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November 25, 1991


By CBR Staff Writer

Compaq Computer Corp’s decision to lobby for the use of Hewlett-Packard Co’s Visual User Environment in place of Cambridge, UK-based IXI Ltd’s X.desktop as the desktop manager in the Advanced Computing Environment implementation of Unix (CI No 1,745), threatens to throw the whole initiative into confusion. Compaq would also appear to be going up against Digital Equipment Corp, ACE’s other formidable backer and the source of its base operating system – DEC is believed to be considering X.desktop for use on a range of products, including ones that are outside the Advanced Computing Environment. Compaq was the moving force behind the consortium and is the member with the most experience of the desktop market, and it fervently believes that the graphical user interface or environment and desktop manager – the screens the user sees first and to which there is constant recourse – add up to the single most critical piece of system software. Its perception looms larger because of the competitive intentions of its rivals, entities such as the IBM Corp-Apple Computer Inc axis now threatening to put the ever popular Macintosh interface on its RISC boxes, not to speak of fellow ACE founder Microsoft Corp, ready to give Unix a run for its money with its Win 32 NT technology. Compaq has backed up its choice of the Visual User Environment with usability studies of all the potential technologies – it tested them out on Unix-knowledgeable end-users, those only familiar with MS-DOS and Windows, and those who’d never used a computer before. The Hewlett-Packard product, according to Compaq, was significantly preferred. In an initial set of tests three months ago, Hewlett flew in its engineers and one of its own fully-configured, top-end HP 9000 Series 700 Snake workstations for the run-off, while IXI, a small company based in the UK, with a six-person presence in the US, was forced to ship in tapes that were then run on a Sun Sparcstation IPC.


IXI, Santa Cruz Operation and other ACErs are believed to have complained about the differences in machines, the proprietary-ness of the Hewlett box, and the available support, so another reportedly independent run-off was done on Advanced RISC Computing-compliant boxes, DECsystem-5000s, a couple of weeks ago. This time around IXI submitted an advanced, object-oriented version of X.desktop 3.0 – the inclusion of object technology was apparently the major factor in Compaq’s preference for the Visual User Environment. Now that Santa Cruz has declared emphatically that X.desktop it is, the dilemma facing Compaq is stark – it must lose face and run with the rest of the ACE crowd backing X.desktop, or defect from the initiative, perhaps joining the rival consortium being assembled by Hewlett for its own Precision Architecture RISC. This would leave ACE without its prime mover. What was intended to be a development initiative that would rival the achievement of the personal computer revolution would, given that scenario, become little more than a raft of defensive OEM agreements between those industry elements hostile to the Sun, Hewlett-Packard and Apple-IBM-Motorola camps. Despite this life-threatening wound, ACE is about to reveal 20 new additions to its ranks, including Micronix Inc, Everex Systems Inc and ICL’s planned acquisition, Scandanavian outfit Nokia Data – but other threats to its homogeneity keep surfacing, and following revelations that the so-called Apache group of ACE adherents plan to take the hardware but run plain Unix System V.4 on it, there are vague suggestions in this week’s Electronic News that DEC may be ready to make its own private arrangements with Microsoft and Intel to counter the IBM-Apple alliance.

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