The Silicon Valley Orchestra Is Playing In Tune

The meeting was a bear to set up. But Robert C. Miller lured 50 of the computer industry's most influential executives to Silicon Valley in early January for a hush-hush pow-wow after hours. His goal was to get them to agree on a software standard for the machines they are building around the chip sold by his MIPS Computer Systems Inc.

Once everyone was there, the meeting took a startling turn. Miller, MIPS' chief executive, relinquished the podium to executives from computer companies Compaq and Digital Equipment and software developers Microsoft and Santa Cruz Operation. They outlined a proposal for a blueprint that would detail how speedy RISC-based computers--from laptops to mainframes--should be built.

Their plan, meant to create a standard for the RISC (reduced instruction-set computing) market that mimics the IBM-compatible standard in personal computers, seemed nearly impossible: The computer industry is highly discordant, and many attendees are arch-rivals.

It looks as if they've done the impossible. On Apr. 9, the group will unveil its new design in New York. The coalition now includes international heavyweights such as Olivetti and Groupe Bull. And nearly 40 other giants, including Sony, Siemens, and NEC, are expected to sign on.

The agreement could provide benefits to all concerned. Little MIPS, with annual revenues of $152 million, could be the biggest beneficiary, as a host of computer makers commit to using its chips in their machines. A coalition gives MIPS the power to fight Sun Microsystems Inc., which markets the Sparc RISC chip through its own international consortium. And the presence of so many computer makers in the MIPS coalition should encourage software writers to provide off-the-shelf products for the new system.

None of the participants in the January meeting will publicly confirm its details, although Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer says there is an effort under way to "create a standard in the RISC environment." Compaq, in fact, is serious enough about the whole idea that it is expected to soon take an equity stake in one of the MIPS group founders, workstation maker Silicon Graphics Inc. The deal is intended to help Compaq get its first RISC-based PCs ready in 18 months.

CRITICAL VOLUME. The MIPS group members who talked privately say their standardization effort will put a stop to the massive inroads that Sun and IBM have made in the RISC market. Machines built around Sun's Sparc chip account for a remarkable 69% of the $4.2 billion market for RISC workstations, says market researcher Dataquest Inc. And IBM, which didn't even ship a RISC-based machine until last June, sold $1 billion worth of the computers with its own chip in the second half of 1990.

Long-term, the coalition even hopes to wrest a share of the PC market from Intel Corp. That charge will be led by Compaq and Olivetti, which so far have used Intel chips. "Compaq's participation promises future sales in the millions," says an executive involved in the group. Volume is critical to wooing software producers. In 1990, only 31,460 machines using the MIPS RISC chip were sold.

Still, the plan may be something of a long shot. For one thing, there are already some 2,000 software packages that work with Sparc-based machines, and IBM says it has some 3,000. Fewer than 1,000 packages are available for computers using the MIPS chip. "These companies have a multiyear transition in hardware and a nightmare in software," says William V. Keating, Sun's director of corporate technology and marketing. On top of that, previous attempts to legislate computer standards have failed miserably. Many MIPS group members, for instance, also belong to the Open Software Foundation (OSF), which has had trouble coalescing on a common Unix operating system.

Indeed, there's still some contention about the software standard issue that spawned the January meeting. Siemens, Sony, and NEC are among a handful of companies resisting the MIPS group's plan to eventually use OSF's upcoming Unix. They're committed instead to American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s version (table). MIPS group members are working on the holdouts. Anyway, they say, for the computer industry, this is as close to consensus as it gets.

      ANY UNIX
      DATA: BW
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