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Microsoft, Intel take on Unix

Along with all the major PC vendors, the industry leaders aim to induce software developers to move to Windows NT from rival Unix systems.

SEATTLE, Washington--Seeking to expand the market for technical workstations based on PC technologies, Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) today announced a myriad of incentives aimed at swaying Unix developers to work with the Windows NT operating system, along with new a hardware specification.

The giants of the PC industry, commonly called "Wintel," gathered here to display the latest developments in their drive to unseat Unix-based workstation systems for high-end computing tasks like graphics, oil and gas research, and electronic equipment design.

Microsoft and Intel hope to bring the low manufacturing costs that arise from volume economics to the upper echelons of the workstation market. "We're seeing the same sort of thing happening to workstations that happened to PCs," said Craig Barrett, president and COO of the chip giant.

At the same time, the companies are revving up Wintel technology to decrease any performance gap. Intel unveiled a new graphics specification intended to speed up performance on NT-based systems. The AGP Pro spec is expected to deliver up to four times the electrical power of the existing AGP (accelerated graphics port) specification, the company said.

AGP Pro has been gathering support from systems makers, including Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, according to Intel, which is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.

The companies also announced a Migration Assistance Program intended to lure independent software makers to move existing Unix applications to Windows NT and Intel's 32-bit and forthcoming 64-bit "Merced" microprocessors.

"It's not just a case of 'Let's figure out how to port our applications to NT,'" said Graham Clark, general manager of product marketing at Microsoft. "What we're trying to do is encourage them to build on NT and port their applications to Unix."

Until now, most complex engineering tasks, including the design of processors used for Windows-based computers, have been performed on RISC-based machines running variations of the Unix operating system from companies such as Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics. Most applications were designed with these machines in mind.

That has started to change in the past few weeks. Synopsys, the leading vendor in microprocessor design software, recently signed a deal to support the Intel architecture. Landmark, a leader in seismic applications, did likewise.

Adoption of PC-based workstations has been fairly rapid. A recent report from market researcher International Data Corporation noted that PC-based workstation sales grew 80 percent in 1997, versus a 7 percent decline for models running Unix and RISC chips. PC-based workstations are expected to have 40 percent annual growth rate through the new millennium.

Increased acceptance of the Wintel architecture will likely come with the release of Windows NT 5.0 and Intel's 64-bit chips. Both are due in 1999.

Intel is also scheduled to deliver new 32-bit processors running at clock speeds of 400 and 450 Mhz by the middle of this year. That introduction will begin the migration path for developers who want to port their applications to Merced.

Other developments in 32-bit IA chips include a chip, code-named Tanner, that will contain a 32-bit processor core but use the same package as the upcoming Merced. Tanner was reported earlier this week by CNET's NEWS.COM.

The Merced introduction is key for the Wintel duopoly's workstation strategy, since that chip will narrow the performance advantages found in RISC-based machines. "In several areas, it's crucial for workstations to move to Merced," said Pat Gelsinger, vice president of the desktop products group at Intel.

The Intel executive said the firm is confident that its closest software partner, Microsoft, can deliver advancements in stability and performance, but said the adoption of PC-based workstations could have bumps in the road along the way toward the high-end of the desktop market.

"We're pushing as hard as we can," Gelsinger said. "On the other hand, these [ high-end] territories are hard and slow to enter."