The Compatibility Craze

Lawrence J. Curran, Editor in Chief
Byte Magazine

February 1984

American history is dotted with inventors—from Thomas Edison to the Wright Brothers—who could not have succeeded without substantial innovation . Indeed, the Wrights had to discard most of the recorded experience of others who had gone before them in nonpowered flight; they truly had to pioneer in propulsion, aerodynamics, and aircraft piloting

Drs. Shockley, Brattain, and Bardeen revolutionized the world of electronics with their invention of the transistor 36 years ago—an invention that spawned an era of innovative solid-state design in a range of products from radios to computers, But the world of personal computers doesn't appear to be characterized by innovation today Instead, the personal computer market seems to be shadowed under a cloud of compatibility: the drive to be compatible with the IBM Personal Computer family has assumed near-fetish proportions.

The compatibility craze was evident everywhere at the recent Comdex show in Las Vegas, Billboards outside the convention center and booth personnel inside proclaimed how closely the company's products imitated the IBM PC family That kind of imitation is inevitable in the light of the phenomenal market acceptance of the IBM PC.

We devoted the theme section of last November's issue to the IBM PC and its clones because a growing fraction of our readers own or use such machines, Unavoidably, we took some heat from some of our more vocal readers who regret IBM's strong emergence in the PC market. Some of those readers sounded a concern with which we heartily agree: that IBM's burgeoning influence in the PC community is stifling innovation because so many other companies are simply mimicking Big Blue.

Innovation usually prospers in companies that respect the role of research and development and which fund R&D appropriately. Most large companies recognize that R&D eventually leads to innovative products that will enhance revenues and profits, but large companies also have a built-in inertia that militates against the risk-taking associated with unproven new products.

Few companies are in a stronger position to foster innovation than is IBM, which has long recognized and generously sponsored R&D. We urge the company, therefore, to encourage the migration downward to its personal computer families of innovative developments that often find their first practical application in larger computers. Such developments could soon include flat-screen displays, half-megabit RAMs, and office-by-example (OBE) software.

We also urge venture-capital organizations to include innovative ness in their checklist of attributes when they are approached by those with ideas who need financial backing. Often the people with such ideas have run into the no-risk inertia of a large corporation, become frustrated with that environment, and have founded successful new companies with the help of backers who are willing to take risks.

We believe innovation has kept U. S. industry competitive in world markets until the recent emergence of keen foreign competition in such basic industries as steel and autos. And we believe it will be innovation that keeps the U. S. knowledge-based industry competitive in the years to come.

Copyright 1984