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BOON OR BORE, YOU CAN’T IGNORE UNIX

Mike Faden reviews an eventful year

January: Everything else is overshadowed by IBM’s launch of the RT Personal Computer: following the initial hype and subsequent lack of success for the Personal AT/Xenix combination, this one is being billed as IBM’s real entry into Unix, the one that will legitimise the market, persuade major corporations, and anything else that bored spectators can think of speculating about. Meanwhile, ICL finally launches the Clan range in the UK, after doing it just about everywhere else in Europe. Sun Microsystems announces yet another multi-million dollar deal and goes public after pulling plans for an earlier placing.

February: DEC beats Sperry by a nose top become the first US member of X/Open. Hopes of an announcement of V.3 from AT&T fall flat.

March: IBM lives up to its reputation for confusing the Unix market with the RT. In the US, IBM chooses to describe it as a graphics workstation and avoid conflict with the System/36, and the general reaction is to take IBM at face value, examine the price/performance and say no thanks. In Europe, where System/36 is less overwhelmingly established, IBM is aggressively hunting resellers and software developers to promote the machine – which it would rather you called the 6150, thank you very much – as a business system to be sold primarily through third parties. A 6150 software porting centre in Warwick reportedly attracts long queues. The march of manufacturers towards Unix continues with Fujitsu, smarting from attacks from IBM over its compatible mainframe software, eyeing Unix as an alternative. Texas Instruments plans Unix boxes as the long term replacement for its proprietary minis. Hewlett-Packard, which is betting its bottom dollar in the long term on its new Risc Precision Achitecture and Unix, announces the first of the new range – but they are to suffer further delays.

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April: Users speak out for Unix. With a reported 70% of US Government procurements now specifying Unix, large corporations are beginning to come into the open too and General Motors makes a clear-cut statement that all future computers purchased for manufacturing systems must be Unix-compatible. GM is backing the IEEE P1003 standard, an increasingly strong contender for a single standard. In the UK, Systems Designers and Altos announce a UKP4.5m deal to provide an office automation system for the Foreign office. AT&T promises System V.3 by the end of the second quarter.

May: Ominous signs from AT&T; sales of the Unix PC built for it by Convergent Technologies have been a big disappointment and even AT&T can’t find enough internal users to swallow all the machines it has ordered; Convergent is now allowed to offer the box to others. Tandem, after years of holding out against Unix, signs a $50m deal to supply Altos machines as front-ends for its fault-tolerant systems where Unix is a requirement.

June: The European Unix User show is now firmly established as the biggest Unix show outside the US, and AT&T uses the show to announce the imminent availability of V.3. Then it announces V.3, but with no prices. Those who doubted whether Sperry could cobble together a convincing Unix line with machines from four different manufacturers flinch as the company wins a US army contract with a $250m potential value. The Intel 80386 is providing the answer to the long term problems in attracting the number of applications available with PC-DOS – swallow other operating systems and reduce Unix to the role of hypervisor, or means of generating software revenues. Locus Computing, Interactive Systems, Phoenix Technologies, are all hacking away at Unix/DOS systems.

July: A chorus of boos, whistles and catcalls from the industry surrounds the announcement of terms and conditions for licensing System V.3, and AT&T has a big job on its hands in getting manufacturers to sign on the line. Relatively minor good and bad points such as simplification of the pricing structure and source licence price rises are overshadowed by a hamfisted attempt to enforce compliance with the System V Interface D

efinition. To add to AT&T’s problems, there is little immediate incentive to take the product at all; there is virtually no support yet implemented for the Streams/Remote File Sharing architecture that everybody was supposed to be waiting for, and customers can get much the same level of facilities much quicker with Sun’s NFS. AT&T makes more friends with the intention to drop support for System V on the VAX. The cheapest Unix yet appears from Microport Systems, a $159 run-time system for the AT. ICL sets up a Unix software centre in Ireland, and Whitechapel Computer Works, at one time the great British hope in the Unix workstation market, passes in and out of receivership in days, emerging as Whitechapel Workstations.

August: As the rest of the industry snoozes on a sun-drenched beach, Sun Microsystems introduces the first phase of its merged System V/4.2 operating system, developed as part of its compatibility agreement with AT&T. ICL becomes the latest to drop its own hardware plans in favour of the Sun boxes, stopping further Perq development.

September: IBM slashes prices for the 6150, before most people have yet got their hands on one. Meanwhile US reports suggest that Microsoft will take be 18 months to deliver a version of MS-DOS that exploits the 80386, leaving the way open for the hybrid Unix/DOS versions under development.

October: ICL, which still has only a few dozen Clans installed in the UK, uses Unix as the basis of its umpteenth stab at the US market, and sets up a Unix porting centre in Washington to attract US software for ICL worldwide. Sun Micro systems announces NeWS, software for building windowing systems.

November: AT&T is in full flight over the System V.3 licensing regulations, saying that V.3-based products now may diverge from the SVID to conform with standards approved by ISO, ANSI, the IEEE or NBS, and don’t have to do it anyway till 1988. The speculation around its future commitment to Unix grows as it becomes clear that it is backing off the computer business that was its justification for promoting System V in the first place. Logica, which once had high hopes for its involvement in porting and selling Xenix to OEMs, sells its Xenix products business to Santa Cruz Operation, a US company with a habit of delivering Xenix ports before Microsoft. Hitachi and Xerox join the march towards Unix.

December: AT&T stuns the market by announcing that it would take $3,200m pre-tax charges leading to a fourth quarter loss, to account for job reductions, streamlining and consolidating operations, and write-downs on inventories. And job losses, largely as a result of its merging of the regulated Communications and unregulated Information Systems businesses, may rise as high as 27,400 – 8.5% of the workforce. But it scotches rumours that it will be dropping the 3B Unix line altogether with the announcement of a new range of WE32000 family microprocessors.
This article is from the CBROnline archive: some formatting and images may not be present.

CBR Staff Writer

CBR Online legacy content.