International Business Machines Corp. took a step yesterday toward offering the software that underlies Apple Computer Inc.'s popular Macintosh, but IBM executives were vague about how closely they would embrace their rival and partner.
The statements, which were made during the announcement of IBM's new Power Series computers, confused many analysts, illustrating the difficulty the company has had articulating its strategy for the new line.
In November, Apple and IBM agreed on a common set of specifications for a computer that would be able to run both Apple's operating system and OS/2, IBM's software.
The two companies, along with Motorola Corp., have collaborated on the development of a microprocessor called the Power PC, which has been installed on Apple computers since early last year and is just now being featured in IBM's new line.
The machines with the common specifications will not be available until the middle of next year, when Apple is scheduled to introduce the next version of its operating system.
Since that common hardware alliance was intended to create a computer with a large enough following to entice software developers and challenge the domination of Intel Corp., the maker of the chips found in most personal computers, it was assumed that IBM would support Apple's software.
But at the time of the November agreement, IBM refused to say whether it would license Apple's operating system once the two companies started building compatible machines.
At yesterday's announcement, Tony Santelli, the executive in charge of the new IBM computers, said that IBM would support the Apple operating system when the new machines were released next year, but he declined to way whether IBM would actually license the software from Apple.
During an interview later, G. Richard Thoman, the executive in charge of IBM's personal computer business, said that the company would license Apple software if customers demanded it and if the terms of a future licensing agreement were reasonable.
Despite the apparently lukewarm endorsement, Apple was happy. "It's a level of commitment that really pleases us," said a spokeswoman. "We continue to work together very closely."
What is pushing IBM toward Apple is the fact that there is no operating system with a large following that runs on its new Power Series machines. "IBM would be foolish to ignore the Mac operating system once it is available," said Scott Winkler, an analyst in Stamford, Conn.
But IBM is reluctant to embrace Apple's software more enthusiastically because that would undermine OS/2, which has been struggling unsuccessfully to find a mass following for seven years.
Indeed, although IBM delayed yesterday's announcement for months to wait for a new version of OS/2, that version will not be ready until the end of this year at the earliest.