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-- by Joseph C. Panettieri
Backed by Windows NT, three major RISC microprocessors-Digital Alpha, Mips and the PowerPC-once hoped to end Intel's dominance in the world of Windows. But with the recent demise of Mips and the PowerPC, Digital's Alpha-championed by several upstart hardware makers-arguably represents your last true alternative to NT on Intel.
It has been a catastrophic six months for NT on RISC. First, NEC abandoned the Mips/NT market, prompting Microsoft to halt future Mips software development. Next, Canon and IBM each fled the NT/PowerPC market. The last major NT/PowerPC maker, Motorola, is expected to follow suit upon the release of NT 5.0 next winter (by which time, Motorola hopes, systems already in the channel will be sold off). Apple Computer plans to ship PowerPC servers capable of running NT late this year, but it's unclear if Apple will actually sell NT.
The demise of NT on RISC can be attributed to Intel's Pentium and Pentium Pro families, which together command 90 percent of the NT market; Digital's Alpha has secured most of the remaining 10 percent. The question is, can Alpha beat back the Pentium Pro and maintain its NT niche?
At press time, Digital was expected to up the Alpha ante by slashing chip prices and introducing a new line of low-cost "Personal" Alpha workstations. The announcement could address lingering concerns about Digital's failure to create a volume market for Alpha.
Several small but aggressive hardware companies are also working to grow Alpha's fortunes. They're certainly not household names, but Deskstation Technology (http://www.dti.com), Enorex Microsystems (http://www.enorex.com) and Polywell Computers (http://www.polywell.com) are creating a stir by selling 500MHz Alpha workstations for roughly $5,000 and entry-level systems for about $3,500. Enorex is even stealing a page from Dell Computer by using direct mail as its primary sales channel.
Still, Alpha will need more native NT application support to maintain its market share. Even Polywell Computers knows that; the company is hedging its Alpha bet by also selling Intel systems. The reason? Only select NT software developers-including Microsoft and Oracle-port their applications to Alpha. To compensate, Digital has shipped FX32, a type of translation software that lets 32-bit Wintel (Windows on Intel) applications run on Alpha without recompiling. However, FX32 could cannibalize the native NT/Alpha market, much as OS/2's support for Windows apps helped kill the market for native OS/2 applications. Unfazed, Digital considers FX32 a stopgap measure for running 32-bit Wintel applications until such apps are available natively for Alpha.
Digital claims that companies such as Adobe are currently "evaluating" writing for Alpha. If Alpha is ever to emerge as a viable alternative to Intel, especially for NT, it's going to have to do a lot more than that.
Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.