Battle brews over work stations

INTEL COULD WIN UNIX WAR

February 03, 1992|By Lee Gomes | Lee Gomes,Knight-Ridder News Service

In an industry that never tires of hyphenations, "Unix-RISC" has been an old favorite, the two words routinely joined to describe the software-hardware combination that powers the fast-growing breed of high-end computers known as work stations.

But because of a giant industry battle that is brewing over the next generation of computer operating systems, the linking of those words may no longer be inevitable. The change is far more than just semantic. It could have repercussions throughout the computer industry.

And the major winner could be Intel Corp. The Santa Clara, Calif., semiconductor provider could gain at the expense of the many computer companies selling RISC-based hardware.

While they power tens of millions of personal computers, Intel microprocessors, with some notable exceptions, generally do not run Unix because until recently they did not have the power for Unix's considerable bulk.

So to gain the considerable advantages of Unix, especially the ability to run more than one program at a time and to link computers easily in a network, computer buyers traditionally have turned to the work stations sold by Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others.

Now, though, Intel chips have become zippier, and Unix, which until recently was one of the compelling reasons to choose a work station over a personal computer, is being made available for Intel machines. Some think the market for the software alone could soon reach $1 billion a year.

* In September, Sun announced it would sell a version of its Unix software that can run on Intel chips, and recently, it completed its purchase of Interactive Systems Corp., a former Kodak subsidiary that had been one of the few firms selling Intel-based Unix. Sun said it will use Interactive as its Intel-Unix development lab.

* In December, Novell Corp., the highly regarded Utah company that dominates the personal computer networking market, created a $30 million joint venture with Unix Systems Labs, the AT&T subsidiary that developed Unix, to bring out its own Intel-bred Unix.

Novell has developed a vast, efficient distribution system for its networking software, which it plans to tap to pitch Unix.

While each firm is taking the step for different reasons -- and while both face competition not only from each other but from Microsoft Corp. and the Apple-IBM alliance -- the effect of the moves is the same.

The kind of advanced, multitasking software environment and related application programs that until recently were almost the exclusive province of work stations is now being supplied for Intel.

Industry observers say that fact, coupled with the enormous backlog of programs that exist for Intel machines in the DOS operating system, could give new life and new technical respectability to a microprocessor family that only a year ago was widely regarded as being out of steam.

That's true even though most people expect Intel microproces

sors, in terms of raw performance, to be only "good enough" and never better than the RISC microprocessors used in most work stations.

But don't expect work-station companies to fold up their tents. While predicting some overlap with Intel machines, they maintain that their systems will remain the better buy because they have far more complete built-in features, such as networking abilities and advanced graphics, while approaching personal computers in price.

In fact, some argue that Unix on Intel will boost their sales because it will introduce more customers to the Unix world, and that work stations, with their inherently high performance, will continue to see strong demand.

The attraction of Intel machines for Sun, Novell and others remains in their numbers -- millions of installed units, well above the hundreds of thousands of systems that even the biggest work-station companies ship.

To be sure, some Intel machines have been running Unix for years. The Santa Cruz Operation has built a $130 million a year business with it.

But SCO's software was in most cases for specialized applications, rather than as a general operating system for mass commercial markets, the target of the firms getting into the business this year.

While SCO has its own entry in that league, most people do not consider the firm an equal competitor for Sun and Novell, both of which plan to ship products by summer.

Sun hopes that the increased use of its flavor of Unix on Intel will lead to greater acceptance for its own hardware. It also wants to increase software sales.

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