Silicon Graphics' forthcoming entree into the Windows NT workstation market raises the question of whether innovation and differentiation is possible within the standards-based framework of Wintel computing.
On January 11, SGI will unveil its Visual PCs, according to a company representative, which include a host of proprietary graphics technologies designed to give SGI an edge in the increasingly commoditised NT workstation market.
With its 320 and 540 workstation models, SGI will eschew Intel's chip set, using instead its own Cobalt chip set for 3-D performance. The company will also use its homegrown graphics system, which is burned onto the motherboard. Pricing for the new workstations will start at $3,200 and will range to $5,995 for a system with four Xeon processors, according to sources.
There is room for innovation in the Wintel workstation market, according to one analyst.
"SGI and Intergraph are sticking with their strengths and doing their own graphics," said Peter ffoulkes, an analyst at Dataquest, in San Jose, California. "And Hewlett-Packard and Compaq are doing a certain amount of added value as well."
But many users still cling to the perception of NT-based workstations as juiced-up PCs.
"We are looking for the ability to have Microsoft Word and Excel on an NT workstation. We are doing some CAD/CAM on NT boxes, but mainly we view them as toys," said an IT manager at a major US airline that uses Unix systems for flight simulation.
One way workstation vendors are adding value, and cost, to their NT systems is by moving their Unix-based graphics technologies onto their NT offerings. HP brought its Visualize graphics system from its Unix systems onto its Kayak systems this year.
"There has to be room to innovate, and we are not at the commodity level yet," said Kathleen Tandy, product marketing manager for HP's Kayak line. "Performance is still the overriding factor. I don't think you'll see price become more important."
But some vendors believe that NT workstation customers want aggressive pricing and widely available technology.
"We find the best-of-class providers save on research and development costs and pass the savings on to the customer," said Fred Barhydt, brand manager at Dell in Round Rock, Texas.
Silicon Graphics Inc., in Mountain View, California, is at www.sgi.com.