By PETER H. LEWIS APRIL 24, 1988
THE Dell Computer Corporation of Austin, Tex., last week became the first major company to show a working copy of an I.B.M. Personal System/2 computer, introducing two machines that incorporate the high-speed Micro Channel architecture used in I.B.M.'s PS/2 Models 60 and 80. A few days later the giant Tandy Corporation of Fort Worth introduced its own Micro Channel machine, driven by the 80386 microprocessor chip. The Tandy appears to take aim at the Model 80 (perhaps matching the desktop PS/2 Model 70 that I.B.M. is expected to introduce in June).
Although the Dell and Tandy machines will not be shipped until later in the year, the announcements constituted the opening shots in Clone Wars/2. I.B.M., remembering that it lost the first Clone War over its PC, PC XT and PC AT, is playing it smart this time and licensing the bullets to the combatants. That way, it makes money while under attack. I.B.M. is also reportedly planning to march into Dallas in June to announce reinforcements for the PS/2 line as well as a few secret weapons of its own. ''By the time they can screw together a system that resembles Micro Channel, we'll have made improvements in it,'' an I.B.M. engineer said a couple of months ago.
Only a few weeks ago representatives of Dell and Tandy were playing down the advantages of I.B.M.'s PS/2 machines, saying that no customers were beating down their doors to demand the Micro Channel architecture, that I.B.M. was having difficulty selling its Micro Channel machines and that Micro Channel's forerunner, the AT bus, will be good enough for the majority of users for years to come.
Now they're saying that Micro Channel (a trademark of I.B.M.) is important enough that they're willing to pay between 1 percent and 5 percent of sales for patent and licensing rights; lawyers are still negotiating the exact numbers. Still, analysts and even the clone makers say Micro Channel has more strategic than short-term importance in gaining market share.
''Although we don't expect a tremendous demand for Micro Channel-compatible computers right now, many of our corporate customers have expressed an interest in the new technology and have indicated that they are presently examining its advantages,'' said Michael S. Dell, the 23-year-old founder of Dell Computer, which had sales of $158 million last year.
What are the advantages of the arcane and invisible technology called Micro Channel? A set of rules that defines the way information goes in and out of the computer system, Micro Channel is often called an architecture. Look around the office. If it's a big building there may be hundreds or even thousands of people working. Think of them as data. If one wants to go from a corner of the office to the water cooler, it's not too difficult because the hallways or pathways are usually fairly wide.
But if a lot of workers need to get someplace else at the same time, a traffic jam develops around the doors and elevators. When 100 people on each floor break for lunch, and the elevators can handle only 10 at a time, things go slowly. These tiny portals, which are fixed in the building's architecture, reduce the speed and efficiency of the comings and goings within the building. In a computer, the comings and goings are referred to as I/O, or input/output.
Micro Channel is theoretically a better way of coordinating I/O, since it is designed to function under maximum loads. In essence, it's wider hallways, bigger doors and more elevators - or a six-lane freeway rather than a two-lane street with traffic lights. That's increasingly important as hardware and software get more complex and as companies rely more and more on the transfer of large volumes of data.
The current standard PC architecture, known as the AT bus after the I.B.M. PC AT, was engineered in simpler times. The hub of the architecture is a single central processing unit, or C.P.U. Information generally feeds into it from disk drives, a keyboard, a mouse and other input devices, and it has to go out to a monitor, a printer, a modem and perhaps some other output devices.
Such companies as Dell have already fine-tuned the AT bus to the point that many AT-bus machines actually outperform I.B.M.'s PS/2's with Micro Channel. So why spend more for Micro Channel when you can get better performance for less?
The answer is that two emerging developments are likely to create a critical need for more efficient I/O and that Micro Channel mania will spread, with Dell and Tandy probably out in front. First is the advent of multitasking under the OS/2 operating system, which will allow the user to work on two or more applications at the same time. The second is the growing popularity of co-processors. To free the main C.P.U. to run at full efficiency, many users are plugging in additional processors to perform such tasks as intensive numbers-crunching or graphics. Such co-processor chips can greatly speed the performance of spreadsheet calculations or computer-aided designs, but they also need more help than the AT bus provides.
NATURALLY, all the old plug-in cards that worked so well on the AT bus won't work with Micro Channel. If you want to take advantage of the Micro Channel, you need to buy new equipment. Such equipment is now starting to appear - but so far nothing that outperforms the old AT stuff. Since the Micro Channel appears to command about a 30 percent price premium over Tandy's and Dell's existing AT bus machines, one might expect something more than just a slightly faster box.
I.B.M. hints that someday soon there will be a compelling reason to choose an I.B.M. Micro Channel over a clone Micro Channel, and we'll have to wait to see on that.
For the record, two new Dell Micro Channel machines are scheduled to go on sale in August. One is the System 400, a computer based on the 80286 chip. Mr. Dell says it will offer 40 percent higher performance than the current I.B.M. Model 60. The other is the System 500, a Model 80 clone based on the 80386 chip. Like the other Dell products, these are likely to set performance standards for everyone else in the market. Prices have not been set.
The new Tandy 5000 MC, also expected for delivery in late summer, is an 80386-based box. Equipped with an extremely fast 84-megabyte hard disk, the 5000 MC is expected to sell for $6,999, without a monitor.
A version of this article appears in print on April 24, 1988, on Page 3003011 of the National edition with the headline: THE EXECUTIVE COMPUTER; Introducing the First PS/2 Clones.