Computer Stars on Collision Course

By Andrew Pollack
Special to the New York Times

San Francisco -- March 9, 1989 -- The wizards at Sun Microsystems Inc., which makes engineering work stations, have long viewed the Macintosh personal computer of Apple Computer Inc. as a nice toy, not a serious machine. At the same time, the marketeers at Apple have long scoffed that they sell more machines in a month than Sun sells in a year.

Now the two Silicon Valley stars are moving toward a clash. As personal computers become more powerful and work stations less expensive, the two companies are beginning a fight to capture the desktops of Corporate America.

''They are encroaching on each other's traditional space,'' said Peter Rogers, an analyst who follows both companies for Robertson, Colman & Stephens in San Francisco. L. John Doerr, a venture capitalist and director of Sun, agreed: ''I think the differences will disappear. Desktop computers are desktop computers.''

Past Differences

Historically, the term ''work station'' referred to a high-powered computer, generally linked to other computers, with extensive memory meant to handle engineering and scientific tasks. Personal computers tended to be less powerful and worked in isolation, performing tasks like spreadsheet calculations and word processing.

The convergence involves more than Apple and Sun, of course. The International Business Machines Corporation is competing strongly in both camps and is expected soon to announce significant upgrades to its work station line. Digital Equipment, Compaq Computer and other companies promise to be significant forces in the desktop computer market of the future. Next Inc., the company founded by Apple's former chairman, Steven P. Jobs, has introduced a machine that is a hybrid of a personal computer and a work station.

But a close look at Apple and Sun, which in many ways represent their respective industry segments, illustrates how the lines of distinction are blurring. Apple, a 12-year-old company with revenues exceeding $4 billion, is making more powerful machines that can handle many engineering and scientific jobs. Sun, a seven-year-old company with annual sales fast approaching $2 billion, is making machines that perform a wider variety of tasks. Sun is expected to introduce in early April a machine the industry has dubbed the Sparcintosh, based on Sun's Sparc microprocessor, that will have many of the ease-of-use features of the Macintosh and a price that will put it in competition with the upper end of the Macintosh line.

Apple's most powerful Macintoshes and Sun's low-end work stations both use similar Motorola microprocessors. They even look similar, with keyboards sitting in front of large screens with crisp displays and mouses for moving items on the screen. Apple's most powerful Macintoshes and Sun's low-end machines also sell in the same price range -$5,000 to $10,000.

Similar and Different

But while the companies' machines are growing more alike, the way they are used is still very different. Moreover, while the companies share cultural traits - both were founded by young men and enjoyed meteoric rises, and both pride themselves on being free-wheeling and innovative -their orientations differ.

''Horsepower is the name of the game, not style,'' said Wayne Rosing, the head of Sun's entry systems group. At Apple, however, style is paramount. A Macintosh ''is a better experience, even if there are more powerful boxes you can put on the desk,'' said Allan Loren, president of Apple U.S.A.

Apple's machines, and personal computers in general, have been sold for use by individuals, often in isolation from other computers. They use Apple's own operating system, which, like the MS/DOS system used in most other personal computers, does not allow the computer to perform more than one task at a time.

Sun's machines, and work stations in general, are designed to work in networks that tie many machines together and tap into central data banks. Work stations usually use the Unix operating system, which can perform many tasks at once.

The sales channels are also different. Apple sells mainly through retail channels. Sun sells directly to companies.

'An Unusual Situation'

While Sun and Apple have long clashed over which is the king of Silicon Valley, they have rarely competed directly. ''It's an unusual situation where Mac II's are being bid directly against Suns,'' said Michael J. Homer, director of marketing for Apple U.S.A., who is spearheading Apple's move into more technical markets.

Both sides eagerly point out the shortcomings of the other.

''An Apple is a great typewriter replacement,'' said Scott McNealy, president and chief executive of Sun, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. ''But if you want to automate processes and group tasks, you've bought a Sun.''

Apple, based in nearby Cupertino, counters that work stations are too confined to technical tasks. ''You have to look at what a scientist and engineer does all day,'' Mr. Loren said. ''They don't sit there and draw graphs. We're talking about making tools for everything they do, not just one aspect.''

