One goal of Dave Cutler, chief architect of Windows NT, was to make NT chip-independent. Towards this end, NT's designers included the hardware abstraction layer (HAL), a small, chip-specific portion of NT that lets it run on Intel, MIPS, Alpha, and PowerPC chips. Technically, the HAL lets software vendors easily port their applications to any chip that NT supports.
For a while, NT was a multi-chip operating system. Unfortunately, the business side of NT's chip independence never caught up with the technical side, and chip manufacturers began to rethink support for NT. First, MIPS dropped NT and now PowerPC, both manufacturers citing poor sales and lack of ISV support for NT on their systems.
I've talked about the MIPS developments, so let me focus on the PowerPC. IBM dropped NT from its PowerPC (RS/6000) systems to focus on AIX. Then, Motorola dropped NT support to focus on its MacOS-based units. Motorola claims it has shipped 50,000 MacOS units since November 1996, which is more than all its NT units to date.
I applaud the pursuit of new opportunities, but I believe NT on PowerPC would have been just as compelling as the existing MacOS and AIX business today. IBM and Motorola, you quit too soon.
PowerPC was just starting to get momentum on many fronts. On the hardware side, the PowerPC community was about to deliver systems that could triple-boot NT, MacOS, and AIX. This capability would have let IBM and Motorola leverage their effort developing the MacOS and AIX hardware by offering the added attraction of NT. On the software side, Motorola had already attracted many key NT ISVs to port to PowerPC. So why kill the progress? What happened to the Motorola that said it was going to take Intel head on? Was killing NT on the PowerPC a wise business decision, or did IBM and Motorola just wimp out?
In the short term, Motorola and IBM will make more money selling MacOS and AIX systems. The PowerPC had a compelling message. What MacOS user wouldn't prefer to buy a system than could run MacOS and NT, if that ability didn't cost extra? So what happens a year or so from now when MacOS and AIX users want to migrate to NT? Motorola loses a customer. IBM can choose between selling these customers an Intel machine or losing a customer.
Microsoft Is Guilty
Is Microsoft an innocent bystander in all these developments? No way. For whatever reason, outside the NT group, Microsoft never understood Cutler's vision of a chip-independent OS. The NT development group plans to support the PowerPC in NT 5.0, but the other Microsoft divisions (Internet, Office, and development tools) rarely support non-Intel platforms. These groups just don't get NT. They're happy with their Wintel strategy. Do they really care whether Microsoft leaves its existing Alpha/NT customers in the dust? Actions speak louder than words.
The Future of PowerPC
Intel is a tough competitor. At this point, few vendors are willing to take on Intel. But plenty of opportunity is available outside the traditional Wintel market, in embedded systems. IBM is using the PowerPC as the basis of its Network Computers (NC) and Motorola is shipping embedded NT chips for use in a shop-floor control system.
Another reason why Motorola dropped NT was to focus PowerPC on the emerging Microsoft WinCE operating system market. Eight hardware manufacturers supported the first release of WinCE. That number is more than for any Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) operating system. Perhaps this operating system will be the ticket to Gates' "information at your fingertips." How about a system that boots instantly, runs on battery power, connects to the Internet, and runs your favorite Win32 applications—all for under $1000?
What Can You Do?
Digital's Alpha is the one chip keeping Cutler's vision alive. Now that its price is reduced, Alpha has a good chance of gaining share in the NT market. Don't you want to have the fastest chips available on NT? Here's what you can do: If you buy NT software, insist that it support Alpha. Even if you don't currently have Alpha-based machines, you may want them some day. You'll want to have your NT/Alpha software run at full speed. If you represent a large company and make Alpha support mandatory, a software vendor will add Alpha support just to get your business.
You vote with your dollars. Even if Microsoft isn't very concerned at the loss of an NT platform or two, it's in the user's best interest not to let another chip technology get away.