It would be wrong to suggest that IBM was invisible at last week’s UniForum event in San Francisco – with a prominent stand, RTs networking away like mad with 3090 mainframes on both sides of the continent, and top brass led by Terry Lautenbach and James Cannavino talking like mad from podia in the Moscone […]
It would be wrong to suggest that IBM was invisible at last week’s UniForum event in San Francisco – with a prominent stand, RTs networking away like mad with 3090 mainframes on both sides of the continent, and top brass led by Terry Lautenbach and James Cannavino talking like mad from podia in the Moscone Center, there was heat galore from IBM. What was strikingly absent was any light. No new products of any substance – indeed IBM’s regular Tuesday announcement last week was perfunctory in the extreme – users would no longer have to install their own RTs: IBM or its resellers would now do the work for them. Big deal. The 4381 Models 23 and 24 were also reprieved in the US, but that was hardly likely to set the growing army of Unix buffs salivating. By contrast, DEC, in many Unix supporters’ eyes IBM’s evil twin in precipitating the schism in the Unix world, exhibited unwonted showmanship, confining its first day announcement to an agreement with Apollo Computer Inc to extend the Network Computing System to cover additional heterogeneous processor types. Minnows The minnows of the Unix world – the ones who have done much of the hard work in turning the operating system into the whitest hope for common standards in the future, heaved a sigh of relief – with IBM apparently content to sit back and watch others make all the running at the show – its most striking announcement being the eve-of-show news that AIX/370 was late – and DEC relying on the lingering glow from its January announcement of the MIPS Computer Systems Inc RISC-based workstation, the lions of the computer industry could safely be dismissed as paper tigers – at least for the next few months. And then DEC upstaged everyone, but most of all IBM, by announcing in mid-show the multi-user DECsystem-3100 version of its MIPS processor, and its detractors had to eat their words in a hurry. Because the new machine is an out-and-out multi-user business computer – albeit one that is fitted out to do sums fast for armies of lab technicians and such as well. As a scientific machine, it sounds very interesting when used as a server to a string of the DEC RISC workstations, as a business computer, it makes it very clear that Hewlett-Packard Co is not going to have the traditional mini-based business systems market all to itself in the new Unix generation. San Francisco seems to have marked the turning point where DEC jumped down off the fence, came out and embraced Unix wholeheartedly and unequivocally. The contrast between the DEC and the IBM approaches could not have been more stark. IBM’s Unix offerings consist of the RT, which stopped being a personal computer in IBM’s parlance last year – hardly a bold, confident decision by the company, more like a deliberate attempt by the company to confuse the market as to just what the benighted machine is intended to be. Then there’s AIX on the PS/2 line but all the things that differentiate it from the generality of Xenix-derived offerings on 80386 personal computers are also late – promised for this March, they have now been delayed until the fourth quarter. Usurious Then there’s AIX/370: also late, but clearly a grudging, inferior product anyway. Amdahl Corp, which has to spend a frightening 16% of its annual turnover on research and development to keep its mainframes ahead of those of IBM, which has a research and development budget perhaps 20 times as large, still finds the resources not only to do a native 370 implementation of Unix instead of one that has to run under VM, which by definition means that users have to donate a proportion of their super expensive mainframes to the IBM benefit fund if they want to run Unix on them, but has also started to extend its UTS offerings to make use of the architectural advances that have been taking place in the 370 world. The only conclusion has to be that Amdahl really believes in Unix, IBM does not. The heat generated by IBM’s top brass at UniForum is in a time-hallowed tradition that of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. Unix is as much of a threat to IBM’s hegemony as it e
ver was, and it has to be in IBM’s interest to keep the operating system as cribb’d, cabin’d and confined as it possibly can, lest the fact that the box is not Unix-compatible starts to inhibit users from buying the AS/400, lest large 3090 users start rebelling against the exorbitant cost of IBM software – and its not nearly as expensive as IBM intends it to be, because the company has a target of 30% of its revenues from software, and the present figure is only about 20% – and start putting Amdahl’s UTS up in one Domain, MVS in another, and over time transferring more and more of their workloads over to the Unix Domain, where open competition promises to generate an unrivalled panoply of alternative applications at prices that make those charged by IBM seem usurous. It is unfair to suggest that no-one in IBM believes in Unix – many of the people working on Unix systems in Austin, Texas and in the various subsidiaries around the world believe in it as ardently as does X/Open Group Ltd. Indeed the top brass believes in it too – but only as a potentially mortal threat to IBM’s hegemony. So we can expect IBM to continue to pay lip service to a full commitment to Unix while doing all it can behind the scenes not only to muddy the waters but discreetly to handicap its own Unix efforts – the designer of the RT himself is on record as saying that he designed the machine on the understanding that it would appear 18 months before it actually came out, and became more and more frustrated at the delays, as minnow after minnow came out with machines that outperformed what he had designed to be competitive during a very specific marketing window that had been closed tight shut by the time IBM agreed to sign the product off and put it on the market. Incredible sulk UniForum ’89 therefore can be seen as a watershed in two ways it marks the point at which the Unix industry truly came of age, and the wealth of product announcements that dominated computer publication front pages all last week made it clear that the excitement that has been missing from the computer industry since the flood tide that swept MS-DOS to its dominant position, is back, and that Unix is the catalyst. And UniForum ’89 was also the occasion when the emptyness of IBM’s claimed commitment to Unix became manifest. The same company seldom dominates the personal computer industry for more than one cycle: Digital Research’s CP/M and the Z80 took the 8-bit generation with Apple Computer and the Apple II close behind; IBM and MS-DOS took the 16-bit generation by a walkover; Open Desktop makes it increasingly likely that Unix on a string of different processors will leave IBM and OS/2 as also-rans in the 32-bit generation even Microsoft is hedging its bets. Where does that leave the other members of the Open Software Foundation? The entrance fees are a small price for IBM to pay to keep the Unix world in schism, but can anyone seriously believe that without IBM in it, the Foundation would be taken remotely seriously? It is clear that all members that do genuinely believe in Unix should swallow their pride, resign their membership and join Unix International, leaving IBM and its sycophants to emulate Edward Heath’s role as the incredible sulk over the political success of Margaret Thatcher.