Predicting a Winner

Analysts are divided on who will win. ''The personal computer business is going to chew up the work station business,'' said Stewart Alsop II, publisher of PC Letter, an industry newsletter. But Richard Shaffer, publisher of the Technologic Computer Letter, disagrees. ''Sun has taken on far larger companies and won,'' he said.

Both companies are moving to surmount their shortcomings. Apple is courting engineers by offering a version of the Unix operating system for the most powerful machines in its product line. The company notes that the Macintosh can handle many computer-aided design tasks that formerly required work stations. For instance, Macbravo, a computer-aided design package that was originally developed for Digital Equipment minicomputers and Sun work stations, now runs on the Macintosh. Apples are already used widely for technical chores in companies like Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

Apple is also investing heavily in providing its computers with the ability to connect with other machines. And it is rewriting the Macintosh operating system to allow the machines to do more than one task at a time.

The Efforts at Sun

Sun, which has made no secret of the fact that it would like to be considered a general-purpose computer company, is trying to offer more non-technical software for its machines.

Last week it introduced three programs named Sunwrite, Sundraw and Sunpaint that perform the same tasks as Apple's Macwrite, Macdraw and Macpaint. And Sun has been recruiting independent software companies to develop programs for Unix. Some analysts say that Unix is making inroads against not only the Macintosh operating system but against OS/2, the operating system being supported as the next-generation software for I.B.M. and compatible personal computers.

Sun and A.T.& T. have also been developing Open Look, a user interface that will give Unix-based computers many of the features that make the Macintosh easy to use.

Sun and Apple are also moving toward each other in distribution. As Apple's systems become more sophisticated it is going beyond retailers to a more sophisticated type of seller known as a value-added reseller, which buys machines and integrates software into a complete package for users. Sun is also recruiting value-added resellers, to broaden its distribution beyond direct sales.

Advantages for Each Side

Each side thinks it has the upper hand. Mr. McNealy of Sun pointed out that Apple would have difficulty adding sophisticated communications and multi-tasking features. Meanwhile, Sun, which already has such features, will be able to offer its machines at lower prices as electronic component costs decline over time, as they normally do. ''I always argue that gravity is on our side,'' he said.

But Mr. Loren of Apple pointed out that the Macintosh was designed for ease of use from the start, while Sun's new ease-of-use interface was merely ''bolted on'' to Unix. ''If you really believe you're going to have tens of millions of people working with Unix all day long, then I want to get some of the stuff you're smoking,'' he said.

Both sides have some hesitancy in straying further from their own philosophies. Apple, for instance, does not see itself ever making machines that sell for $30,000, as Sun does, Mr. Loren said. And it is likely not to emphasize hardware speed, as Sun does. ''Apple doesn't do a machine unless they can sell 10,000 a month,'' said Mr. Alsop of PC Letter. That prevents Apple from using the latest components, which are initially available only in small quantities, he said.

Sun's Strategy

Sun, apparently after a fierce debate within the company, has decided to go slow in expanding toward the personal computer market. The company wants to conserve resources for competition against minicomputers and mainframes.

Even the Sparcintosh will not be as broad a thrust into the general-purpose market as some industry experts anticipate. It is expected to have the same entry price, about $6,000, as Sun's lowest-price models do now, but will offer increased power and ease of use. If it competes with Macintoshes anywhere, it is likely to be on college campuses, where both companies sell direct.

''Sun always chooses for power,'' said Mr. Rosing, a former Apple official who is now in charge of Sun's low-end products. ''We don't see any value in trying to get into the PC business.'' He also denied rumors that the company was planning to sell through retail outlets.

Mr. McNealy agreed: ''If we go into the low-end space, we may get people calling up placing an order for an individual unit. Yecch!''

Still, even if Sun disavows a plan to attack the broad PC market, it will continue to lower prices on its products based on both its Sparc chip and on the Intel 80386, the microprocessor used in powerful personal computers from I.B.M., Compaq and others. In a year or two, Sun will have machines selling for $3,000.

GRAPHIC: photos of Michael J. Homer; Wayne ROsing (NYT/Terrence McCarthy); chart comparing costs of personal computers to work stations (Source: Company reports)

Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company