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Apple and IBM team up to make the Power PC

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Apple and IBM team up to make the Power PC 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

One of the big computer stories of the past few years made it all the way to Page One of the New York Times a week or two ago. It said IBM and Apple planned to team up to create a new kind of personal computer.

The two companies, which have been rivals for a decade, have been secretly holding meetings to come up with a single standard operating system for their next generation of PCs. The story in the Times said the two companies would throw a lot of money at this project—as much as $100 million.

On the surface, the news seems good. Until now, IBM has made billions of dollars selling dull computers that are hard to use. Apple, in turn, has made a fortune selling exciting computers that are easy to use.

You'd think that folks who use computers would like option No. 2 -- exciting PCs that don't take much effort to use. And that, of course, would eventually put IBM out of business as long as it made computers that fit option No. 1.

But that, as any Economics 101 professor can explain, just isn't the way things work in the real world. No matter how good or bad IBM's computers are, a lot of people are going to buy them.

That's because IBM is, well, IBM; it's always a safe bet. That's especially true in the business world, where the biggest bucks are.

There's a saying among the accountants and information systems managers who help run corporate America: "You'll never get fired for buying IBM." It's apparently true; no one who runs a company will ever question your probity if you decide to make the world's wealthiest computer company a little bit richer.

It helps, of course, that IBM's sales people are always dressed like the ads in Gentleman's Quarterly, and that the closest IBM has ever come to humor in its approach to the public was its use of a Charlie Chaplin look-alike in its PC ads. (That was a hoot, as they say. Haw, haw.)

Just as much of a help was Apple's opposite image. Who'd want to buy a computer from a company run by people who think dressing up is putting on a shirt? More to the point, anyone who has seen the start-up screen on Apple's Macintosh would probably wonder whether corporate America would really want to buy a computer that put a smiley face on the screen every time you turned it on.

And so IBM has continued to sell its computers—and the clone makers who turned out cheaper and better versions of the IBM PC have continued to sell theirs—while Apple came up with a great idea that caught on only among artists and rebels and folks like that.

Seeing the handwriting on the screen, Apple decided to work out a deal with IBM that would, in essence, use IBM's money and Apple's inventiveness to create a personal computer better than either the IBM PC or the Macintosh.

If this deal doesn't fall through, each company will make computers that look different but run the same programs. Most importantly, they'll run them the same way. That will mean they'll be easy to use, because once you learn how one program works, you'll know how the others do, too.

That's the greatest strength of Apple's Macintosh. It's not the Mac's insistence on using a mouse, or the Mac's cute little pictures. It's Apple's near-religious attitude toward standardization of all Mac programs. They're all supposed to work the same way. In other words, if clicking your mouse button when the pointer is on top of a word lets you delete that word in one program, it should do the same thing in all of them.

And that's the same area of weakness of the IBM PC. Programs can work any way their software authors want them to. Not even Microsoft's clever Mac-like system, Windows 3, gets rid of that problem.

As a result, some of the programs that run on IBM-type PCs are brilliant and astonishingly easy to use. Most are just plain OK. Some are horrible. And all of them do their job differently.

So PC users often tend to stick with one program (WordPerfect, for example), even when others are more powerful. Understandably, they just don't want to learn a whole new way of getting something done.

But all is not rosy.

While the tentative alliance between IBM and Apple is good news, it may not mean that what emerges will be a better kind of personal computer. IBM's way of doing things is by committee, and Apple won't be able to tap into IBM's money unless it plays by IBM's rules.

And that means that means whatever emerges might be that proverbial camel—a horse designed by a committee. Apple got its start because two kids wired up a new kind of computer in a garage. Later, the Macintosh came to life because two or three guys stayed up all night for too many nights in a row.

The new PC born of this odd alliance won't start out with such a pedigree, and that's a shame. But it's going to be fun waiting for it to arrive.

1997 epilogue: What emerged was the Power Macintosh, a successful computer, and the PowerPC, a total failure. Technically, the Power Mac is a PowerPC, if you go along with the fiction that there was a new line of personal computers called PowerPCs and the Power Mac was one version.

Why did IBM's version of the PowerPC fail? Because IBM did things by way of a committee, and the PowerPC from IBM was that proverbial camel. I can't claim exceptional foresight—this sort of thing was easy to see coming—but I sure did see the potential for failure. It's too bad.

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