Ahead of IBM’s plans to change the entire face of the personal computer world as we know it, Hesh Wiener presents an iconoclastic view of the likely impact on the major players in the game – and the users.
There had to be a war. The clone business had gotten out of hand. Every time IBM announced some new-fangled PC, Compaq introduced a faster one, Epson introduced a cheaper one, and more than a dozen companies nobody ever heard of introduced knock-offs that were both faster and cheaper. Even more dangerous, respectable users bought the ersatz PCs by the hundreds. In the corporate market, IBM’s share was cut down to something under 40%, while in the small business and home markets, Big Blue’s products were selling like Edsels. It’s no wonder IBM is trying to change the rules. But the clone conundrum is only part of this sad, sad story. While nefarious nerds of every stripe but pin have been eating IBM’s lunch – to say nothing of its profits – other forces threaten to undermine the very foundations of the high-tech establishment.
Imagine the nerve of Fujitsu, trying to buy Fairchild Semiconductor! Left to its own devices, Fairchild promises to enrich bankruptcy lawyers throughout Silicon Gulch. But villainous Japanese imperialists had the audacity to suggest an alternative: the company might be a vehicle to repatriate some of the money we’ve sent overseas to buy Japanese chips. Opponents of the Fujitsu-Fairchild deal reminded us that the sale would put a maker of vital defence products in hands of rapacious Japanese capitalists. Overlooked was the fact that the company was already owned by rapacious French socialists. Indeed, Fairchild has long since been the property of Schlumberger, an outfit known worldwide for making sure oilwells’ ends are well. In the meantime, IBM remains the last bastion of world class RAM chippery in America. The other domestic outfit that comes to mind when one thinks of pace-setting semiconductors is Intel, yet despite the hubbub surrounding the 80386, we question its ability to innovate. Intel’s been playing Igor to IBM’s Dr Frankenstein for too long.
As if we don’t have enough trouble, high technology lobbyists and other bunco artists are pitching for protectionism. The upshot – tariffs and import ceilings – will be good for IBM. For instance, higher chip prices will punish clone-makers, DEC and other silicon buyers. We hope IBM appreciates what Uncle Sam is doing for it. Because once the Japanese realise we’re serious, they’ll stop showing up at T-bill auctions, and only IBM has deep enough pockets to bail out the treasury, which will need money to bail out the banks that bailed out Brazil. Compared to a trade war, Big Blue’s battle with the cloners is mere sport. New PC standards won’t kill the clone business any more than IBM’s PC AT did, although they will thin competitors’ ranks. Microsoft will see to that. After all, the DOS-maker’s top puppy, Bill Gates, became a billionaire by playing off IBM and the cloners. He’s not about to let IBM take back the profits he’s wrested from their shareholders (who would have been far better served by a home-grown PC operating system).
Shuffle off the buffer load
So there’s going to be some confusion. New terminals will engender new networking hokum. IBM’s flacks will once again revise their portrait of a sunlit future for true blue users. And investments in perfectly good equipment, made suddenly obsolete, will have to be reassessed. None of this is really new; it’s the way the computer game has been played all along. The real question is whether all this is good for the users. And the answer isn’t so clear.It looks like the only way to get more expensive terminals to pay off is to have them do more work. This means treating mainframes more like file servers and less like computational devices. To some extent, intermediate systems used to buffer loads from dumb tubes before they are sent to mainframes will become redundant. All of this could be good for budgets, even if it raises some thorny territorial and orga
nisational issues fordata processing shops. On the other hand, if users really put PCs to work on jobs that now clog mainframes, IBM might not sell as many 3090s as it would like. And sales of midrange systems might really get hit. To prevent this, IBM might have to offset the benefits of new PCs with some penalties imposed via hairier networking schemes and clumsier data base systems. This would be unpleasant and costly for end users. How mean! But nobody ever said all’s fair in war.