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Where is Compaq going on the software front?

Forget the MIPS and chips, watch how the software plates spin

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Analysis When you buy a company -- any company -- legacy comes with it. So when Compaq bought Tandem, it was obvious it was making a strategic move into the telecomms space. Tandem, after all, supplied most of the automatic till machines (ATM), with its 99.9999 per cent non stop computing Himalaya model. With Tandem, it also bought operating systems, chip legacies, and a very committed team of sales people who had the rewards to boot. But no sooner, in hindsight, had Compaq bought Tandem with its MIPS legacy than it also bought Digital, with its Alpha legacy. It quickly cut down its chip legacy from two 64-bit processors to one -- the Alpha microprocessor. It still had (or has) to deal with the future Intel IA-64 legacy but that's a different story. What's far more interesting in this mix is where that leaves the software -- in particular the NT versus Unix battle. Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, was adamant that Unix could not succeed in the corporate marketplace in 1987, when we first met him. At that time, he was carrying around a set of slideware (courtesy of Harvard Graphics as we remember), which showed there were no tick boxes in favour of the Unix OS. For him, it was Microsoft Presentation Manager (in conjunction, of course with IBM Presentation Manager on the OS/2 platform), all the way. This was in spite of the fact that most of Microsoft's internal systems were run on the Xenix OS. Gates, as well as Eckhard Pfeiffer, Compaq's CEO, struck a ten year agreement in 1996 to cooperate on Microsoft Windows development on the x.86 platform. How quickly things change. When we first met Eckhard Pfeiffer in 1990, he was then general manager of Compaq in Europe, but Rod Canion, the then CEO, was deposed, and replaced with Pfeiffer. At that time, Compaq talked about industry standards and that has not stopped from when the company was set up in 1984 until now. Compaq is committed to industry standards and that means, in shorthand, what the industry, at large, wants at any given time. When Compaq was just another name for Compatible Quality (hence ComPaq), and it was copying IBM PCs, the industry standard was the x.86 processor and the PC platform. That's how Compaq started to make its money. It ran DOS, it was first to introduce the 386 chip on a portable, and it would run any software that was that "industry standard". Fifteen long years on, the tide has turned against the rise and rise of the PC, and we are faced with Internet proliferation everywhere. Whether it be NT, Linux, D/UX (Tru64) or Tandem Unix (or even Novell Netware) Compaq's software needs have changed with the times too. It now has a very large corporate base, most of which are stuck with heteregeneous systems. Luckily, Compaq has been able to adapt with the times because of the very large amount of cash it has in its coffers. So the industry standard of yesteryear (x.86 and IBM Presentation Manager), has yielded to the industry standard of today. Putting three very large companies into one easily identifiable pot is not easy, but if you check out the software, Pfeiffer's strategy is not very hard to define. It has the telcos with Tandem, it has the enterprise with Digital, and it has the desktop with Compaq. Whichever OS is suitable, Compaq can supply. Unlike Big Blue, which spawned it, Compaq was (and is) a flexible company, able to change its mind about industry standards overnight. Its Achilles Heel, however, is that it has to produce a consistent message across all software platforms. And that's far from an easy task. Imagine, if you were a user of ATMs, that a sales person was trying to sell you ProSignias as well. Or if you were a Little Blue (Digital) site, that VMS is still the name of the game. Or if you were a large PC corporate reseller, that WinNT is the way to go. These are the balls that Compaq is juggling and the plates that Eckhard Pfeiffer is spinning… And they're all software related. ®

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