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  1. Technology
September 17, 1990


By CBR Staff Writer

Ever since NCR Corp cleared out all its mechanical cash registers, dumped its peripheral interests such as its Appleton Papers subsidiary – just floated off with Wiggins Teape by BAT Industries Plc in the UK – and threw all its energies and ingenuity into developing and marketing computers that offered dramatically better price-performance than those of all its old-line competitors, starting with the launch of the Criterion mainframe line in 1976, the company has steadily built itself into a position where it can justly be regarded as the best-run of the traditional US mainframers. And today, that perception will be given its fiercest test yet when the NCR unveils a bet the company strategy comparable in scope and daring to IBM’s System 360 launch way back in 1964.

Dazzling multiprocessor

The Daytoner will announce a complete overhaul of its entire product line and unveils a completely new seven-layer product strategy embracing everything from little laptops to a dazzling 240,000 MIPS multiprocessor, all based strictly on Intel iAPX-86 family chips, all object code-compatible and running MS-DOS, OS/2 and Unix. An NCR source said the massive restructuring, three years in the making, is based on a business plan that is intended to propel NCR from its current $6,000m-a-year in revenues to a whopping $25,000m by 1995. The plan has meant the entire restructuring of the company, the source said, not just the product line. Sales and management structures were found to be wanting and had to be revamped. The source said that the new product strategy had been in concept test for the last year and in actual test in the last three months, and claimed that it is proving a hot item with both old and new customers. At the launch today, which will probably focus heavily on multiprocessing as the touchstone for this decade, NCR will claim that its new mid-range machines completely obsolete minicomputers, beating out any DEC VAX at a quarter the price. And in NCR’s view, an IBM System/390 will merely be a mid-range machine reduced to the role of data repository with 80486 machines hanging off it. At the low end, NCR plansto take the Slate stylus-driven laptop from start-up Go Corp, Foster City, California on an OEM basis – Go’s handwriting recognition software has already attracted the attention of IBM (CI No 1,404) – as well as a stylus for handwritten input, the machine also includes a conventional keyboard.

By Maureen O’Gara

Go’s widget has yet to hit the market, and NCR, among the first to cut a deal with the company, could be shipping it in February or March. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a full-blown $200,000m high-end machine, the result of its alliance with Teradata Corp, Los Angeles, which won’t be ready to ship until the spring of 1992. However, it seems that smaller versions will be available before then, all completely scalable. This machine, is a behemoth to contemplate. By comparison, a Cray, at a tenth the price, delivers only 50,000 MIPS. On the eve of its announcement, the only competitor NCR is seriously concerned about long-term is Hewlett-Packard Co, which it figures has comparable strategies and comparable capabilities. One of the key underpinnings of NCR’s strategy is its total embrace of Intel, and its complete rejection of RISC technology. According to an NCR source, the company is never ever going with RISC because there will never be enough significant software on RISC chips – ever. The RISC market, NCR reckons, is simply not big enough, or likely to grow big enough, to attract the independent software vendors. The prove the point, the source brought up the case of MIPS Computer Systems Inc, which after three years of trying to get its technology accepted, has accumulated only 200 software vendors to write for its chip family. Another of NCR’s enabling technologies, the source said, is the IBM Micro Channel Architecture bus, which gives it the bandwidth it reckons it needs. NCR reportedly just formed an alliance with IBM, swapping its Small Computer Systems Interface disk controller technolog

y for a Micro Channel licence. A third keystone is the recent agreement between Intel, AT&T Co and Santa Cruz Operation Inc on a binary standard for 80386 and 80486 Unix. The NCR source claimed that NCR was behind the agreement and worked for months on it, crediting senior vice-president, General Purpose Products Group Tom Mays with finally bringing it off. The agreement is central to NCR’s strategy, the source explained, saying the better and more embracing the standard, the better our story. NCR intends to run both Unix System V.4 and Santa Cruz Operation’s SCO Unix on its machines. SCO Unix will go right up the line to the multiprocessors, which it is currently unable to support, although the source indicated that there are discussions under way with Santa Cruz that may change all that sounds like the multiprocessing extensions to Santa Cruz Unix developed by Corollary Inc.

Tower victim

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One of the victims of the overhaul is the famed Tower, NCR’s highly successful Unix box, which is estimated to have an installed base of 100,000 units. With its old Motorola chip architecture, the machine can’t maintain a leading edge on the price-performance curve. So NCR is scrapping the Motorola line in favour of the Intel chips for the next generation, and users will have to recompile their software to move from Unix System V.3 to System V.4. NCR figures it will have to have two Unix lines, the old and the new, at least until the end of next year. The glue that will hold all the pieces together is NCR’s Systems Application Architecture-like Co-operative Computing Environment, in which elements like the Open Software Foundation’s OSF/Motif, Hewlett-Packard’s object-oriented NewWave environment, and a strategic alliance with Microsoft Corp for Lan Manager will all feature. The NCR source did not under-estimate the risks the company is taking with its game plan. It is very much a matter of Russian Roulette. The company had a close scrape with utter ruin back in 1972 when it failed to move from mechanical to electronic cash registers. It only stayed alive because the bankers let it. It is a memory very much on NCR’s mind today.

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