Microsoft's decision last week to drop development of Windows NT for the PowerPC is just the latest in a series of blows to strike the beleaguered Risc platform. It leaves the Macintosh as the only desktop operating system left available on PowerPC, and IBM's AIX as the only server, casting grave doubts over the platform's future.
The PowerPC was created in October 1991 by a consortium comprising Apple, IBM and Motorola. Its bold mission was to break Intel's virtual monopoly of the personal computer industry. In November 1994, the alliance came up with the Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP), a set of specifications which manufacturers could use to build machines that would be compatible with one another.
The PowerPC trio claimed CHRP-compliant machines would offer better price/performance levelsthan Intel-based ones. The specification would utilise industry standard components such as RAM and SCSI/IDE devices, and support standard printer designs. On the system software side, CHRP-compliant machines would support AIX, MacOS, NetWare, OS/2, Taligent, Solaris and NT.
In theory, PowerPC promised much. But over the years, many of the promises have failed to materialise as platform support has dwindled. Prior to last week's decision by Microsoft to drop further NT development, IBM, Apple and Hewlett-Packard canned the Taligent operating system which was to have embraced PowerPC. IBM also froze development of OS/2 for PowerPC.
SunSoft, meanwhile, has been suspiciously quiet over plans for offering its Solaris system on the PowerPC. Although the company has completed the port, it has yet to announce an end-user shipment date. Combined, these developments have been a serious blow to CHRP's credibility.
Julian Lomberg, Solaris business development manager at SunSoft, said: "At one time we did think PowerPC would be a major volume platform. But it hasn't quite lived up to everyone's expectations."
Without the support of such crucial industry players as Microsoft, CHRP's original goal of offering a viable alternative to Intel in the mass PC market looks at best questionable.
But the key members of the PowerPC pact remain optimistic. At the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last November, IBM demonstrated Longtrail, the codename of its implementation of CHRP. Motorola has also said it plans to ship CHRP-compliant machines this summer.
Rupert Deighton, communications manager for Europe at IBM Microelectronics, the division which manufactures the PowerPC chips, said: "We see CHRP as the future base for development and growth in MacOS and AIX."
But the outlook for CHRP in a desktop market dominated by Wintel remains bleak. With MacOS and AIX the only mainstream operating systems now left available for CHRP, platform choice is considerably narrower than first envisaged. And given the current problems at Apple, the company's ability to invest in the MacOS on the PowerPC surely cannot be guaranteed.
Dennis Saloky, director of marketing programmes at Motorola Computer Group, is confident Apple's forthcoming port of NeXTstep to the PowerPC, codenamed Rhapsody, will be successful. Rhapsody is due to ship in 1998, following the release of a developer edition this summer.
NeXTstep is a multitasking, multithreaded, protected memory, Unix operating system based on the Mach microkernel. Like NT, it is positioned as an enterprise operating system.
The success of CHRP machines in the desktop market will depend on whether Apple manages to convince large corporates that Rhapsody delivers better price/performance figures than NT and Intel. This is a tall order. While NeXTstep began shipping eight years before NT in 1985, it has failed to attract anything like the same number of users. This must be disappointing for Apple given technically, NeXTstep is considered superior to NT and that it is also available on a wider range of hardware platforms, including Sun Sparc, HP's PA-Risc and Intel x86.
The PowerPC trio face an uphill struggle against strong competition from the Wintel camp. CHRP will be immediately handicapped when the first machines ship later this year as the only desktop operating system capable of running on it will be MacOS. Rhapsody, which will be able to better exploit CHRP hardware, will not ship until late 1998, by which time Microsoft will have come up with an improved version of NT.
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