Sun or Digital - who's hurting now?

Digital stands to be the biggest loser if Compaq wins big in its new bid to crack the workstation market, says Sun Microsystems. If you believe Digital, it's Sun that has the problem.

"Sun is the market leader but some of the bit players are more threatened, specifically Digital," said Chris Sarfas, workstation marketing manager at Sun, who formerly held a similar post at Digital. "The Alpha processor had a significant lead in performance but failed to make inroads in sales. With the Pentium Pro catching up, Windows NT customers will be tempted to go with Compaq. If you were an IT manager looking for the most solid company, who would you choose - Digital or Compaq?"

Digital AlphaStation marketing manager Richard George sees it differently. "We've already got Intergraph [one of the two graphics vendors with which Compaq is allied] on Intel and Alpha so they'll struggle in graphics. They'll also bottom out at 200MHz Pentium Pro while we can offer Alpha at the high-end. They'll also struggle with memory; we're shipping with 1.5Gb, they're playing catch-up. I think Sun is the one that needs to worry. NT is automatically a cheaper platform; it's $1,000 a licence for Unix and $180 for NT. Banks are migrating to NT at a rate of four to one. That's going to hurt Sun and they're already losing market share."

Sun's Sarfas also questions the prowess of NT against Unix. "Compaq has to prove that NT is a viable platform for the workstation market. The market is more than 90 per cent Unix and there are only a few key applications on NT. Even when you've ported thousands there is always going to be a 'gotcha'. It takes a long time for companies to change from one OS to another and in very complex, mission critical environments, I don't think NT is proven. I think it will get there... it will just take five times as long as Compaq and Microsoft think it will."

Will Compaq be patient enough to wait for that momentum and software base to build? Sarfas has doubts. "The culture levels are completely different. The PC people are very dependent on Microsoft; the Unix people are expected to have a very high level of support, often with staff permanently on-site, 24 hours a day, not just say 'there's a bug in NT, sorry'. It depends on how long Compaq's nerve holds. It's not something you're going to make a profit on this year, next year, or even the year after. Unless they're in it for the long term, they'll fail."

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