Last April, it looked like a whole new game for the computer industry. A group of 21 companies, boasting such heavyweights as Compaq, Microsoft, and Digital Equipment, announced plans to come up with a single computer design for everything from personal computers to mainframes, all running the same software. The bold idea was to create an "industry standard" similar to the IBM PC, the world's most popular computer design. Only this time, a broad coalition of companies, not just Big Blue, would call the shots. The initiative, dubbed Advanced Computing Environment (ACE), was impressive enough to prod mighty IBM and Apple Computer Inc. into teaming up last summer to start creating their own standard.

But less than 10 months later, ACE's game looks like 52 pickup. MIPS Computer Systems Inc., supplier of ACE's main microprocessor, lost money and customers in 1991. Several ACE members are using alternative chips. Digital Equipment Corp., one of the prime movers behind the group, claims it's still committed to ACE but is rushing development of its own Alpha microprocessor. And confusion over ACE has slowed software development.

TWO HEADS. What happened? Somewhere along the way, the simple idea of a single standard turned into a Chinese menu. ACE began in late 1990, when computer makers that used MIPS's reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) chips got together to pick a common version of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s Unix. That way, programs written for one MIPS computer would run on all MIPS computers.

By the time the group went public last April, however, the "standard" had already grown a second head. Largely to accommodate the wishes of Compaq Computer Corp., an influential PC maker, the group added the Intel Corp. microprocessors used in IBM-compatible PCs to the standard. And to bring in Microsoft Corp., MIPS proposed adding that company's forthcoming Windows-NT as analternate operating-system standard. Then, last October, the muddy waters turned opaque as ACE endorsed another version of Unix.

The result: Now there are three ACE operating systems that can be used on either Intel- or MIPS-based hardware. And instead of a single design, that makes six possible combinations.

And a choice of six does not a standard make. The key to a standard is lots of software: spreadsheets, data bases, and so forth. But many software developers aren't writing for ACE because they don't know which combination will survive. RAD Technologies Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., isn't writing for MIPS machines, but President J. Jeffrey Morgan says he's likely to write for computers based on Intel chips and Microsoft's NT software. Technically, that's an ACE "platform," but it's one that PC makers will use with or without ACE.

MIPS Chief Executive Robert C. Miller insists there's no problem with ACE. If programmers adhere to its many standards, he says, they can make their programs run on different machines by using a translation technique called recompilation. But that works only for the simplest programs, software developers say, and not for all combinations.

STRONGER GUIDANCE. The biggest blow to ACE has been dropouts. Compaq, the group's most high-profile member, hit a wall in 1991, posting its first loss and firing founder Rod Canion. Last month, it announced that it's scrapping a $185 million deal to develop MIPS-based machines with Silicon Graphics Inc. While Compaq says it's still committed to ACE, it's uncertain when it will build ACEcomputers.

Recently, ACE backer Prime Computer Inc. signed a $400 million deal to resell Hewlett-Packard Co. computers, instead of MIPS-based workstations. Both Wang Laboratories and Groupe Bull just struck deals to use IBM's RISC chip. PC cloner Everex Systems Inc., another ACE member, says it hasn't decided when to introduce an ACE machine because it's unsure which variant will prevail. The upshot, says International Data Corp. analyst David M. Smith: "ACE in its current form may not survive."

But ACE isn't ready to fold its hand. It has launched a new marketing program and expanded its executive committee to provide stronger guidance for members. At a trade show in January, a group of ACE members showed nine MIPS-based machines running the same program--a sign that the ACE software wars may be ending.

Prospective customers aren't impressed. "Promises don't do anything for me," says Donald O. Sternfeld, who runs computer systems for Philadelphia law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. ACE may turn out to be more than a house of cards, but right now few besides MIPS itself are betting their chips on it.

      MIPS COMPUTER designed ACE's main microprocessor but has big financial 
      problems--and perhaps too few customers to survive long-term
      DIGITAL EQUIPMENT is designing its own microprocessor, different from MIPS's, 
      for use in future workstations
      COMPAQ COMPUTER, struggling for new growth in PCs, recently stopped working 
      with Silicon Graphics on a MIPS-based workstation
      MICROSOFT, the booming software giant, hardly needs ACE to thrive
      OTHER members of ACE, meanwhile, are waiting for technical details of the ACE 
      design to gel before they produce ACE hardware and software
      DATA: BW
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