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IBM charts a new graphical course.

IBM CHARTS A NEW GRAPHICAL COURSE At Comdex, IBM and Microsoft issued a joint "statement of direction" that supposedly clarified the future of Windows, Presentation Manager, and other systems software products. What does the clarification mean?

Good question. Like many of the journalists and analysts who attended the IBM/Microsoft announcement, we felt that we'd been watching a carefully scripted combination of substance and fast shuffle. Officially, IBM (in the person of Entry Level Systems vic president Jim Cannavino) says that Big Blue will now "endorse" Windows for "entry-level" hardware, and will drop any plans to create its own DOS-based version of Presentation Manager (the so-called PM Lite). At the same time, Microsoft (according to Bill Gates) will try "bringing down the entry point" for OS/2 by squeezing it into three megabytes--with "a good chance" that it will even reach two megs. Cannavino and Gates also promised a true 32-bit version of OS/2 for 386- and 486-based machines, and a convergence of their currently incompatible LAN products.

That's all pretty straightforward stuff. But the Windows vs. Presentation Manager issue has become so intensely political (Soft letter, 11/7/89) that hardly anyoen seems willing to take the announcement at face value. The prevailing theory--at least among the skeptics--is that IBM traded a lukewarm public endorsement of Windows for Microsoft's private promise to keep Windows from further cannibalizing Presentation Manager sales. If that's the correct reading, then IBM in fact has thrown important support to the anti-Windows faction led by Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland, and Software Publishing Corp.--companies that all decided to skip Windows and develop directly for Presentation Manager.

Did Microsoft actually promise to cut back on Windows development?

Another good question. Again, the official line is that IBM and Microsoft henceforth will devote "the majority of their application and systems development resources" to OS/2 and, "beginning in the second half of 1990, plan to make their graphical applications available first on OS/2." According to the IBM's press release, moreover, "Microsoft stated that Windows is not intended to be used as a server, nor will future releases contain advanced OS/2 features such as distributed processing, the 32-bit flat memory model, threads, or long file names."

The anti-Windows crowd says that such promises mean that Windows has been "neutered" (to use Jim Manzi's colorful phrase). However, Windows developers say they've been promised that nothing will be taken out of the Windows 3.0 beta versions they now have in hand. And Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who heads the company's systems development, told Computerworld: "We haven't capped Windows in any way, shape, or form."

So who's right?

In the final analysis, the truth matters much less than political impressions. If Microsoft can convince corporate standard-setters that Windows is alive and well (and backed by IBM), Windows could become the dominant graphical environment for DOS-based hardware. However, if those standard-setters begin to think that Windows has become the software equivalent of the PCjr, nothing Microsoft does to enhance Windows will have much effect.

Moreover, the anti-Windows consortium is clearly trying to make a persuasive case that Windows is inherently too underpowered for serious graphical applications. Just two hours after the IBM-Microsoft press conference, Lotus and WordPerfect gathered the Comdex press together again to announce a joint Presentation Manager-based development program that will result in common look-and-feel conventions and tight integration between 1-2-3/G, now in beta, and WordPerfect's PM word processor, due out next year. Besides, scoring points over "the M company" for professionalism and candor ("we're the nice guys," Pete Peterson pointed out), Lotus and WordPerfect showed off products that actually use OS/2's features in important, interesting ways (in fact, Byte promptly named 1-2-3/G the "best of show" software product). Once more developers start exploiting Presentation Manager's true power, we suspect Windows will begin to look pretty anemic by comparison.

Does the Windows announcement hint at any changes in IBM's own strategy?

IBM has been trying to leverage OS/2 into a quasi-proprietary operating system by controlling key pieces of the environment--notably the communications and database components. That strategy didn't play well with MIS managers, who aren't eager to give up the benefits of an open PC standard for some ill-defined OS/2 connectivity benefits. So IBM has now announced that most of its OS/2 Extended Edition features will be available soon "to all OS/2 users." That's a fairly dramatic change in tactics.

But we suspect IBM' has just signalled an even bigger shift--one that could reshape the whole PC marketplace. Cannavino used the IBM/Microsoft press conference to announce that it's now IBM's position (and Microsoft's) that 386- and 486-based machines will become "the platform for the '90s." And to take full advantage of this platform, the two companies plan to release a 32-bit version of OS/2 by mid-1990.

Which raises an interesting question: What happens now to the 286? Cannavino says Microsoft and IBM will still support a separate 16-bit version of OS/2--but we have a strong suspicion that 16-bit OS/2 will turt out to be a transitional environment that fairly quickly ends up in the IBM orphanage, leaving the 286 almost exclusively as a DOS (or DOS Windows) platform.

That scenario certainly won't be popular with the owners of several million 286-based PS/2s, who will wake up one morning and find that their "OS/2 capable" machines just turned into "entry-level" DOS systems. (Watching IBM executives beat around the bush on this issue will become one of the great spectator of the next few years, we suspect.)

Nevertheless, splitting the market explicitly on the basis of hardware may be the single best answer to the whole Windows vs. Presentation Manager mess. Instead of trying to graft a flawed version of OS/2 onto the "brain-dead" 286, IBM and Microsoft get to start over again with a cleaner, more powerful hardware environment. The market gets an unambiguous message: The 286 is part of the messy but interesting DOS world: the 386 belongs to the more disciplined OS/2 world. And developers will know what platforms to target without having to keep an eye on the latest political scorecard.

If that's what IBM is trying to sneak past us, we like it--very much.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Soft-letter
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:IBM/Microsoft Corp. marketing agreement
Date:Nov 27, 1989
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