A new technology-sharing pact between former foes Apple Computer and IBM is just the latest unlikely alliance to form in an industry struggling to standardize.
The broad agreement announced last week between the button-down "Big Blue" and brash Apple is a step toward eliminating competing systems that make most computers incompatible, analysts say.
"We are at a stage where no one, including IBM, is strong enough to fend off the competition and dominate any sector of the industry," said Peter Kastner, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston.
Another factor: competition has chipped away at any technological edge industry leaders held in the 1980s, creating a need to join forces to sell more compatible machines in an era of shrinking profits.
Three major alliances and consortiums attempting to set industry standards include:
* The Advanced Computer Environments consortium, or ACE, formed in April. The group, attempting to set standards for workstations, includes several companies and is led by Compaq Computer Corp., Digital Equipment Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Mips Computer Systems Inc., which makes its own RISC microprocessor. Workstations are basically more powerful desktop computers.
* The so-called "open systems" movement led by Sun Microsystems Inc. and started in 1988 with its SPARC workstation line. Those SPARC computer clones mimic IBM and other machines. The SPARC design is tailored for use with AT&T's Unix, a base layer of software that lets programs run on a variety of computer models. Unisys Corp. also signed onto this group through technology agreements with Sun and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. This year, AT&T acquired NCR Corp., a mainframe computer maker that competes with IBM.
* The IBM-Apple pact. The deal still must be finalized between the two leading personal computer makers that control half the market. Under the plan, the companies will form a separate venture to develop a software operating system for personal computers that will directly challenge Microsoft's popular Windows -- a product whose development angered IBM, which now relies on a Microsoft-made operating system, OS-2.
IBM and Germany's Siemens AG also unveiled an important joint venture last week. They want to make the world's most advanced computer memory chips, a step they hope will keep them ahead of their Japanese competitors.
The 16-megabit dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips will be manufactured at IBM's existing facility at Corbeil-Essonnes, outside Paris.
Senior executives of IBM and Siemens declined to disclose the actual amount they plan to spend on the project.