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Compaq Alpha cuts pull rug from Microsoft's 64-bit NT

Compaq still loves 64-bit NT, apparently, but just doesn't want to spend money on it...

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Is Compaq pulling the rug out from under Microsoft? The news of job losses in the company's NT Alpha development unit last week at least indicates that Compaq is reducing emphasis on NT as an OS for the Alpha platform, but more important from Microsoft's point of view will be the crumbling of a long-standing alliance, and the withdrawal of resources that were important for the future development of NT. The old Digital DECWest facility in Bellevue, Washington is the major target for Compaq's latest cuts. Prior to the Compaq takeover this facility had been closely involved with Microsoft in NT development efforts. Digital had viewed NT as a strategically important OS for Alpha, and although Microsoft over the years pulled the plugs on development of NT for PowerPC and MIPS, Digital's NT engineers made important contributions in terms of 64-bit implementations, scalability and clustering. Joint development deals with Microsoft however usually mean the partner spends the money and Microsoft gets the technology (NT PowerPC went south when IBM decided to stop bankrolling it), and NT on Alpha hasn't been bringing in significant revenues for Compaq. So with Compaq in radical surgery mode, Bellevue was an obvious candidate - Alpha versions of Linux, True64 and OpenVMS are far more popular with customers than NT, and discontinuing NT development was therefore pretty much a no-brainer. It is not however yet absolutely clear that Compaq is pulling NT development in its entirety. According to a memo from Compaq senior VP Enrico Pesatori, Compaq "will continue to partner aggressively with Microsoft on development of 64-bit Windows NT. Alpha is the development platform for 64-bit Windows NT." But on the other hand, Compaq will continue to provide 32-bit NT support for existing customers, and will "offer migration paths to other Compaq platforms." So the 32-bit NT Alpha customers will be tempted over to these other platforms (which will not, for the immediate future, include 64-bit NT), while Compaq applies severe pressure to its "partner" Microsoft, which is now too deeply hooked on Alpha NT to be able to extricate itself. Yup, they'll be gnashing in the streets of Redmond tonight... Given what's known of Microsoft's scheduling for 64-bit Win2k, Compaq's move makes some sense. Microsoft will initially put out some form of 32/64-bit hybrid system for Intel's IA-64 hardware, and then will quite possibly find itself playing catch-up on rather more battle-ready 64-bit flavours of Unix for Intel. Quite a lot of the Win2k code that will ship (allegedly) late this year is going to have to be torn apart again to make it to 64-bit, so there's a logic to Compaq opting out of what could be described as an interim OS it doesn't sell many units of anyway. But by jumping ship at this stage the company is effectively breaking the development connection with Microsoft, and undermining the effectiveness of its own NT development team. You can't sack 100 people and then expect those who're left to carry on working as if nothing had happened. Compaq CEO Mike Capellas may however be playing a deeper game here. The Alpha NT development model (and indeed the old PowerPC and MIPS ones) has so far been based on keeping versions for Intel and Alpha platforms fairly much in sync, but if that's helped any company it's helped Microsoft, as Compaq development efforts have benefited NT in general without Compaq getting adequate returns. Compaq intellectual property and Compaq development skills (if they don't all walk out of the door with pink slips, that is) are however still important for Microsoft when it comes to getting to 64-bit. So Capellas may actually be trying to apply pressure on Microsoft in order to produce a more mutually agreeable deal. And of course Redmond minds will have been further concentrated by Compaq's recent enthusiasm for Linux and True64 on Alpha. But don't count on a 64-bit Alpha NT ever getting out of the door. Whichever way the cards fall, 64-bit NT development for any platform is going to involve a lot of ground-up effort on Microsoft's part, and a lot of trouble for any partner rash enough to get too closely and expensively involved. Even if Compaq does strike a revised deal that commits it to an Alpha port, it's quite likely that a year or two down the line this too will end up being abandoned. ®

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