Is Apple's outlook 'GRIM'?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Jul 1988 (guess) - scanned

Whether you like it or not, the Macintosh is forced to coexist with other computers. For its market penetration to reach significant numbers, the Mac has to infiltrate organisations more used to Big Blue than Big Mac. DOS, OS/2 and UNIX are here to stay, certainly for as long as the Macintosh is around. Add the mainframes and minicomputers which dominate corporate computing, and the role of the Macintosh seems more like a bit part on the world computing stage.

For the Macintosh and its successors to survive, its supporting industry of hardware and software suppliers has to recognise this reality. It has to give people the freedom to enjoy the Macintosh while making sure it can integrate with these alien systems.

We have already seen products like PageMaker and Excel catch on, not least because of their common user interface and data storage across different computer technologies. PageMaker entered a field where there were few other players and was therefore able to establish itself with relative ease. Excel has had to fight harder, especially on the PCs, because of the dominance of Lotus 1-2-3.

Now, a British company, Blyth Software, is making a serious bid for the mixed environment database/application generator market. Its new product is called Omnis 5 and it brings Macintosh sophistication to the poor old PC users who, with a bit of luck, will wonder what's hit them.

The user interface is almost identical to that on the Macintosh version and an application written for one machine will theoretically run on the other. (I'll explain the 'theoretically' later.) Also, following the example set by Omnis 3 extended edition (3.3) and Omnis Quartz, the Omnis 5 database format is common to users of both machines.

To dealers, the common ground of the user interface means that they can demonstrate Omnis applications on whichever machine happens to be free. To end users, it means that they can switch machines with ease and without having to learn a new set of commands. The common source code is a great advantage because it means that an Omnis 5 program written for the Macintosh can automatically generate a Windows or Presentation Manager application. At least, it will when these last two versions of Omnis 5 appear, hopefully by the autumn.

Obviously, certain Macintosh resources, such as desk accessories, do not exist on the PC. Similarly, some PC resources do not form part of the Macintosh environment. Source code which does not apply is preserved but does not generate application code. The developer's choice is to ignore the special attributes of the different machine ranges or to exploit them and accept that there will be some differences in the end products. The core application code will be common and therefore the portability will still be extremely high.

The common datafile format underpins the whole Omnis 5 strategy. Without it the other innovations would be pointless. For the HyperCard enthusiast, Blyth has even provided access to its datafiles.

Network Innovations, an Apple owned company, is in the process of contributing its two penniworth to mixed network computing. It has developed a command language to provide Macintosh users with an SQL-based access into various minicomputer and mainframe systems. Its CL/1 language is built into the Omnis 5 command language so you can call remote data right to your Mac from within Omnis 5.

For this remote access to work, a server version of CU1 has to be sitting at the host system. So far, Network Innovations has implemented CL/1 on generic UNIX and A/UX systems and DEC Vax machines. Coming soon is an IBM host version and PC, PS/2 and UNIX workstation versions. When these arrive, Omnis 5 will be able to achieve its full potential on the PC and PS/2 machines.

It's gratifying to know that there is still at least one British company with the gumption to produce a crossplatform product which deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Excel and PageMaker.

After the excitement of looking at Omnis 5, I was brought down to earth with a bump by developments in what used to be termed 'Groupware'. Now, if Lotus has its way, this will be renamed es 'Group Information Management'. (Lotus' interest in this category has been sparked by its intention to launch its own bit of GRIM software, Notes, in the autumn.) Perhaps after the success of its 'Personal Information Management', or PIM, buzz-phrasing went to the company's head. Anyway, I propose we call the new thing GRIM on the grounds that, if it's GIM, we won't know whether to pronounce it with a hard or soft 'G'.

GRIM offers work groups a way of managing the flow of information around the group. Documents can be created and automatically passed on to the next person for their additions, comments, improvements or whatever. The GRIM system works on behalf of the group, automatically routing, scheduling and chasing the progress of work. GRIM products are not applications, any more than Omnis 5 is an application. Just like Omnis, they are tools which enable users (group leaders for, example) to build their own applications.

GRIM has been described as a way of automating administrative traffic control. It is to the computer operative what a factory work-in-progress system might be to a factory worker. It doesn't destroy personal autonomy but programmed correctly, it will definitely keep users on their toes.

Of course, for GRIM to work properly, millions more computers will be needed for the desktops and this will make everyone in the computer industry ecstatically happy. Hardware and software vendors alike will benefit from a huge boom if GRIM takes off.

So why was I brought down to earth so harshly? Because, at the moment, I can't see Apple getting a decent slice of the GRIM-related pie. Apple-only networks will continue to flourish and I've no doubt that Claris, or one of the other Macintosh developers, will introduce GRIMware for Macintosh workgroups. But all the major GRIM developments currently seem to be targeted at PS/2 or UNIX systems. And they appear to have little motivation to incorporate the Macintosh in their GRIM schemes.

It seems ironic that just as Omnis 5 offers a great way of developing crossplatform applications, along comes the possibility of GRIMware squeezing the Mac out of the mixed network before it's really got started.