The Missing Network Link
by Lloyd Borrett
Today's Computers, Opinion, March 1985
Last August, IBM announced both the PC Network and the
IBM PC-AT. On the surface these announcements seem to mean
little — yet another local area network and a faster PC —
but let's look a little deeper.
With the PC-AT came the direction from IBM many have been
waiting for: the multi-user operating. system for the PC
range will be Xenix. There had been many predictions on what
IBM would do to provide a growth path for single-user PCs to
the next generation of multi-user systems. Well, now we
know: IBM has picked Xenix, an implementation by Microsoft
of the UNIX operating system.
What is the significance of that decision? For some time,
most system houses have been waiting for IBM to indicate
which multi-user system to use. These system houses write
software for small and intermediate businesses such as
accounting packages, sales analysis systems, and stock
management systems. Although they could initially get away
with selling single-user PCs to this market, they knew that
many of their customers would eventually demand a multi-user
The choices available were minicomputers, or
microcomputers linked together in local area networks
(LANs). The problem was that most minicomputers were
considered too expensive, and there were no standards for
LANs. The IBM PC-AT running Xenix is a "supermicro" that can
fill the gap.
So the system houses rejoiced at the news, and are now
all very busy preparing multi-user Xenix versions of their
software. The potential users of the software should also be
pleased, but what about the rest of us?
Any small multi-user single-processor system has a lot of
inherent problems. The potential for conflicting interests
on such a system should be obvious. If one user is making
heavy use of a shared fixed disk or printer, other users can
be severely affected. The smaller the processor, the less
opportunity there is to duplicate resources. The less
powerful and distributed the resources available, the
greater is the chance of conflict.
But there is another way. IBM's announcement of the PC
Network, with support from PC DOS 3.1, offers an attractive
alternative. Unlike most other LANs announced by small
hardware developers, this has the necessary backing for it
to become a standard. So now we can solve some of the
inherent problems of multi-user single-processor systems
with multi-user multi-processor LAN-based systems.
For many PC users, LANs are a far better alternative.
Each user has their own processor, memory-mapped screen, and
local disk storage. Expensive resources such as high-speed
printers, plotters, and communications links can be shared,
as can key data files. The pool of resources available can
easily be increased, making it possible for users with heavy
demand for a resource to have it duplicated locally.
Unfortunately, the system houses responsible for
providing most of our application software are heading in
the other direction - multi-user single-processor Xenix. IBM
did not announce support for PC Network from Xenix. It will
come, but it may be too late if the software houses do not
plan for it now.
In the computer industry eight years ago, minicomputers
highlighted the problems of too many shared, but unique,
resources. The fastest, most powerful minicomputers
available had the same problems as today's supermicros. The
peripherals available, such as disks and printers, were not
powerful enough and the computers lacked the capacity to
support the necessary number of less-powerful peripherals.
The first solution was to look for more powerful
computers and peripherals, but eventually it became common
to see minicomputers linked together, sharing a greater pool
of resources. Today the supermicro exhibits all the
potential of the early minicomputers. If used properly for
the right applications, multi-user microcomputer-based
systems can be very powerful business tools. But we should
heed the lessons of the past, and plan to use local area
networks to link systems and create a greater pool of
All is not rosy in the IBM-Microsoft relationship. The
dominant partner, IBM, is creating its own software, and
much of it is in direct conflict with Microsoft's,
In the middle of the excitement over the IBM PC-AT, IBM
slipped in a little goody called Topview. Simply put,
Topview is a windowing system that will allow programs to be
executed and integrated similar to those on the Apple
Macintosh. But, unlike the graphics-oriented technology of
Visi-On, Lisa, Macintosh and Microsoft's much promised
Windows, Topview can run on the two-thirds of PCs that use
the character-only monochrome monitor.
This has given the marketing people responsible for
Microsoft's Windows and Digital Research's GEM a few
sleepless nights. IBM has already put Topview in the hands
of hundreds of software developers, which means that
applications software using Topview should be seen very soon
after Topview becomes available.
Topview lets you fire up several programs and switch
freely between them. It handles work that can run unattended
as background tasks, and provides any program that is
written to use it with the ability to handle panels,
sub-tasks, and communications between programs. Topview
keeps all programs in memory instead of paging programs to
disk, but that may be removed before the product is
Topview has the potential to vastly upgrade the quality
of programs and, unlike most of the other windowing systems,
it is easily accessible to both big and small software
developers. But forget about the technical details and
concentrate on the impact of this product, and some of the
other moves IBM is making.
Microsoft has been promising Windows since November 1983
and now says it will be available "sometime" this year, but
IBM has produced its own product. Although Microsoft has a
local area network (LAN) interface, IBM is selling their
own. IBM has announced Xenix from Microsoft, but certain key
elements are missing. There is no PC Network interface or
applications software, and lately IBM has been actively
announcing DOS and Topview applications software.
But it seems likely that IBM has a "Topview 2" that is a
true multi-user, multi-tasking operating system with full PC
Network, 3274 terminal emulation, and SNA support. To make
it available too soon would provide unnecessary competition
for the existing System 34 and System 36 range.
Although there are no real Topview programs yet, we
should have to wait only until the first half of next year.
By then all of the major programs such as Lotus 1-2-3, dBase
III, and Multimate should have been rewritten to work as
Topview modules. If they are not, someone will come up with
products that replace them (remember that IBM has a big
lead, and has already been announcing Topview integrated
You can all but forget Xenix and UNIX. There will still
be a market for applications that use "supermicros" to
replace minicomputers, but the mainstream will be IBM's
Topview and "Topview 2". Why would IBM want to encourage
people to write software that can be easily ported to other
IBM led the way into 16-bit micros with the PC, and set
the hardware standard. Now we are being shown the software
standard. The future does not seem rosy for Microsoft; IBM
looks like giving them the flick. No wonder Microsoft is
putting so much effort into developing Macintosh software.
Digital Research, with a Topview-compatible concurrent
DOS, could become the alternative for IBM-compatible
manufacturers wanting to stay in the market. But to
elaborate on that would require another session with my
Saturday, 15 October 2011