Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 12/85 - scanned

HOW TO LOSE 1 3/4 INCHES AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (column)

"Clonemakers in disarray as IBM goes Apricot-compatible." This is the headline that Roger Foster and his merry men in Birmingham can only dream of reading. Or can they?

Rumours of a 3 1/2in disk-based IBM have been rife for a long time now. Anyone who has used the smaller disks will know that they are infinitely superior to and more secure than their larger brethren. Yet IBM sticks to those manky 5 1/4in things despite the company's claims to 'technological and product leadership'. Still, we can be pretty certain that Clamshell will have the small disks, and it really would make sense for Clamshell users to come home to a similarly-endowed 'mother computer' perhaps the fabled PC2.

Another reason for going 3 1/2in is the fact that, in these days of winchesters with everything, the 5 1/4in floppy's low capacity makes backup a real chore. Of course IBM could simply up the spec of the 5 1/4in disk, but since it would be changing the drive anyway, the company may as well change it for one which will be more practical and more popular.

Despite its innovations in some fields, IBM is still regarded as a cautious company and I therefore think it's unlikely to take huge risks with its 3 1/2in-disk technology.

When IBM makes its move, it will need to reassure its existing enormous user base. It must make it easy for people to upgrade to the new disks without losing their software and data investments. It could match the existing disk capacity which would give 360K per disk. Or it could go for double, or even treble the capacity.

By sticking to a multiple of the present capacity, the problems of conversion are minimised. As long as one of these three sizes is chosen Apricot can react swiftly and become one of the first disk-compatible machines on the market.

Let's just have a look at America and see what Apricot's been up to. First we see that Control-C has built a Softclone shell to wrap round IBM software so that it can run on the Apricot. We also hear (and Apricot denies) that it is thinking of buying a Phoenix BIOS. This indicates that the company, despite its rebellious public face, has privately decided that IBM compatibility is a key ingredient in its future success.

Switching attention to the Xen launch, we see a beautiful machine, but what the heck are those two ugly boxes doing there? One's an IBM PC-compatible disk drive and the other's an IBM PC-compatible expansion box. This is another sign, albeit a half-hearted one, of Apricot's acceptance of the importance of the IBM PC standard.

If IBM does go for a modest capacity 3 1/2in disk, the two companies will find they have machines compatible at two levels: software and disk drives. All the other clone makers will be jumping on the bandwagon, but at first glance Apricot seems to have the edge. Apart from two things there's nowhere to stick add-on cards and the screen driver still isn't right.

Now we're getting into some pretty fundamental system-design changes. Apricot could mess around with external boxes, but my guess is that since the company trades on its looks, it will completely re-engineer the machine but stick with its distinctive style.

I think that Apricot will back its horses both ways. It has made a name for itself in the UK and is rightly very popular among those who couldn't give a fig for compatibility. I think that Apricot will therefore continue to supply its current range of products and introduce the odd IBM PC-compatible as and when the market demands it. Users will have a much easier choice ("Apricot or Apricot, Sir?") and, unlike certain other companies, Apricot may still have a business when IBM decides it's time to pull the rug from under the clone makers.

Of course, all this could be my wild imaginings, but if it isn't, 1986 will be seen as the year Apricot made its smartest moves.