If you're putting off buying one of IBM's new Personal System/2 computers in hopes that a flood of PS/2 compatibles will arrive to drive down the prices, you'll have to wait a while longer. While the IBM Personal Computer was copied by dozens of companies, the PS/2 line presents clone makers like Compaq and Tandy with what could be insurmountable legal problems.
To understand why, you first have to understand how clones of the first IBM Personal Computer were built. Companies like San Jose, Calif.-based Chips and Technologies helped make PC clones possible by creating specialized chip sets, which combined the functions of several chips into only a few.
To build a clone, all clone makers had to do was buy a chip set, the Basic Input-Output System (BIOS) software on a chip from a company like Phoenix Technologies and the MS-DOS operating system from Microsoft. The clone makers then only needed a few engineers to design machines around the chips and software.
Building a PC clone became too easy, as far as IBM was concerned. One reason it created the PS/2 line was to differentiate its products from the clones. No one has built a PS/2 clone yet, partly because there have been no chip sets and BIOS chips available to mimic the PS-2's functions.
But Chips and Technologies and Phoenix -- along with Adaptec and Santa Cruz Operations -- recently introduced many of the tools necessary to build a PS/2 clone with IBM's Micro Channel Architecture, a feature IBM has said sets the PS/2 apart from other personal computers.
Will the availability of these tools result in the immediate introduction of several PS/2 clones? Probably not. The problem with the PS/2 chip sets and BIOS chips is that they could very well bring clone makers a lawsuit from IBM.
IBM has said it will sue any clone maker that copies certain proprietary designs without licensing them from IBM first. To make matters worse, IBM is vague about how much of the PS/2's design it will license, and no chip set maker -- including those that announced their products last week -- has gotten such a license yet.
This is making at least the large clone makers very nervous, and they won't say whether they plan to sell PS/2 clones. And these clone makers still aren't sure that the PS/2 will be popular enough that they can make money by cloning it -- their PC, XT and AT clones are still selling quite well.
If they do build them, it won't be for at least six months and, even then, some retailers like Businessland of San Jose, Calif., may not sell them to you. Businessland's Vice Chairman Enzo Torresi says he won't sell a PS/2 clone unless the manufacturer takes full responsibility for the legality of the computer's design. And some computer makers say they won't build PS/2 clones unless the chip set maker shoulders the legal burden.
If you think you'd like to buy a PS/2 clone, you must play a waiting game. First you have to wait and see if any clone maker dares create a PS/2 clone with the new chip sets. Then, you have to wait to see if IBM sues the clone maker.
All this waiting is precisely what IBM is counting on. The longer you have to wait, the more likely you are to buy IBM's PS/2, if you really want the benefits of that computer's design.
In this case, it's best to go along with IBM's thinking -- if you really want a PS/2, buy a PS/2. If you don't want to wait, buy a PC clone. It could be many months before PS/2 clones are available, if they ever are at all.