solo machines may not be at the centre of the manufacturers' universe, but in their battle for the corporate purse they can't help giving us ever better value for money.