Computer Revivals

The computer industry is so accustomed to a fast pace of change that technology that falls out of favor for more than a year is usually considered obsolete, fallen hopelessly behind in the race of competing technologies. This month, however, word of two computer revivals shows that computer technology is not actually progressing quite that fast.

In one story, IBM is shopping around a set of computer designs based on the the CHRP standard. CHRP, also called PowerPC Platform, was a cooperative effort by Apple, IBM, and Motorola to produce a simplified version of Apple’s computer designs for use with the PowerPC processors made by Motorola and IBM. CHRP systems were supposed to be less expensive to produce — potentially as inexpensive as any comparable PC reference system. They would run various operating systems: Apple’s Mac OS, IBM’s AIX, and Microsoft Windows NT, among others.

The plan fell apart because those operating systems never materialized. Apple found it much tougher than they expected to add the necessary hardware independence to Mac — after five years, they’ve made some progress, but a hardware-independent Mac OS is still at least two years away. Microsoft’s development troubles with Windows NT have become legendary, and even after deciding to focus exclusively on the latest Intel-standard platform, their operating system deliveries are at least four years behind the schedule they set for themselves in 1993. The only operating system for CHRP would be AIX, IBM’s UNIX-compatible operating system. But a CHRP system running AIX would have few advantages over IBM’s existing PowerPC system designs, so no fully CHRP-compliant computers were ever made.

But CHRP may be making a comeback now that Linux, a free operating system developed by volunteer programmers, is becoming the new operating system standard. The PowerPC version of Linux, designed to run on Apple and IBM systems, would run on a CHRP system. And so, in an effort to sell more PowerPC processors, IBM has dug up an old CHRP-based design and is pitching it to other computer manufacturers as a standard design for a Linux server. IBM says those computers could be available early next year if manufacturers are interested in making them.

CHRP’s simplified, standardized hardware design would seem to be a good match for Linux, which itself is more streamlined and standardized than any other leading operating system.

The other computer technology revival in the current news is Amiga. Amiga’s computer designs were praised for their streamlined video technology — for years, they were the standard for digital video effects and editing — but computer users ultimately found little else to like about Amiga. Amiga went through two bankruptcies, and when Gateway purchased Amiga’s patents two years ago that was assumed to be the end of the Amiga story.

Or maybe not. With the continuing convergence of computer and television technology, Amiga’s computer video technology may be just as important as it ever was. Gateway is quietly setting up a new Amiga subsidiary to produce “information appliances” that are described in terms not too different from some Amiga models of years past. Unlike the original Amigas, though, the new devices are expected to run the Linux operating system.

These and other stories show how the computer industry, in its headlong rush forward, does not always make the right choices. In particular, you can see how simplicity is underappreciated in the computer industry. But because the simpler designs have fewer glitches and tend to be ready sooner, they often win out in the end.

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