A click back on 1991 and a click forward into 1992

January 06, 1992|By Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly,Los Angeles Times

It was quite a year.

IBM announced a drastic restructuring of its computer hardware business, abandoned the personal computer software applications business and teamed up with Apple to develop workstations of the future.

Apple, meanwhile, finally got real with its prices and introduced some great new machines of the present.

Microsoft, once adopted by IBM as a toddler, reached adolescence, rebelled and struck out on its own, confident that it now rules the personal computing world. It may be right.

Compaq finally figured out what its would-be customers have known for about three years, fired its president and set out in a new direction.

And discount warehouse stores featured computers powered by Intel's top-of-the-line i486 microprocessor for under $3,000. Just two years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the i486 was so powerful that it would only be used in network fileservers and specialized graphics workstations.

Of course, that was before Microsoft pushed 6 million copies of Windows into the marketplace and users quickly learned that there is no such thing as too much power with Windows.

There are a lot of lessons in all of this.

IBM is in trouble because of its peculiar genius for losing new business while doggedly trying to preserve old business. Put another way, it has refused to compete with itself, leaving that to others who have made billions gleefully accepting the opportunity.

For instance, the PC that IBM introduced in 1981 was the natural successor to its expensive DisplayWriter word-processing system. Instead of taking advantage of the new technology, IBM crippled the original PC with a lousy keyboard and minuscule memory.

So today it is WordPerfect and Microsoft that rule word processing. DisplayWriters are so dead you can't even give them away.

In 1987, when there were about 10 million IBM and compatible PCs in the world, IBM brought out the PS/2 models that were internally incompatible with its originals, and everybody else's clones.

IBM gambled that it could redefine the personal computer, and control it, forcing the clone makers into oblivion. But in four years it has failed to prove that the PS/2 is any better than other makers' upgraded versions of its old design. It is just more costly.

Now there are 40 or 50 million personal computers out there and they aren't about to be abandoned any time soon for anybody's new, incompatible design. DOS computing, despite its many flaws, is here to stay.

If we are lucky, the brilliance of IBM, which is in its scientists and engineers, will be able to flourish under the new structure and they will be allowed to actually market what they invent without worrying about making existing products obsolete.

One need only look at Apple to see the advantage of giving free rein to the best and brightest stars in a company. The Macintosh has a personality that IBM and compatible computers lack and one reason is that it was the personal creation of a few people.

It will be Apple's challenge to keep the personal touch alive in its new ventures.

What did Compaq belatedly learn? That its true competitors were the low-priced clone makers, not IBM. While it was busy trying to sell a few thousand expensive network fileservers, others were selling the hundreds of thousands of cheap, high-quality PCs that would be connected to those fileservers.

If anybody should have known that there is no such thing as brand loyalty in PC computing, it should have been Compaq, which started out as an unknown exploiting IBM's weaknesses.

The two companies that begin 1992 most firmly in control of their realms are Apple and Microsoft.

Apple has exclusive control of Macintosh. There are no Mac clones. That's the advantage you have when you design your computer from scratch instead of assemble it from off-the-shelf parts as IBM did with the PC.

Microsoft controls the fundamental operation of IBM-compatible computers. There are no serious rivals to its DOS operating system or its Windows graphical user interface. It, too, is enjoying the fruits of its own invention.

Microsoft abandoned OS/2 to IBM, which promises to deliver a new version in the spring that runs Windows programs and offers many advantages over DOS. If it succeeds, it would be IBM's first software hit for personal computers. That's a lot of static inertia to overcome.

Meanwhile, there are many other developments to look forward to. Multimedia computing, which mixes text, graphics, sound, photos and videos, is getting more attention. But I don't see people flocking to it until digital video is just as good as what we see on television and that's not possible right now.

Pen computing, which uses a stylus to write on the screen and transfer printing and shorthand-like squiggles into computer text and commands will hit the market this year. But it's a niche market. It may be ideal for spreadsheets and specialized kinds of data entry. But it's no good for word processing.

The computer keyboard, like the typewriter keyboard that it replaced, may intimidate those who don't know how to use it. And it may injure those who use it too much and suffer repetitive-stress injuries.

Nonetheless, it is a marvelous device for easily converting human thought into electronic data that can be efficiently processed. If you want to be prepared for the future, learn to type. At the very least, make sure your children do.

Happy New Year.

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