IBM finds itself in a remarkable position -- the underdog -- as it begins shipping the first copies today of a revamped and spruced-up version of its OS/2 operating system software for personal computers.
As recently as two years ago, before its bitter split with Microsoft Corp., such a turn of events would have been unthinkable. The industry typically has viewed IBM as routinely entering markets late, then quickly dominating them through sheer size and marketing prowess.
Yet in challenging Microsoft's Windows, which already has sold more than 10 million copies, the world's largest computer maker is playing catch-up against a competitor that dominates the key market for software that controls a computer's basic operations.
IBM -- once legendary for controlling its competitors by sowing what became known as FUD -- for fear, uncertainty and doubt -- is trying to avoid the FUD factor. And in its new role as underdog, IBM has found certain advantages.
Indeed, the company could mount a comeback, industry executives and analysts say, because Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is vulnerable several ways:
* Many industry executives say IBM probably will win the crucial battle over which program looks and works better. The appearance of the Windows desktop has changed little in version 3.1, which Microsoft plans to introduce Monday. The new version fixes some nagging speed and reliability problems in the popular software.
* Many of those who have Windows still don't use it regularly, which could haunt Microsoft. A study late last year by Creative Strategies, a market research center in San Jose, Calif., found that only 60 percent of the corporate users who had bought Windows used it regularly. That means that the gap between Windows and OS/2 is not as great as it appears.
* The growing importance of computer networks is likely to play toward IBM and OS/2. Windows' biggest handicap is that it is based on the MS-DOS operating system, which lags technically. Also important is IBM's alliance with Novell Corp., whose Netware software dominates the networking business.
* IBM, once distrusted by much of the industry, has a new-found goodwill factor. Many companies in the personal computer software business now fear Microsoft's influence and are counting on IBM to level the playing field by creating a second standard.
"Everyone is rooting for them, hands down," said Jim P. Manzi, chairman of Lotus Development Corp., the leading maker of spreadsheet software and a bitter Microsoft competitor.