UNTIL now, choosing a personal computer was almost always an either-or proposition. Either you bought an Apple Macintosh or an IBM-compatible machine.
Unfortunately, for consumers who like clear-cut choices, this state of affairs will not last much longer. Computer companies are muddying the picture with new products, which should show up on store shelves next year.
The Macintosh will be superseded by a new platform called the PowerPC. To create this new computer, Apple Computer has teamed up with Motorola and its old nemesis, IBM, which is also building PowerPCs. But Apple has not yet announced whether its PowerPC will be compatible with IBM's.
IBM, meanwhile, is using the PowerPCs to diversify beyond the PC architecture it pioneered a decade ago. It wants to challenge the company that now dominates that architecture, its onetime partner Intel Corporation.
Confused? Imagine tomorrow's computer buyer, who may also be considering offerings from Digital Equipment Corporation, Sun Microsystems, and MIPS Technologies.
``It's certainly going to be an interesting year,'' says Michael Slater, publisher and editorial director of Microprocessor Report in Sebastopol, Calif. Battle over central chip
The battle boils down to microprocessors, the central chip around which personal computers are built. Will consumers continue to buy machines based on Intel's 486 and its new Pentium chips? Or will they switch to a newer alternative, based on RISC (reduced instruction set computing) technology?
Of all the RISC chips coming on-line, the PowerPC has the best chance of challenging Intel, analysts say.
First, it has a built-in base of customers. When Macintosh owners decide to get a more powerful machine, they are likely to buy Apple's PowerPCs. Apple plans to sell 1 million PowerPCs next year. Motorola makes the microprocessors for Macintoshes and PowerPCs.
Second, the PowerPC chip is less expensive to produce than Intel's Pentium but is as powerful. Motorola plans to sell the chip wholesale at no more than $450 a chip. Starting in the second quarter of this year, Intel will price its cheapest Pentium at $675.
``We're standing here ready to go toe to toe [with Intel]. And we will,'' promises Jim Venable, PowerPC marketing programs manager for Motorola.
Third, the PowerPC chip is speedier than Intel's chips at running multimedia applications that use sound and graphics intensively. ``While the current technology certainly does solve the day-to-day word-processing challenges, it does not and will not solve where technology is going to go,'' Mr. Venable says. The chip is also much less power-hungry than Intel's Pentium, which will make it more suitable to portable computers. IBM plans to introduce notebook machines within months of its desktop PowerPC offerings, which will use Motorola's power-stingy 603 chip.
What sets apart the PowerPC from other RISC challengers are the deep pockets of IBM, Motorola, and Apple. It will take several lean years before the PC industry can begin to move away from Intel, analysts agree. ``All of this is going to be a low-volume business for the next couple of years,'' Mr. Slater says. Limited software
The big advantage Intel has - and the biggest barrier to consumer acceptance of the PowerPC - is software. More computer programs run on the Intel chip than any other platform. The most popular operating system and graphical user interface - both from Microsoft - run on Intel machines. The PowerPC consortium will have to convince software companies to rewrite their programs for PowerPCs.
A few companies have promised to do so, including Aldus, and others, such as Microsoft and WordPerfect, will have programs that operate on Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. Windows NT works on the PowerPC, but its appeal is limited to certain high-end machines that manage computer networks. The real trick will be to convince companies with software applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, to come out with true PowerPC versions.
``We are getting a very positive response'' from software companies, says Gary Griffiths, director of business development for IBM's Power Personal Systems Division. ``We're on track or a little ahead of where we thought we would be.'' He expects some significant software announcements soon.
Until then, the consortium will have to use a technique called emulation, which allows software to think it is running on an Intel chip. The drawback is that emulation decidedly reduces the speed of the chip.
The PowerPC has certainly gotten Intel's attention. ``It's something we take seriously,'' says Paul Otellini, senior vice president of Intel's microprocessor group. But ``I don't think it's likely they'll enjoy the opportunity to move into the Intel platform easily.''