Eating eggs and ordering bytes

Imagine waging war over something as ludicrous as arguing over which way to eat a hard-boiled egg.

That's what happens in Jonathan Swift's great satirical commentary on humanity, Gulliver's Travels.

Having been shipwrecked, Gulliver finds himself washed up on the shore of Lilliput, a land of diminutive people reigned over by a war-mongering emperor who insists the proper way to eat an egg is from the little end down.

However, a rebellion faction called the Big-Endians believe eggs should be eaten starting at, of course, the big end. To escape persecution, the Big-Endians flee to the empire of Blefuscu -- a primitive society in the Lilliputian emperor's estimation.

For years and years, a sea battle is waged between Lilliput and Blefuscu -- or the Little-Endians and Big-Endians, as it were.

Well, as silly as this sounds, I'm sure many of you probably know that this very banal egg-eating debate is what divides most of the operating system industry.

You see, some OSs use the big-endian format for storage or transmission of binary date in which the most significant byte comes first. And others use the little-endian method, where the least significant byte comes first.

To address this interoperability barrier, Intel and Hewlett-Packard hatched -- pun intended -- the idea of developing one microprocessor that combined technology from each of their respective chips, so that big-endian and little-endian systems one and all could run on a single unified platform. The result is the "bi-endian" Merced processor, due to ship next year.

Unfortunately -- if we can now bring Sir Isaac Newton into our rather eclectic discussion -- for every cooperative effort in the computing industry there is an equal and opposing competitive force. You see, a rather un-unified platform picture is coming into focus in these last few months of Merced's development.

HP, Sun Microsystems, Santa Cruz Operation and Digital Equipment Corporation are setting up four separate competing factions in the hardware server market. HP counts NEC, Hitachi and Stratus among its followers. Sun recently signed up Siemens Nixdorf, NCR and Fujitsu. SCO hopes to beef up its enterprise presence through partnerships with Unisys, ICL, Data General and Compaq. And Digital has its ties to Compaq and Tandem, plus an OEM deal with Sequent Computer Systems, to support its efforts.

Instead of bringing together all OS and server platform vendors, Merced's legacy will be further division in the industry. The promise of a unified 64-bit Unix will never be realised. That much is pretty clear. So, what really will be changed by the arrival of Merced? Not much.

Before, each Unix vendor's proprietary microprocessors prevented the possibility of a universal Unix environment. Post-Merced, the vendors' unique OS tweakings will be to blame.

The price for Unix systems should come down, however, now that a commodity chip maker is in the picture. Unix customers can look forward to that and the fact they will have to make a choice among only four Unix flavours from now on.

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