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Go backDesktop vs. IBM and clones

A sidebar to the article “The desktop environment,” published in Personal Computing, issue 8/1984, pp. 70-71.

With the release of software packages such as Symphony (Lotus Development Corp.), Framework (Ashton-Tate), VisiOn (VisiCorp), Quarterdeck DesQ and many others, the desktop metaphor has come to the IBM Personal Computer and IBM-compatibles. Or has it? One of the hottest debates in the industry now is just how “transportable” the desktop environment really is.

The answer would seem to depend a great deal on how you define the desktop. Windowing, as demonstrated by the products named above, is certainly possible on a 16-bit MS-DOS based computer such as the IBM Personal Computer. But other elements of the desktop metaphor as seen on the Xerox Star and Apple Lisa – including the use of a mouse controller to select pull-down menus and screen icons representing files and programs – are absent in the major windowing packages appearing for the IBM, due to what the developers of those packages perceive as limitations in the IBM’s system.

“The generic desktop environment will evolve into all sorts of actual products,” argues Mitch Kapor, president of Lotus Development. “As for the mouse and icons, I really think that is a function of the best fit to technology. We were not convinced that on the IBM Personal Computer and its brethren there was sufficient resolution or quality of display devices or, in fact, necessarily enough memory to fully embed icon and mouse support. The Lotus Macintosh product (which will not be available until a 512k version of the Macintosh is released at the end of 1984) fully supports the mouse and icons. So why we or anybody else might or might not choose to use certain parts of the desktop environment as originally seen on the Star is really a function of what’s going to work on a given piece of hardware.

“I think there are software absolutists... people who believe in windows and mice apparently for their own sake,” he adds. “Philosophically, they say, ‘We’ve seen this and we’re going this way. This is what we build our products around.’ We, I think, have a more flexible, less purely ideological approach to building products. It’s not so much a question of adapting the Lisa/Star metaphor but of using that as one of a number of important building blocks in creating a product.”

Forefront Corp.’s Robert Carr seems to agree with Kapor, saying, “As a designer I would love to be told, ‘You’ve got a very high-resolution screen, you’ve got a Motorola 68000 microprocessor or even more powerful chip, you’ve got 512k of memory, go do it.’ I think the graphic representation above all else is what you can do better with that kind of hardware. To be frank, I think that would be a better system than one that limits itself to working on a character (rather than graphics-based) screen. Unfortunately, the price-functionality curve on the hardware is not yet at a point where you’re going to be able to deliver the benefits of the desktop metaphor to that many people that way compared to aiming for a lower hardware base requirement. We’ve tried to draw the line where we can bring as much of the desktop technology as possible to as many people as possible, by shooting for a hardware base that is very minimal.”

Chris Morgan, vice president of communications for Lotus Development, agrees. “The metaphor has to make sense with the given hardware,” he says, adding that features such as screen icons are more suited to machines such as the Macintosh with its higher graphics resolution. “When you’re working within the confines of the average color monitor there are trade-offs. There are only so many pixels on that screen that you can use to create an image. So what you want is simplicity on such a display.

One of those trade-offs – the lack of screen icons – is a major one, according to Jeff Elpren (former president of Simtec, a large computer sales organization). “The retrofit of windows on the IBM doesn’t really address its symbolizing – the use of icons as a high-level symbolic language,” Elpren says. “You’re still communicating at a much lower level. If you put them side by side and give yourself a task of copying all the files on one disk to another, you’ll quickly see how much more rapidly you communicate using the icons. So it addresses one need and is superior to a non-windowing environment, but it doesn’t go all the way.”

Apple’s Bill Atkinson questions whether software developers should go that way at all. “You have to have enough horsepower to back this up or it’s not the right thing to do,” he says. “They’ve all seen the windowing on Lisa and Mac and the Star and said, ‘Let’s see, this looks like the wave of the future, let’s do it’ and sort of all jumped on the bandwagon without counting the cost and making sure they’ve got enough processing power to do it. The Motorola 68000 (the microprocessor in the Lisa and Macintosh) is just barely keeping up. The poor little IBM doesn’t have a chance.

“I think that people are interested in it and doing it is a validation of the concept,” Atkinson adds. “But the problem is they don’t have enough horsepower to do a good implementation of it.”

Robert Carr, who worked in Xerox’s Advanced Systems Department on a planned successor to the Star prior to forming Forefront Corp. and developing Framework for Ashton-Tate, offers a different opinion. “I think when you’re examining the validity you have to look at the real needs of real users in the marketplace,” he says. “I doubt that very many people would disagree that hi-res screens and having a tremendous amount of computing power enhance the desktop metaphor and allow you to do more things. The Star and Lisa systems have been exploring that direction. But I think you have to look at the realities of the marketplace out there and ask the question: ‘Is this pie-in-the-sky technology that can only be used by the few tens of thousands of people out there that can afford these machines or is it something that you can bring to the hundreds of thousands of people out there who are buying IBMs?’”

When we repeated Carr’s appraisal of “the realities of the marketplace” to John Shoch, president of the office systems division of Xerox, his reaction was: “That’s clearly a fallacy. If that were the case IBM would have brought out a CP/M machine with an 8-bit processor or a clone of the Apple. My view of that is that there comes a time when you cannot ask a Volkswagen to pull a horse trailer.”

In Shoch’s view, the desktop metaphor as presented on the Star remains “the goal towards which many other developers are striving. They have been able to pick up only pieces of Star or a thin veneer of its capabilities. What they’ve tried to do is squeeze as much of the Star’s capabilities as they can into a smaller machine. We looked at that option ourselves and we chose not to do it. We thought it would be an unsatisfactory presentation.” He adds that he welcomes Xerox’s new competition in the area of desktop environment software and hardware, feeling that “people will get a taste of it in systems like VisiOn, Framework and Symphony,” but that as their “expectations continue to spiral upward, people will come to appreciate the depth and capability of Star.”

In the end, talk alone won’t decide whether the IBM Personal Computer can offer the desktop environment or even a facsimile of what is presented on the Lisa and Star. That answer will only come as users begin to explore these new products and see for themselves whether the promised benefits are really all that their vested interests represent them to be. Tacked onto a recent across-the-board price cut announcement was IBM’s acknowledgement that larger minimum memory requirements of “new, powerful programs that offer windowing functions” was behind recent product design changes in its personal computer line. What seemed to be almost an aside, in this case, might have been the first hint that IBM has another new, soon-to-be-revealed, definition of desktop environment.

And when IBM takes time to define something, they rarely have a limited market in mind.

Page added on 15th November 2003.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.