It’s just over a year since IBM announced its PS/2 range with its Micro Channel Architecture, but lingering doubts about the advantages of the Micro Channel bus over the established AT bus persist – buttressed by continuing confusion within the industry over the lengths to which IBM intends to go to protect its intellectual property. Clone manufacturers are divided about whether they need to pursue IBM along the Micro Channel Architecture route or focus on continuing user demand for AT bus products. They are not convinced that Micro Channel Architecture offers users any great advantages over the old bus architecture and cite strong user demand for their products as proof that users too are not sold on Micro Channel Architecture. But IBM claims that orders for its new products are picking up. Confusing IBM has refused to disclose which parts of its new architecture may be licensed, but stressed that getting a licence for some aspects of Micro Channel Architecture by no means entitles clone makers to copy the new bus architecture. At the same time IBM will not disclose which parts of Micro Channel Architecture its patents cover – and not all are IBM’s anyway – a key one used by IBM is held by Computer Automation Inc. Tandon UK managing director James Minotto expressed a widely held view: Do you know what Micro Channel Architecture stands for? ‘More Confusing Announcements’. Walters International Ltd sales director Eddie Moir is equally uncertain: We are asking IBM to clarify the situation. There are a lot of vague statements being made. But why bother with Micro Channel Architecture at all? IBM claims that users have embraced PS/2 and the Micro Channel which is central to the Models 50, 60 and 80 – the 25 and 30 use the old bus and are PS/2s in name only – but even Dataquest, which seems to have bought the IBM pitch hook, line and sinker, estimates that only about half of IBM’s PS/2 sales last year were of the Micro Channel models. IBM company has said Micro Channel offers a range of advantages over the standard AT bus: a 50% bigger bus bandwidth offering greater and faster throughput, higher level of system usability and reliability, and a hardware platform that offers users a growth path to OS/2 and beyond. This view is hotly contested by clonemakers who are suspicious that the main reason why IBM introduced the new architecture was not because of these benefits but merely to make it harder for them to copy the PS/2. Quality compatibles maker Compaq has been particularly vocal in its criticism of Micro Channel. The company’s UK marketing director Peter Bayley believes IBM is overplaying the importance of the bus to machine performance: There is so much talk about the bus but all the work really goes on in the CPU, the co-procesor, the disk controller and the memory. As long as the bus meets the needs of these and doesn’t create a bottleneck it’s OK, he says. Compaq claims that its AT-compatible Flex architecture is superior to Micro Channel and beats IBM in performance-crucial areas such as bus arbitration, disk access times and memory-to-CPU cycles. But according to Alan Solomon of the IBM PC User Group, Micro Channel does have advantages over the AT bus. He argues that investing in AT bus based products now would be like investing in a CP/M micro just after IBM launched its MS-DOS machine in 1981: initially it didn’t matter but users who did so probably regretted it later as the IBM machines set the standard. The whole point about the PS/2 is that it’s for tomorrow. The old bus has all sort of advantages: there are lots more cards for it for example, but if Micro Channel is a success – and there is an if there – cards will become available for it and so will other new function cards that you can’t have now, Solomon says. He points out that the Micro Channel enables parallel processing while the AT bus is limited to co-processing capability has a speed of only 15MHz, compared with 50MHz for the Micro Channel. But Tandon backs the Compaq stand. I am still not convinced of the benefits of the Micro Channel. All pr
oducts offer most of the features that it offers. On the surface the Compaq Flex architecture seems a better bet. Minotto says, adding that Tandon has no plans to clone the PS/2 range and is advising customers to stick to the AT-bus architecture: Why clone a machine which isn’t even being delivered now – the lead time for the Model 80 is six months, and it’s three months for the Model 60, adding that demand for the established AT bus products remains buouyant. Other clonemakers are taking a different approach. They have decided that the question is not so much whether the move to the Micro Channel can be defended along the lines pursued by IBM but whether their claim to be IBM-compatible may suffer if they do not follow IBM along the new bus architecture. Walters’ Moir sums up their approach: If you are a clone manufacturer you’ve got to clone. And that means, for example, that any cards that can be plugged into the IBM bus channel should also go into Walters compatibles. So Walters is likely to come up with Micro Channel-compatible products – only uncertainty over intellectual property rights is holding it back. Misgivings Dell Computer Corp and Tandy Corp have already shown their hands, Tandy with a Model 80 clone out now in the US, Dell with two machines prom-sed for the fourth quarter. When IBM announced the PS/2, with OS/2 and the Micro Channel the general view was that IBM wanted to confound the parasites that had eaten so much of its lunch. But despite their misgivings about aping IBM’s bus architecture, the new hardware and software, clone makers have risen to the challenge. The stage is again set for a replay of the fight between IBM and its compatible makers – for market share and in the courts over intellectual property. Micro Channel and the best lawyers money can buy may not be enough to spare IBM the coming onslaught – if the generality of microcomputer users – rather than just the captive audience in IBM’s big mainframe shops – can be persuaded that there really is a good reason to pay over the odds just to be able to say they have Micro Channel Architecture.