WHEN six computing powerhouses stood together a month ago and delivered a promise of a truly unified and ''open'' UNIX operating system, the industry considered the proposal lazily and then yawned audibly. The last thing users want right now is a new consortium promising a ''new'' standard operating system. The UNIX environment - which is touted by vendors as virtually synonymous with ''open systems'' - at last count had several hundred variants. For customers, buying into UNIX presents the same degree of political confusion as the United Nations buying into conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The much talked of ''UNIX wars'' over the past five years, between UNIX International (UI) and the Open Software Foundation (OSF), have all but petered out, with both sides now seemingly patting each other on the back as if they were both winners in the standards conflict. The truth is, though, that the UNIX wars produced no winners, only casualties. It was the customers who were blown away, their interests always being placed second to the interests of the vendors. In the five years since the first serious moves towards unifying UNIX were made - with the formation of UI and OSF - a UNIX-based open environment ideal has never been more confused. And the formation by the Gang of Six of the so-called Common Open Software Environment (COSE) is the official capitulation, the admission that all sides of the UNIX argument have failed in their original aim to unify the computing world. COSE was announced in mid-March, an initiative led by industry big boys IBM, Hewlett-Packard, SunSoft (the Sun Microsystems software subsidiary) and followed by Univel, UNIX System Laboratories and the Santa Cruz Operation. The consortium's aim - like that of so many that have gone before - is to create a common environment. First, the group would concentrate on a common desktop environment, followed by agreements in the areas of networking, graphics, multimedia, object orientation and systems administration. This all sounds reasonable enough. And given that the COSE members come from both sides of the ''UNIX war'', you can only wonder why this sort of initiative wasn't nutted out two, three or even four years ago, when customers were screaming for it. The prevailing theory goes like this: COSE is the direct by-product of fear and loathing for Mr Bill Gates and the Microsoft Corporation. Having failed for the past five years to produce the singular open environment customers had been pushing for, COSE members appear horrified at the thought that Microsoft will walk in and steal the market from under them with the launch of its new operating system, Windows NT. It is this fear of Microsoft that has brought the previous rival systems closer together - albeit three years late. The jury is still out on whether or not COSE will actually survive in any significant way. But its formation is still the biggest single open systems event in years, if only because it articulates the need for disparate UNIX groups to bury the hatchet somewhere and get on with unifying the product - and quickly. The public front of UNIX International and OSF is to welcome the COSE initiative wholeheartedly. As open systems organisations, they welcome any moves to bring the industry to agreed standards. Given the apparent secrecy that surrounded the formation of COSE (it was divulged to other leading industry players such as Digital Equipment Corp just one day before it was announced to the world's press), you have to wonder whether organisations such as UI and OSF are still trying to work out just what their reaction should be. Hongkong marketing manager Mr Gary Scarborough, who is also chairman of UNIX International's Hongkong marketing group, was a keen subscriber to the theory that COSE had been formed because its members were ''scared to death of Microsoft and Windows NT''. ''COSE was formed as a reaction to what Microsoft is doing,'' Mr Scarborough said on last week's Dataphiles talk show on Metro News. ''And it is interesting that Digital wasn't invited into the group because DEC is seen to be very closely aligned to Microsoft and to NT - and has made announcements to that effect,'' he said. ''I see this very much as a reaction by the big players - especially HP and IBM. It is a rearguard action to downgrade and to stop the onslaught of Windows NT in the marketplace.'' OSF's Asia/Pacific managing director, Mr Jim Curtin, agreed, though he said there was no conflict between the aims of OSF and the aims of COSE. ''There is no mystery as to why COSE was formed. It is a reaction against the popularity that NT has received before even coming out of the box,'' Mr Curtin said. Digital, the glaring omission from the COSE initiative, has said it supports the ideals of the group, but has had too little time to study COSE objectives to make a decision to join. Digital has not commented on why it was not invited to join the group - but has conceded that the close affiliation with Windows NT (it will support NT on its new Alpha chip platform) probably has something to do with it. ''Basically, we found out about details of this COSE alliance just a day before it was published,'' said Digital's Hongkong marketing manager, Ms Grace Su. ''So, this late disclosure did not allow us sufficient time to evaluate the lengthy proposal of the software specifications,'' she said. ''Although we were not included in the announcement, we actually strongly support all industry efforts toward a unified UNIX environment,'' Ms Su said.