IBM's `bus' arrives, but some buyers may wait for the next one

Wait and see what bus you should catch - that's what some analysts recommend that you should do if you're in the market for the latest sophisticated personal computers. A bus ``transports'' data in the computer, and International Business Machines already offers an advanced version - known as Micro Channel Architecture - on its high-end PCs. Among other things, MCA allows several tasks to be performed at once by the same computer.

But last week ``the gang of nine'' announced that it would create a rival standard to MCA. Those competing makers include Compaq Computer Corporation, Hewlett-Packard Company, NEC Information Systems, Tandy Corporation, and Zenith Electronics Corporation.

That decision could hit IBM hard.

``It certainly means a healthy dose of competition,'' says Bruce Stephens, a PC analyst with International Data Corporation in Framingham, Mass. ``It's the first time that these manufacturers have in a sense ganged up against IBM collectively. They all were throwing stones at IBM from their own houses, but now they have a neighborhood group and they're going at it as a collective force.''

While acknowledging that the proposed bus is not off the drawing boards yet, other analysts agree that competing computer manufacturers could put IBM in a difficult spot with their latest move.

``IBM's dominance is compromised, and most probably it is irrevocable,'' says Bob Grandhi, vice-president of Prescott, Ball & Turben Inc. in New York. ``They have to sweat it out like everyone else.''

The competing standard is known as Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA). As its name implies, it promises to ``extend'' the existing architecture found in IBMs and IBM-compatible computers before the latest bus comes along.

The war of the buses came about because of a chain reaction of economics. Big Blue introduced its bus because it was losing business to compatibles and clones.

``IBM needed to protect its market share in some fashion,'' says Mr. Grandhi.

But when IBM demanded that the makers of compatible equipment pay 5 percent of their PC revenues as a license fee for the new bus, that provoked competitors to action.

``EISA is a natural outgrowth of IBM's outrageous licensing fees for MCA,'' said Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif. market research firm, last week.

Advanced-computer buyers, particularly big corporations, are now asking themselves whether they should look to IBM or one of its rivals for their next PC. Just where do the latest developments leave the buyer of such a computer?

``In a massive state of confusion,'' says Caroline Griffin, an industry analyst in small systems at the Yankee Group in Boston. But Ms. Griffin, like other analysts, say IBM still has the upper hand, since EISA is just a concept.

``For a lot of users, it's just one more thing out there. They're probably sitting back and asking themselves, `How long is it going to be, really, before EISA comes out with a product?'

``One thing that they can count on with Micro Channel right now is ... it exists right now.''

EISA could be introduced about a year from now, its designers say, but that would be under ideal conditions, Ms. Griffin suspects.

``How quickly are all these vendors, who are normally competitors, going to be able to get together and come out with a sound product? That's no easy task.''

And, she asks, who can say what the situation will be in the industry in the months ahead? A lot can change between now and next September.

``A year is a long time in this business,'' she observes.

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