FOR A WHILE, IT LOOKED AS IF HAL Computer Systems Inc. would meet as ignominious a death as its namesake in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Founded in 1990 by onetime IBM workstation wizard Andrew R. Heller with a $40 million stake from Fujitsu Ltd., HAL hoped to produce a line of computers that would match mainframe performance at a fraction of the price by using a parallel-processing design. But Heller left in 1993, and Fujitsu took control. Since then, HAL has been a silent ghost ship.
However, the Campbell (Calif.) company will reawaken on Sept. 18, when it introduces two workstations that, executives say, run at least 60% faster than machines from market leader Sun Microsystems Inc. The reason they're speed demons: HAL designed a new version of Sun's SPARC microprocessor that crunches 64 bits of data at a gulp instead of 32 bits. That not only speeds the chip but allows it to work on more data at one time, which is invaluable for such complex engineering problems as designing microchips and mapping the human genome.
Although Fujitsu is also a Sun partner, the HALstations, priced at $23,000 to $33,000, are aimed directly at customers whose SPARCstations are too slow. "The high end is where we can really add value," says HAL Chief Executive Scott Metcalf. But HAL faces a lot of challenges as a tiny player in a $12 billion industry--not the least from Sun, which will ship a faster 64-bit SPARC microprocessor by early next year.