Last week, Compaq chief Rod Canion gave a major briefing in New York on IBM’s Personal System/2, and while he is clearly not a disinterested observer of the personal computer scene, he heads a company whose very survival clearly depends on calling the IBM announcement correctly. We believe what he has to say will be of interest – and importance – to so many people that we are running it in full. We have offered IBM equal space to reply if it chooses.
In announcing the Personal System/2, IBM spent a lot of time touting the importance of its new technologies and architecture. It didn’t spend much time, however, describing real user benefits of these advances. So I think it’s important that we look in greater detail at where the real user benefits are. IBM’s announcement was vague about the improvements that were due to its hardware advance, versus its software advances. In truth, the two are quite separate and need to be looked at independently. In the hardware area, IBM has promoted the technology of its new architecture, including improved graphics, smaller diskettes, a new bus, and integration of functions into smaller circuit boards. These certainly are technical advances, but let’s look at specific user benefits. The VGA graphics capability is an important extension of the current EGA standard.
It provides higher resolution and improved colours, and at some point it will become important. However, just like EGA when it first come out, it’s an improvement that will really take a lot of time before the software becomes available that will make it truly significant to the end user. The important thing here is that this new capability is not limited to the new IBM products. It will become available on industry-standard PCs in a very short time, both from IBM and from various third-party suppliers. So the new graphics capability will take a while before it is really of use to users, and by then it will be available to anyone who wants it on an industry-standard PC. The 3.5 diskette is another advance in technology, but it’s here that IBM has created the biggest problem. By allowing only 3.5 diskettes in the new products, IBM has made them almost totally incompatible with the existing industry standard, from the user’s perspective. Of course, none of a user’s current software or data is directly usable because it is on 3.5 diskettes. With some difficulty, he can convert his data diskettes to the 3.5 format, but that only solves part of the problem. Any time a user wants to interchange data with another PC user, the probability is over 99.9% that the other user has 5.25 diskettes. And the conversion problem will exist forever because of the installed base of more than eight million industry-standard personal computers. His application programs are an even bigger problem. Even after he copies them onto the 3.5 format, many of the most popular programs, such as 1-2-3 and Symphony, dBase and Microsoft Word, won’t work. So he will have to buy new software or at least buy an upgrade. This advance in technology is really not justified. The primary function of diskettes in today’s PCs is for interchange of programs and data. The primary storage of almost all PCs, especially the more advanced ones, is now a Winchester disk. Increasing the capacity and performance of the Winchester disk is very important. But increasing the capacity and performance of the diskette is much less important than maintaining compatibility with the eight million PCs with which the user will want to interchange programs and data. This improvement in technology would have made sense in 1983, but it just doesn’t today. The IBM Micro Channel expansion bus is another advance that is completely incompatible with the industry standard. It will not accept any of today’s plug-in boards, including modems, various local area network boards, and high-resolution display controllers. IBM is today the sole supplier of PC peripherals to customers who go with the new IBM products. Customers whose immediate needs are to connect their PCs with exi
sting peripherals and networks will not be satisfied. A good example of this incompatibility is in the network area. With the new IBM products, the customer doesn’t have access to existing third-party network interface boards. The boards that are required simply aren’t available. Customers who want connectivity with an existing Ethernet or other non-IBM network simply cannot use IBM’s new products. There is a misperception that the new operating system, OS/2, must be used with the new IBM Micro Channel to achieve maximum performance. The truth is that optimised PC performance under OS/2 has little or nothing to do with new bus. In fact, Compaq’s 12MHz Deskpro 286, with its industry-standard bus, will provide better performance under OS/2 tha IBM’s new 286-based PCs, with their incompatible bus. It’s really been hard to find examples of real user benefits that result from the new IBM bus. The new capabilities it eventually does provide may be useful in a certain limited set of applications. But they certainly don’t justify the problems created by its total incompatibility with the past.
The fact that the bus offers 32-bit capability in the 386 machines is interesting, but not particularly useful in a desktop workstation. Even IBM hasn’t found the 32 bits necessary yet. In fact, its advanced display capability is an eight-bit architecture. It comes nowhere near requiring the capacity of the 32-bit bus. And I understand none of the other peripherals IBM has announced use the 32-bit capability either. So for the foreseeable future, the industry-standard 16-bit bus, like the one designed into all Compaq products, will continue to meet the broadest set of needs in the PC market. A fourth area where IBM talked about new technology was in the integration of multiple functions onto the main system board. Integrating multiple functions through surface mount technology and custom integrated circuits certainly has saved IBM money in its manufacturing costs. But it hasn’t helped users in any tangible way beyond what the industry standard supplies. In fact, it has actually reduces the flexibility users have become accustomed to. In the display area, for instance, users are forced to accept IBM’s VGA capabilities whether they need them or not. Industry-standard systems, on the other hand, will provide those same capabilities, but will also let users choose other display options through industry-standard plug-in boards. So, IBM’s architectural advances in hardware haven’t really resulted in any significant new user benefits that couldn’t have been provided within the industry standard.