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Is it still IBM versus Macintosh?

A technology truce could produce a super PC.

It's ironic that in one of the most progressive parts of the business world, technology, you find businesspeople who are most resistant to change. In fact, they are playing out technology's version of World War III: IBM users versus Macintosh users.

What's the big deal? The foundation of the issue is style. Apple Computer's Macintosh--Mac, as we call it--uses a graphical user interface (GUI). This means computer users can interface with the computer by means of symbols or graphics, rather than text-based commands. Using a mouse--a free-moving tracking device linked to the computer--the user moves an arrow on the screen and points to commands to instruct the computer. To erase a document, for example, the Mac user points to the document and then to an icon representing a wadded up piece of paper dropping into a waste basket. On the other hand, the text-based IBM user types erase and adds the file name.

What is the standard?

Generally, new computer users find the GUI easy to learn and use. Some experienced users find the GUI cumbersome and slow. They note that the GUI is characterized by windows, rectangular areas on the computer screen used for communication and instruction; icons; a mouse; and pull-down menus. Therefore, they refer to the GUI as a wimp interface.

But there's more than the issue of the GUI. In reality, it's not Macintosh against IBM. It's Macintosh against IBM standard. IBM and Macintosh each have about 10 percent of the personal computer market. But when you add in IBM clones--computer brands that work like IBMs--things get a little lopsided. IBM and its clones comprise 85 percent of the computer market. Against these odds, it is not a question of IBM and Macintosh running neck and neck for dominance in the computer world. Macintosh is clearly the outsider.

In the mainstream of technology, IBM and its clones are seen as the standard and Macintosh is seen as a niche machine. In the right niche, however, Macintosh is king. In the world of graphic arts, for example, the Mac is as much the standard as is IBM in the general world of business. For example, it would be typical for a software developer to publish software designed to run exclusively on IBM machines and clones. But to produce a manual for the system, the developer would probably use Macintosh.

What's more, the same developer might be reluctant to publish a Macintosh version of the software. Why? The numbers just aren't there. It would take almost as much time, effort, and money to publish the Mac version in order to pick up an incremental 10 percent of the market. The smart developer might be more inclined to put that time, effort, and money into enhancing the IBM version.

Apple has attempted to move toward the IBM standard, but somewhat unsuccessfully. Software is available that allows IBM systems to run on the Macintosh. The problem is, any time IBM software does anything that depends on the structure of the IBM hardware, it falls apart on a Macintosh. For example, an IBM-based software package might depend on the type of color computer screen it runs with. If the software looks for this screen on a Macintosh and find it's not there, it fails. There is, however, no doubt that a market exists for a Rosetta stone that would make the Macintosh compatible with IBM. If there's enough money in it, some entrepreneur will make it happen.

Apple's ace in the hole is the GUI, and software developers know it. IBM software developers have been pumping out GUI software like it's going out of style. Or more accurately, coming into style. And it is. Microsoft Corporation developed an interface--the Windows operating environment--that resembles the Macintosh GUI. Apple sued, and lost.

The verdict, handed down late last summer, virtually sounded the death knell for any possibility of the Macintosh being the machine of the future. Now IBM and Apple are working cooperatively.

In July 1991, Apple and IBM entered into an agreement to develop a new machine and user interface. This cooperative agreement made a big splash in the computer world, but most people missed a key part of the agreement. The pact also included Motorola, Inc. Whatever IBM, Apple, and Motorola are up to won't be based on the familiar X86 family of computer chips (Intel's 286, 386, 486, and so forth). Instead, the machine will be based on the Motorola RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chip, which IBM has been successfully using in its midrange products.

In nontechnical terms, if this succeeds, IBM, Macintosh, and Motorola, Inc., are not only going to put mainframes on our desks, they're going to put them on our laps. And with Apple involved, guess what the GUI will look like? Macintosh on rockets.

These three technology heavyweights even built a building in Austin, Texas, named Somerset for this project. The undertaking, called the Somerset Project, could turn technology upside down. If it succeeds, a new generation of personal computers will have the power and capability of mainframes. But existing IBM or Macintosh software might not run on the new machine, and potential users may not accept it. It would make 60 million personal computers obsolete. And people paid big bucks for them.

Steven L. Harrison is vice president of information systems at Electronic Realty Associates, Overland Park, Kansas.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Harrison, Steven L.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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