Life is full of choices, they say, but not if you live on the computing planet.
To be sure, everyone ascribes to the notion of choice. Users demand it. Lawmakers legislate it. Regulators enforce it. Even vendors want it, sort of. Their interpretation of the word depends on which side of the computing platform one stands.
We are only one month into the new year and already there are signs that "choice" in computing increasingly resembles what it once was in cars. Henry Ford famously said people could have any color Model T they liked so long as it was black. In the technology world the color of choice is Wintel.
This week came the news that Compaq, merely a minnow a decade ago, is swallowing the whale, Digital. Besides pointing to a reversal of the PC and minicomputing fortunes, the acquisition also potentially cuts down on the options for computer buyers, putting a nail in the coffin of choice.
According to observers, Digital's Alpha architecture is most likely going to be put to pasture. The 64-bit Alpha is superior to anything in the Intel arsenal by all accounts, and possibly a match for Intel's next-generation, 64-bit "Merced" chip. Digital in fact accused Intel of stealing the Alpha code for its 32-bit Pentium II design.
Subsequently, the two reached an agreement whereby Intel paid $700 million to takeover the Alpha fab plant and agreed to continue manufacturing the Alpha chip.
Many thought that Intel really had no intention of making a competitive chip from the start. Now, with the Compaq acquisition, the Intel-Digital deal calling for the continued manufacture of Alpha is questionable; and if it falls through, it seems unlikely that Compaq would really take up the slack and promote Digital's Alpha as a competitor to the Intel chips that dominate its PC lineup. So, if the events turn out to be as dire as everyone predicts and Alpha is abandoned, then the list of chip architectures users can choose from grows smaller.
Speaking of Merced, Intel's partner in this venture is none other than HP, who for the longest time plied its trade in the Unix world. Sure, it still maintains the PA-RISC architecture, but does anyone really believe it will continue to do so once Merced is out next year?
HP already is cannibalizing its Unix workstation offerings in favor of a Wintel architecture. NEWS.COM reported on Thursday that HP has ascended to the No.1 position in the workstation market, beating out Sun by pushing Windows NT boxes. Here's the tale of the tape: HP shipped 222,394 NT machines during calendar year 1997, Sun shipped zero. Combining NT and Unix, HP shipped 330,559 workstations, surpassing Sun's 285,815.
For further proof of which way HP is leaning, check out this comment from HP's Dave DuPont, worldwide product marketing manager for Kayak workstations: "The PC workstation market will grow more than 50 percent this year and the Unix workstation market will stay flat or go negative," for both the industry as a whole and HP.
Another nail in the coffin.
And if HP's Dave DuPont can foresee the benefits of jumping on the Wintel wagon, one can surmise what his former boss, Rich Belluzzo, thinks of this strategy. Belluzzo left HP last week to head up SGI, another one of those remaining non-Wintel shops. Care to guess where the new SGI boss wants to take the company?
Here's his thoughts the day he took charge of SGI: "HP was the first to embrace NT and said that Unix and NT could coexist," Belluzzo stated. "I plan to take that to SGI and be successful."
So how many nails is that?
Not many want to acknowledge the trend, let alone believe it, but we appear to be headed for an all-Wintel, all-the-time computing environment.
It seems that Sun will be the only holdout, the one company standing between Wintel and the notion of cross-platform computing. Scary, isn't it?
Jai Singh faces the reality of the week's tech news on Fridays.