Information exchange between different systems is key to our future

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 06/90 item 02 - scanned

I walked into the local copy shop the other day, just in time to witness a heated discussion between the owner and his eldest child. Not being a Gujarati speaker, I had no idea what the row was about, nor does it interest me. What does interest me was the way that the owner broke off in mid-row and said, in more or less perfect English, "Good morning David. How are you today?" Our business was conducted entirely in English and, no doubt, the minute I was out of the door the two of them resumed their 'discussion' in their own language.

It struck me that the shopkeeper and his family are, to all intents and purposes, a proprietary system. They probably do their stocktaking and book-keeping in their own language, but the minute they need contact with the outside world - suppliers, customers and tax officials - they switch to English. It's the same in the local Italian restaurant - if our Indian friend took his family there for an meal, they'd discuss the menu in Gujarati, order the food in English, the waiter would instruct the chef in Italian and everyone would get what they wanted.

Just like computer systems, it doesn't really matter to the customers how they work internally, as long as they are able to make meaningful contact with the outside world. In the computer business, the most successful manufacturers have traditionally built proprietary systems. Apple is only the latest in a long line including Digital and IBM. Now, the pressure is on to conform to some universal standards, called 'open systems'. The idea of this is that it will level the playing field and enable all computer makers to compete on more or less equal terms. It will allow users to mix and match computer systems from different suppliers and it will theoretically enable software writers to create programs for a new mass-market.

Seeing the way the open systems wind was blowing, major manufacturers started trumpeting about how open their systems were, or soon would be. My guess is that a lowest common denominator will be agreed and then everyone will embellish it to differentiate their products and lock their customers in again.

Apple, to give it credit, never claimed to have wholeheartedly accepted the open systems argument. It has paid lip service to it by providing a version of UNIX - A/UX. But, more importantly, it has taken great pains to ensure that its machines will collaborate with those of other major manufacturers. The most convincing manifestation of this came recently, when Apple and Digital announced the first fruits of their two year old joint development agreement.

This agreement first came about when the two companies realised they shared so many customers. Something like 40% of Digital customers also have Macintoshes. Many wanted to use the Mac as a front end to the Digital machines, not just as a terminal emulator, but a full participant, while retaining the familiar Macintosh way of doing things. Some customers, more politically aware perhaps, realised that an alliance of Digital and Apple would give them an exciting and realistic alternative to IBM - the only company which can currently satisfy the computing needs of an entire enterprise, from desktop to mainframe.

In recognition of the need for enterprise-wide computing systems, Digital has been a pioneer in the area of networking and interoperability between computer systems from different manufacturers. Its Network Applications Support (NAS) allows new and existing applications to share both information and resources across the network, integrating distributed applications across multi-vendor desktops (VMS, ULTRIX, MS-DOS, OS/2), systems and servers (VAX and DECsystem RISC). It also provides gateways to IBM and other OSI vendors.

The main subject of the recent announcement, DEC LanWORKS for Macintosh, is part of NAS and, as such, extends the reach of the Mac user into the DEC environment and beyond. VAX and Mac users will be able to share each others' peripherals and network resources. They'll be able to exchange electronic mail and access common applications and databases. Electronic mail can reach out beyond the Macintosh/VAX network through ALL-IN-1 MAIL for Macintosh, which can exchange messages and files with any other E-Mail system which conforms to the X400 standard. An implementation of the Xwindow server, MacX, means that Macintosh users will be able to access DECwindows applications running on VMS and ULTRIX systems.

Apple and Digital created these products in a way which preserves the user interface of both the Macintosh and the Digital systems. In this sense, computers aren't that different to Indian copy shops and Italian restaurants. The important thing is that the customers get what they want, in a language they understand.