Computer Giants Gird for Chip Fight
IBM CORPORATION and Apple Corporation have put aside their boxing gloves to shake hands - at least for now.
After years of touting the differences between their personal computers, the two industry giants have developed a common microprocessor - the brains of a computer - with chipmaker Motorola Inc. The chip, called the PowerPC, will be shipped starting in June. It will be used in both companies' computers.
Bob Mansfield, IBM's manager for the PowerPC, says the chip's development was driven by the demand for ever-greater computing power, the possibility of multimedia and other functions, and more sophisticated operating systems. "As we talked about this with Motorola and Apple, there was a lot of similarity in our thinking," Mr. Mansfield says.
But the alliance's geniality does not mask the iron fists that will be bared once the partners are in the ring - the market.
"Apple and IBM have different strategies for the PowerPC," says Michael Slater of Microdesign Resources in Sebastopol, Calif. Apple is looking for a new base for a future generation of computers, while IBM is looking to make its workstation stronger and maybe do something with the PC, he adds. Finding a niche
Apple says the PowerPC will coexist with its current lines, which contain another Motorola chip, the 68000. Apple System 7 software will run on the PowerPC, but at a speed as little as one-quarter as fast as on Macintosh computers. The software has to be translated to the chip's RISC (reduced instruction-set computing) architecture, a relatively new system that is fast for repetitive operations, Mr. Slater says. Apple is developing a new operating system for the chip and is trying to convince software d evelopers to write programs for the PowerPC.
IBM is directing the first PowerPC machines at high-end customers - engineers and draftsmen who use an operating system called Unix and require a lot of computing power. PowerPC machines will eventually replace IBM's RS/6000 workstation. But IBM isn't shying away from the low end of the PC market either. "You'll find it in the low- to mid-range workstations, you'll find it in the PC market, and in other markets RISC traditionally hasn't been in," IBM's Mansfield says. He sees the PowerPC machines droppin g below the $4,000 price that marks the bottom of the RS/6000 line. Intel and Microsoft enter the ring
The competition will not be confined to Apple and IBM. No slugfest in the computer industry is complete without Intel Corporation, a major chipmaker, and Microsoft Corporation, a software giant. Intel has begun shipping customers its next-generation PC microprocessor, the Pentium. It will start appearing in computers later this year. Most PCs today use Intel microprocessors.
The Pentium and the first PowerPC microprocessor, the 601, are about equal in speed for average uses. Price may be where the PowerPC comes out a winner. Although Intel has not revealed its prices, the Pentium is likely to cost around $900 in large volumes, compared with $280 to $374 for versions of the PowerPC microprocessor. The chip can be made even less expensive, says Phil Pompa of Motorola. A low-power version will result in desktop computers "at minimum" 30 percent cheaper than machines based on th e initial PowerPC.
Other competitors for super-fast microprocessors include Digital Equipment Corporation's Alpha RISC chip and the MIPS 4000 built by several companies. Kevin Fielding, DEC's marketing manager for the Alpha, says that it is twice as fast as the PowerPC processor. But he acknowledges, "the initial version of the PowerPC is aggressively priced."
PC Magazine, for one, is convinced Intel's Pentium will dominate the PC market eventually.
Microsoft will have a lot to say on which chip wins. In June, it is set to deliver a new Windows operating system called Windows NT but has not said it will make it available for the PowerPC. Without this most important PC software operating system, IBM could be left behind if it offers low-end PCs.