PITTSBURGH — UP to now, it was easy to tell the difference between the world's two leading desktop computers. If you wanted power and a good price, you bought an IBM-compatible machine. If you wanted ease, you bought a Macintosh.
Now those distinctions are blurring. IBM-compatibles are aiming to become much easier to use. Late this year, Microsoft, the nation's largest seller of computer software, is due to release the latest version of its Windows graphical interface, code-named ``Chicago,'' and billed as a major challenge to the Macintosh operating system. Today, Apple Computer will announce a new line of computers that is two to three times faster and several hundred dollars cheaper than the Pentium chips now going into the fastest IBM-compatibles. The new machines, called Power Macintoshes, represent the most ambitious upgrade of Apple's computers since the company came out with the original Macintosh a decade ago.
Setting sights on Power Macs
``Our goal is to sell 1 million Power Macs in a year,'' says Jim Gable, product line manager for Apple's new offering. If Apple can keep up its recent pace and sell 4 million machines this year (a highly optimistic scenario), the Power Mac would represent one-quarter of its total unit sales. ``The bookings look awfully strong,'' Mr. Gable adds.
The systems range from a 60MHz Power Macintosh 6100, which costs $1,819 with a 160-megabyte hard drive and eight megabytes of random access memory, to an 80MHz Power Macintosh 8100 for $6,159 with a 1,000-megabyte hard drive and 16 megabytes of memory. Monitors are sold separately.
At these prices, Power Macintoshes compare favorable to even the lowest-priced 60MHz Pentium machines, which sell for a minimum of $2,400. One reason the machines are so inexpensive is that the PowerPC chip that runs them is cheap to build. It uses RISC (reduced instruction set computing) technology instead of the more complex system that Intel Corporation uses to build the Pentium.
Intel, however, is not standing still. The company is rushing out a new series of Pentium chips that are faster than Apple's. And the company is slashing prices.
If this were strictly a technology race, the Power Macintosh would have an edge. But it is at least as much a marketing battle. Here, the Intel architecture has a huge advantage. It owns about 85 percent of the desktop market compared with about 15 percent for Macintosh. Analysts say the new Power Macintosh will help Apple hold onto its current share of users, but they rule out a big switch to Power Macs from IBM-compatibles.
Taking their time
``The PowerPC architecture for Apple Computer is basically a stay-in-the-game ploy for these guys,'' says Matt Cain, an analyst at the Meta Group Inc., an industry research firm based in Westport, Conn. ``I don't think this is going to do anything to expand their market share.''
The reason is software. Ultimately, users are not going to switch to a new architecture unless they can run their favorite programs on it. Using a technique called emulation, the Power Mac will be able to run existing Macintosh software and even Windows programs that run on the rival IBM-compatible architecture. But this emulation remains slow.
Even Macintosh users will take their time making the transition to Power Macintosh. Gable estimates that it will take a couple of years.
Some software made specifically for the Power Mac is already in final testing. Claris Corporation says it will have a new version of its Claris Impact business graphics and its Claris Works integrated package out within 30 days. By early summer, the company will have MacWrite Pro word-processor for the Power Macintosh and, later, its Claris Draw drawing program and FileMaker database.
It will be harder to lure users of IBM-compatible machines. They are looking toward the next ``Chicago'' version of Windows, which will use their existing software and promises new functions as well. ``While the PowerPC is getting a lot of fanfare, I don't see it changing the relative value of the two platforms,'' says Russell Stockdale, product manager in the personal systems group of Microsoft, which makes the Windows software. `` `Chicago' will take Windows to a whole new level of ease-of-use.''
Of course, ease-of-use is more a matter of perception than reality, he adds. So the arrival of the Power Macintosh merely inaugurates a new battle for the hearts and minds of computer users. ``Some people in the corporation are going to want Macs and some people are going to want Intel,'' says Greg Cornelison, a Claris spokesman. ``And that's the way it's going to stay for a long time.''