When Steve Jobs announced on June 8 that Apple would abandon IBM's PowerPC chip to use Intel microprocessors on future computers, analysts were witnessing the final chapters of an era of technology alliances that had begun in the 1990s. And though a lot has been written about the impact this move will have on the PC marketplace, a lot less has been scribbled about the implications to IBM's product strategies, including the rise of 64-bit computing and the Integrated Language Environment (ILE) of the iSeries.
The Apple of IBM's Eye
In 1994, IBM was running out of computing horsepower in its midrange servers and desperately needed new hardware processing. The next technical challenge was to move its RISC architecture to 64-bit computing and to expand the addressing capabilities of memory and disk. Without this added power, it was hard to see how any of IBM's midrange servers could survive. Without this power, even its compilers would remain antiquated and outmoded.
At that time, it seemed that the IT world was preoccupied with the technologies of 32-bit microprocessors and the so-called "WinTel" compatibility issue. WinTel was the techno-speak street name for a Microsoft/Intel configuration that many believed was the sole future of computing. The WinTel model was a vision of millions of Intel microprocessors networked together with a scalable Windows NT-based client/server operating system.
Though IBM had a stake with its own PC brand in the success of a WinTel model, the company feared that such dominance in the computing industry would drag IBM PCs into a commodity hardware marketplace where the value of the traditional IBM brand would be severely discounted by its competitors.
During this same period, Sun Microsystems was also pushing hard in the server wars with its powerful 32-bit SPARCstation technology. Sun's strategy was very high-profile: In 1995, Pixar Animation Studios--a company started by ousted Apple founder Steve Jobs--had made headlines by using off-the-shelf Sun Microsystems units to render the revolutionary Hollywood thriller called Jurassic Park. Sun was using the success of the Jurassic Park film to showcase its entire line of servers and workstations. It was an awesome marketing strategy that worked well, and Sun's share of the market was climbing dramatically against IBM's. "After all," Sun's story went, "If Sun's technology can make a 60-million-year-old tyrannosaur come to life, imagine what it can do for your corporate computing department!"
The Need for Apple
In this context, Apple's 1994 decision to participate in the IBM/Motorola alliance to build the PowerPC chip was a public relations coup for IBM during this critical period in the server wars. The IBM/Motorola/Apple alliance to build the PowerPC was a decision to build an alternate non-WinTel, non-Sun, 64-bit computing universe, and IBM used Apple's high-profile Macintosh Computer to bolster market acceptance for this PowerPC hardware strategy.
How? By focusing on the advanced technology of the PowerPC, IBM could then point to Apple's Macintosh and PowerBook machines as examples of the versatility of high-function workstations that used the PowerPC microprocessor. Likewise, this was the same microprocessor that would run the IBM RS/6000 and the new Version 2 AS/400 with the OS/400 operating system.
With the PowerPC, IBM and Apple said they could do things "better" than WinTel computers--just as IBM's AS/400 and RS/6000 servers could scale better and handle larger workloads than Microsoft Windows servers.
PowerPC and the Integrated Language Environment
On the AS/400, one of the first "better things" that IBM did with the added power of the PowerPC was to rework the way the compilers assembled code to take advantage of the 64-bit address space. This was an architectural change to both language compilers and the runtime characteristics of AS/400 programs starting with OS/400 V2R3, and IBM called it the Integrated Language Environment (ILE).
ILE was an extension to the compiler architecture, which meant that existing programs could continue to run without changing and recompiling. This was a major boon to customers that had existing AS/400 applications because it meant they could move to the new PowerPC hardware without recompiling or rewriting their applications. It was a major breakthrough.
However, there were other inherent benefits to ILE besides migration:
- Language Integration--Application programs could be developed using a language mix best suited to perform each required function. No longer were programmers limited to using RPG or COBOL exclusively.
- Reusability--Code from supported languages could be divided into smaller, reusable, more logical modules that compiled faster and required less maintenance over their life.
- Performance--Capability was provided to optimize code in compute-intensive applications and to reduce the time to perform inter-program calls.
These benefits continue today, and the goal of ILE technology is to increase developer productivity by providing a capability to divide the code into smaller, more logical units that compile faster. The system binder then combines the compiled modules to create the application program. In addition, the separation of compilation and bind steps provides more flexibility in packaging the final software application.
Of course, in 1995 the ILE program model differed dramatically from the original program model (OPM) in OS/400 in that suddenly programmers could create really modulated applications instead of a single hunk of monolithic code. This, in turn, required a new source-level debug tool that could support the ILE languages. That new debugger provided an enhanced capability over the system debugger with a new feature to debug at the source or listing level of the program. It's also one factor that makes ILE applications easier to manage than similar modulated applications written on other platforms.
In addition, the ILE model allows multiple ILE languages like ILE RPG, ILE COBOL, and ILE C to interact with one another, expanding the versatility and the skills that can be brought to bear on the overall application system.
None of these capabilities would have been possible without the additional power provided the by the PowerPC microprocessor.
Back in the late 1990s, while IBM was pushing the PowerPC on the AS/400 and RS/6000, Apple was successfully marketing the PowerPC in a number of incarnations as PowerMacs. Apple continued to build customer loyalty while substantially differentiating itself from Microsoft, and this niche strategy kept the company profitable while it explored new product lines for its brands of computing appliances.
When the Server Wars Ended
The server wars officially ended only in the final years of the 20th century. They ended when customers realized that making a server purchase decision based upon the advantages of a particular computer microprocessor was no longer as important as it once had been.
The same was true on the PC. For instance, the Apple Macintosh had enough horsepower to run a Microsoft Windows application in an emulation window. Meanwhile, Windows customers could buy a Windows version of almost any major software application that had been originally written for a Mac.
Also, the WinTel vision of the world began to erode dramatically when IT customers realized that building standards-based computing networks was inherently better than buying everything from a few individual vendors. This was especially true for AS/400 customers. AS/400 customers could run Windows software on their Windows client machines or serve those applications from the AS/400 using other additional elements of the architecture.
Finally, equally important to the collapse of the server wars and the WinTel vision of computing was the reality of Internet viruses. Management came to understand that a world composed of a single networked architecture was more vulnerable to security catastrophes such as the Sobig virus. Such a catastrophe might have been avoided with a more heterogeneous approach to network design, and management began to understand why.
Transformation of the Server
In the meantime, IBM was transforming the vision of server architectures with its eServer brand. It re-branded the AS/400 as the iSeries and the RS/6000 as the pSeries. These servers still run the newer versions of the PowerPC architecture but now sport a method of running multiple operating systems--including OS/400, Linux, UNIX, and Windows--in a single footprint. This new vision of server versatility is larger than any individual operating system. It was about consolidating the power of different architectures into a better management profile, while still maintaining the power and versatility of individual operating systems.
IBM's Exit from PC Market
When IBM sold its PC division to the Chinese Lenovo Group Ltd. last December, it was an acknowledgement that the world of personal computing was separate from the more profitable world of server computing. IBM wanted out of the commodity marketplace where it could no longer differentiate the value of its products. This must have been the final wakeup call for Steve Jobs.
The role that Apple played in the development and the exploitation of the PowerPC is now over. Instead, Apple will focus on integrating its operating system with the upcoming Intel M processors, while IBM will send the PowerPC chip capacity once promised to Apple on to Sony to build Xbox games.
It's an ironic twist, isn't it? Computer executives used their microprocessors as their most powerful tools to differentiate their products for their marketing games. Today, those same microprocessor tools are headed for the actual computer games themselves.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.