Be Fruitful and Interboot

At FOSE, Industry Touts Interoperability

One of the nation's top five computer shows once again proved itself a bellwether of change in the industry -- this year hinting at a new, revitalized Apple Computer Corp., and demonstrating a trend toward machine multiculturalism: systems and software that run on everybody else's hardware.

The annual FOSE trade show, now in its 17th year, has a captive audience of the world's single-largest information systems market: Washington, D.C. This year 461 exhibitors filled the city's aging convention center and shelled out thousands of dollars to convince more than 40,000 government and commercial buyers on the East Coast to do likewise for their products.

A resurgent Apple offered perhaps the most striking contrast to last year's show. At FOSE '93, Apple trotted out its first version of the Newton portable digital assistant, an underpowered, expensive and feature-deficient device that could barely read basic handwriting and lacked even the most rudimentary communications abilities. Even Doonesbury hooted it down.

But this year, Apple unveiled a cheaper and much-improved Newton, complete with crucial wireless communication capabilities. And with a new line-up of machines based on the PowerPC chip -- the product of a joint semiconductor effort among Motorola, IBM and Apple -- the firm may just be poised to relive its glory days. These machines will be able to run Microsoft Windows and Macintosh applications, though with tolerable losses of performance for the former. In addition, the PowerMac computers, as they are dubbed, finally rid Apple of its reputation for churning out underpowered and overpriced computers -- a critical advance if ever the firm hopes to compete with the likes of Intel, Dell, Compaq and IBM.

Apple also said this April it would release the first generation of the Macintosh operating systems running the Hewlett-Packard and Santa Cruz Operation versions of UNIX, the operating system derived at Bell Labs.

Together, these developments suggest Apple is set to survive the eras of John Sculley and Steve Jobs.

They also provide compelling proof that Apple is still a top-flight technology company. Still, lurking behind Apple's entrance into the computing mainstream is a troubling trend, at least for the supply-side: These days nearly every company seems to have the ability to run every other company's software. Sun Microsystems has a product that runs Windows; Apple's new computers run Windows; and a number of companies now offer reasonably priced packages for running applications for UNIX, the orphan child of operating systems.

In short, nearly every product is beginning to have the same look, feel and price as every other product. Price is the only thing remaining to distinguish one product from another. Whether or not something runs your applications -- the rallying cry of marketers just a few short years ago -- now seems to have gone the way of Wang Computer. Instead, the new Holy Grail of computer marketing is the ability to effortlessly communicate, present and manipulate data anywhere, any time and in a way that requires little training or computer knowledge.

Meanwhile, evidence of industry convergence abounds, both at the show and in the computer business at large. On FOSE's eve, Novell announced it would be gobbling up WordPerfect Corp. and the Quattro Pro product line from Borland in a monstrous $1.5 billion deal, making Novell a behemoth of $2 billion in revenues. That came just weeks after Adobe Systems and Aldus -- two leaders in desktop and electronic publishing -- announced they would become one under the Adobe name.

But the Novell deal is by far the more significant. It essentially means the company will join a very short list -- Lotus and Microsoft -- as software firms capable of duking it out for customers, with all three offering various combinations of applications and operating systems that do much the same thing: spreadsheets, networking, E-mail and word processing. This is hardly revolutionary stuff -- and judging by the more-power-for-less-money theme at most of this year's FOSE exhibits, new ideas pointing to future profits have yet to surface.

Still, there is hope. Silicon Graphics, for instance, has charted out a clear lead in producing systems capable of handling the snazziest and most graphics-intensive tasks. At the show, the firm offered attendees a ride on a simulated "pterodactyl" inside a show-floor virtual-reality room. Loaded with 40-by-40 miles of terrain data and running on the company's powerful Onyx graphics computers, the system invites users to hop on the pterodactyl and negotiate prehistoric terrain, waterfalls and all manner of beasts to reach a castle and kill a dragon.

The ride is also an example of tech transfer in action, as the system uses flight and attack simulators for U.S. fighter jets.

How Silicon Graphics fares in its bid to attack consumer and entertainment markets with technology that has been the stuff of secret military programs remains to be seen. But the company's ability to convert data into compelling graphics and simulations is unmatched -- and will no doubt help it differentiate itself from an increasingly undifferentiated pack.

Reporter's Notebook


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