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Computer Firms Preparing Clones of IBM PS/2

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From Reuters

Four small technology companies are expected to unveil a group of products this week that they say could bring a second wave of IBM-compatible personal computers to market by the spring.

One company, Chips & Technologies Inc., has already built one of the first prototypes of the IBM PS/2 Model 50, according to a spokeswoman, although it will show the machine at a press conference Wednesday in New York.

Legal experts warn that selling a so-called IBM PS/2 clone, a machine that uses the same software and attachments as the new IBM system, may be more difficult than building one because of outstanding patent issues.

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“The first company to introduce a PS/2 compatible is going to be a kamikaze,” said Ronald Laurie, an attorney with Townsend & Townsend of San Francisco. “Nobody wants to be the target of an IBM lawsuit.”

International Business Machines Corp. has said many times that it will use all the legal tools at its disposal to prevent the PS/2 from being copied. “If we feel they have been copied, we will take action,” William Lowe, IBM entry systems division president, told an American Electronics Assn. meeting in the fall.

IBM has said it will license some parts of the PS/2 design to other companies. But Laurie said the world’s largest computer maker has been slow to respond to a request from a company represented by his firm for a PS/2 license.

“There is no reason for the delay. Some people have said it is Machiavellian, that (IBM) is trying to close the market window for PS/2 compatible products until its own line is well-established,” Laurie said.

Legal Copies

“It is possible they just want to see the product before trying to license it,” he added.

IBM was much more open with the design of its first personal computer, introduced in 1981. The result was that by 1987, the clones grabbed two-thirds of the $22 billion worth of IBM and IBM-compatible personal computers sold around the world, according market researcher Dataquest Inc.

IBM made public the internal design of its first generation of personal computers so that software and peripheral manufacturers could easily design products for the machines, thus creating a de facto industry standard. However, other computer manufacturers were also able to legally build copies of the IBM machines and sell them at a lower price, cutting IBM’s market share.

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Sales of IBM’s PS/2 line, introduced last year, could eventually exceed $22 billion, and IBM is understandably anxious to hang on to more than a third of the market this time around.

Consequently, IBM made the PS/2 line much more difficult to duplicate by making most of its design proprietary. Despite the difficulties, Chips & Technologies of San Jose says it will unveil what it calls a “systems solution” to the PS/2 clone problem.

Analysts say Chips & Technologies will announce a set of computer chips that imitate IBM’s Micro Channel, the communications path inside the PS/2 that allows the different parts of the computer to work together.

The Micro Channel, which IBM did not make public, is considered the crucial piece needed to build a PS/2-compatible system.

Chips & Technologies is not the first company to build a Micro Channel chip set.

Western Digital Corp. announced a similar chip set last October, although the company has not yet started shipment.

But Chips went a step further by teaming up with software and data storage companies to develop the other pieces needed to build a fully equipped clone.

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Analysts say Adaptec Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., will announce an adapter for hard disk drives, a popular storage device for personal computers.

Phoenix Technologies Inc. of Norwood, Mass., is to show its BIOF software, the instructions that make the Micro Channel work. The Santa Cruz Operation Inc. of Santa Cruz is also expected to announce software products for the clone.

Naive About Legal Issues

Both Chips & Technologies and Western Digital have said their products will be shipped in time for computer manufacturers to build a PS/2 compatible computer to show at the Comdex/Spring, a large trade show in Atlanta in April.

But Gervaise Davis, an attorney with Schroeder Davis & Orliss of Monterey, Calif., doubts that the machine will be available. “It is quite possible that somebody will show one, but I bet that if you try to order it, they will be pretty evasive.”

Davis, a computer law specialist, said he believes that both Chips & Technologies and Western Digital are naive about the massive legal issues involved in cloning the PS/2.

“I would be very reluctant to advise my client to proceed with those products at this time,” he said.

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