Microsoft closes in on open alliance

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The Independent Online
SPEED kills - but so can inertia. A decade ago minicomputer companies were in a trap. Without the muscle to fight IBM, their market share seemed about to wither. Then, with the encouragement of big buyers including General Motors, a dozen or so formed alliances to launch the "open systems" concept, under such names as X/Open and the Open Systems Foundation.

Instead of using proprietary architectures and interface protocols, their systems would talk to one another. Through "interoperability" - the Holy Grail of computing - they would survive. Their customers liked the idea. They could break free of IBM, trade computer vendors off against one another, and need not fear that one computer company's financial collapse would leave their IT strategy in tatters.

However, having avoided the clutches of one monolith, they seem likely to fall prey to another - Microsoft. Corporate IT users are growing restive about the lack of an open systems rival to Microsoft's Windows operating system. In the UK, Joseph De Feo, Barclays Bank's operations and technology director, has criticised the hardware and software vendors that form the open systems community, most recently at an open systems conference at Wembley last month.

Wide repercussions are likely, as he is threatening to switch to computer systems based on Microsoft software unless a credible open systems alternative to Windows emerges soon. Barclays has one of the UK's largest IT budgets, with 3,000 IT staff, 88 mainframe computers and 18 mid-range machines, and his views will embarrass the open systems community.

The bank has spent time working with the various open systems groups to help to develop software standards and has been regarded as a supporter of open systems. Until now.

Mr De Feo contrasts open systems' initial goal of avoiding over-reliance on a single vendor, originally IBM, with Microsoft's domination of the desktop world. "That things should have come to this pass is bizarre," says Mr De Feo. Emphasising that Microsoft has set up an increasingly well accepted standard for object orienting, or allowing outputs from different systems to be put together, he asks: "Where is the competing open systems standard? A committee has been working on it for four years and still hasn't decided an inter-operability standard."

X/Open's spokesman, Mark Riminton, accepts progress is slower than Microsoft's, as it is based on consensus, involving the agreement of 30 to 40 companies to any proposed new standard. "It's not like doing it within a single company," he says. "People meet four or five times a year, for a couple of days at a time. This may seem slow to Joseph De Feo, but it's a lot faster than what went before." He accepts Mr De Feo's general criticism, however, and says X/Open's development processes are under continual review.

Barclays cannot wait, Mr De Feo says. The crunch will come in a few months, with Microsoft's hyped new operating system, Windows '95. If it takes off, "we will find it difficult to justify to ourselves the time and effort we have put into an open systems solution that never seems to arrive", he says.

Aware of an opportunity apparently presenting itself, Microsoft has forged alliances with other software vendors, and signalled a move to its own form of open systems, by providing public "hooks" in the Windows environment for other software companies to use.

Yet the risks in allowing operating systems development to be directed by Microsoft are as great as they were with IBM. The company's recent track record shows it can fumble the ball.

Windows '95 is running late, Windows NT turned out to need much more computer memory than expected, and bugs and lawsuits surrounded last year's launch of MS-DOS 6.0, now in release 6.22. Barclays should be nervous about this, say industry-watchers. Given the absence of an open systems solution, the only alternative to Microsoft is the increasingly popular OS/2 operating system - from IBM, the company that the whole open systems concept was established to avoid.