Apple in bed with IBM. Whatever next?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 08/91 item 02 - scanned

Of all the fortnights to take a break, I took the one when Apple and IBM decided to announce the forthcoming marriage of their advanced operating system development teams - the Pink team from Apple, the AIX team from IBM, and the Patriot Partners team set up jointly by IBM and Metaphor a year or so back. No sooner had I unpacked my cases than IBM went and bought Metaphor, lock, stock and barrel.

The next day, I heard that Apple had announced a $53.1 million loss, that Borland intended to buy Ashton-Tate, Novell was buying Digital Research and Wang was to sell IBM machines because that's what their customers preferred. The computer world, as I knew it just three weeks earlier, was rapidly assuming a new shape.

We arc clearly entering a period of significant change and, if previous major changes are anything to go by, few of today's leading companies will survive it. New companies will appear and the old ones will fight like hell to stay in business, many by teaming up with their former enemies.

Apple has shown the world how computers should work. Admittedly, it got the core ideas from Xerox but then Xerox wouldn't have brought the WlMPs technology to the desktop at the kind of price Apple did. Now the whole world is trying to copy Apple and the company fights back the only way it knows - with lawsuits.

IBM, by licensing Windows technology, runs the risk of legal action if Apple succeeds in its case against Microsoft. So one spin-off benefit of joining forces with Apple is that this threat not only goes away, but there's a high likelihood that IBM can more blatantly copy the world's best interface without penalty.

There's far more to the proposals than that, though. The agreement gives the Mac credibility. People previously blinded by their love or fear of Big Blue have received a signal that Apple is OK. In fact, it's more than OK - it has technology that Big Blue itself craves. It is possible, even if IBM and Apple fail to reach agreement, that Apple could still come out the clear winner from this episode.

Assuming that everything goes ahead, what are the other benefits? Well, the partnership takes a serious pop at the ACE consortium, the group of personal computer and minicomputer companies that hopes to establish a standard based around the MIPS chip. It will have given Microsoft a hefty kick in the teeth - something that will please both IBM and Apple. It will also give the world much wider access to present and future Apple user interfaces.

Someone once said to me: "People bought the first Macs for the user interface - it's all the machine had, yet it sold like hot cakes." That person was right. The applications have come along since and proved over the last seven years what a robust and satisfying user interface the Mac has. This is partly thanks to Xerox, partly thanks to Steve Jobs' vision and partly thanks to those Apple developers who insisted on putting the user first. It is vital to the success of the partnership that this user-centred design continues.

The Apple/IBM partnership, if it comes off, will have a far-reaching brief. It will come up with an object-oriented, open system software platform which will offer "major new user and system functionality, while greatly simplifying the process of application programming. It will span a wide range of computing platforms, including Intel's x86, Motorola's 680x0, and IBM's RISC System/6000 Power architecture." (Applications as we know them could disappear, to be replaced by tools which will be available any time, in any kind of document.)

Apple will also be able to participate in IBM enterprise systems through the availability of networking and communications products and through an advanced AIX, which will offer both Mac and OSF/Motif user interfaces.

Motorola, having failed to persuade Apple to use its 88000 RISC chip, will get the consolation prize of making IBM's single-chip version of the RS/ 6000 Power architecture chipset.

And, finally, the two plan to make the fruits of their multimedia developments available to other manufacturers.

On the face of it, the agreement looks wonderful. Apple is getting a chance to spread its hardware and software into the most influential organisations in the world. I only hope that Apple gets a good income from every sale made, because my guess is that, having developed these wonderful new systems together, IBM will use its contacts and traditional business methods to pick up all the major corporate business. And Apple will end up getting only the crumbs from the Big Blue giant's table.