IBM, Apple Join Microsoft Rivals Over Standards

By Laurence Hooper
The Wall Street Journal

March 18, 1991

International Business Machines Corp., Apple Computer Inc. and a host of other high-technology companies will announce today their backing for an industry group that sets standards for personal computers that use sound and video.

The move effectively deflates an attempt by Microsoft Corp. to take charge of the emerging market for these "multimedia" machines, and further illustrates the hostility that has built up against the software company in recent months.

But consultants said the rebellion against Microsoft may also slow the introduction of technologies as many more companies must now agree on what standards are needed.

The industry group is a nonprofit organization known as the Interactive Multimedia Association. Founded in 1988 as a trade group that specialized in video-disk technology, it now includes more than 170 members from diverse fields, including IBM, Sony Corp., N.V. Philips, and Intel Corp.

Today's announcement will draw an even wider group of supporters, including heavy-hitters such as Apple, Lotus Development Corp., NCR Corp., and multimedia pioneer Macromind Inc. IMA President Richard Thackray said he expects 250 or more companies to pledge money and support for its new initiatives.

Mr. Thackray said the IMA will develop specifications for programs that would run on a number of standard, IMA-defined "classes," or combinations of hardware and software. One class might be the Apple Macintosh computer; another might be IBM-compatible computers that run Microsoft's Windows program and are equipped with compact-disk drives.

Initially, such specifications would make it easier to develop multimedia programs for each platform. Eventually, Mr. Thackray said, he hopes to merge as many of the standards as possible, allowing programs to run on many different computers.

Microsoft has already announced its own set of multimedia specifications. But late Friday the company said it will also join the IMA, and denied any conflict with the newly powerful group. Microsoft promised to be one of the main speakers at today's IMA announcement, which will be made at a big multimedia conference in San Jose, Calif.

"We think the IMA is doing great things for the \multimedia\ industry," said Rob Glaser, general manager of Microsoft's multimedia systems group. "I don't think it's adversarial in any way."

Industry experts disagreed, citing a growing sentiment in the PC industry that Microsoft has accumulated too much influence. "It's clear that IBM and the other companies wanted to get Microsoft out of the driver's seat," said Nick Arnett, president of Multimedia Computing Corp., a consulting company based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Mr. Arnett said IBM led the push to create a strong industry group, even soliciting rivals, such as Apple and NCR. But IBM said the IMA came to it for support, and it merely endorsed a good idea. Mr. Thackray would say only that there was truth to the idea that the IMA initiative was inspired by Microsoft's actions.

Last November, Microsoft proposed with much publicity a minimum PC configuration that would be used to run multimedia programs, which are increasingly being used in education, training and entertainment. At the time, seven big computer makers -- including Tandy Corp. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. -- lined up behind the Microsoft standard. Analysts praised the accord as a breakthrough, and a victory for Microsoft.

IBM didn't join that bandwagon, saying it wouldn't endorse a single standard setup. Instead, IBM said it would work with Microsoft to change the basic software that controls PCs, so more machines could handle sound and pictures effectively.

The new consensus doesn't mean that any of that work will be abandoned: Messrs. Glaser and Thackray said they expect IMA standards will reflect Microsoft's efforts in its "class." But now Microsoft won't be calling the shots, and industry standards will extend beyond the class it defined.

"There can't just be one configuration that's important," said Michael Braun, vice president for multimedia at IBM. "We need a strong, open forum to discuss these issues. Everyone wants a voice in this."

Copyright (c) 1991, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.