The Australian Computer Society (ACS) was formed 50 years ago, when the various state computer societies joined forces.
To mark the occasion, the ACS has initiated a heritage project to honour the many individuals who have contributed to the growth of the ICT profession in Australia.
At the heart of the project is a history of computing in Australia. It is not just a history of the ACS, but the history of a profession.
Australia has the longest computing history of any country, excepting the US and the UK, and CSIRAC in the Museum of Victoria is the oldest computer still in existence.
Chapter 36: Data General and Sigma Data
Data General (DG) was DEC’s greatest minicomputer rival in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
DG was founded by Edson de Castro, a disaffected DEC engineer, in 1969. Its ‘Nova’ was a revolutionary computer that in many ways sparked the minicomputer revolution of the 1970s. Data General set up an Australian subsidiary in Melbourne at the beginning of 1973.
The local company was headed by Wayne Fitzsimmons, who had been marketing manager for distributor Fairchild in Australia. Fitzsimmons became known for his aggressive marketing, and Data General Australia grew quickly. It sold $1 million worth of equipment in its first year. The big break, recalls Fitzsimmons, with a large sale to BHP towards the end of 1983.
In 1974, Data General released the Eclipse range of 16-bit machines, intended to compete against the DEC PDP-11. The Eclipse was late to market and unsuccessful, and was left behind by DEC’s VAX 11/780. Data General stumbled badly, but things picked up with the release of the 32-bit MV series in 1980.
The frantic development of the MV was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller The Soul of a New Machine, which examined – in detail – the internal workings of Data General at the time.
Wayne Fitzsimmons left Australia in 1979 to head up Data General in the United Kingdom. He was replaced by John Dougall, who also succeeded him in the United Kingdom in 1983, when Fitzsimmons became vice president for Asia and the Americas at head office in Massachusetts.
Data General Australia was then run by Englishman John Filmer, who had worked for Fitzsimmons in the United Kingdom. Dougall went on to run IDAPS, one of Australia’s largest computer services companies.
In later years, Fitzsimmons was to become a well-known figure in the Australian computer industry, and chairman of the Pearcey Foundation.
The MV series machines were successful in Australia and Data General won many significant orders. The company released an office automation package called CEO (Comprehensive Electronic Office). But like many other minicomputer suppliers, Data General missed the microcomputer boom and went into decline in the 1980s and 1990s.
It did release an advanced microcomputer called the DG-1 in 1984, but it was unable to compete in the competitive IBM-compatible market. It was also increasingly uncompetitive with many computers, which were increasingly adopting the open systems Unix operating system.
Data General released the AViiON range of Unix servers in 1989, which used off-the-shelf Motorola 88000 microprocessors, and then chips from Intel. ‘AViiON’ was a play on ‘NOVA ii’, a homage to the company’s first successful computer. It also released the CLARiiON storage system, which became so successful that when the company was acquired by EMC Corporation in 2002, it was that technology that drove the deal.
DEC and DG had many rivals. One of them was Datapoint, was founded in 1968 in San Antonio, Texas as Computer Terminal Corporation (CTC). As the name suggests, its first products were terminals, intended to replace Teletype machines. Teletypes, or teleprinters, were cumbersome electromechanical typewriters used to send and receive messages on Telex and other electrical communications systems.
CTC’s terminals were very successful, and Datapoint went public a year after it was founded. Its 2200 programmable terminal, released in 1971, was so successful that the company changed its name to Datapoint, which had better brand recognition than the original CTC. Datapoint, needing money for product development, sold the international manufacturing and distribution rights to aerospace giant TRW.
The 2200’s small size and programmability have led some to suggest that it was the first personal computer. Its original design included an 8-bit microprocessor, a device which did not exist at the time. Datapoint asked two microprocessor companies, Texas Instruments and Intel, to design a suitable chip. Neither was able to do so, and Datapoint went with a multi-chip solution.
Even though it missed the Datapoint contract, Intel persisted with the design. In what has been described as ‘the worst decision in business history’, Datapoint let Intel keep the intellectual property of the chip that Datapoint had specified. Intel then used the design the following year to develop its 8008 microprocessor. That chip’s successor the 8086 was chosen by IBM for its first Personal Computer, and was the basis for Intel’s x86 architecture, the most dominant in computing history.
Datapoint computers were distributed in Australia by Sigma Data Corporation. Founder and Managing Director was Mike Faktor, who had distributed Datapoint systems in his native South Africa, where he had previously become the youngest IBM’s national manager in the world, at the age of 26.
The urbane Faktor saw more opportunities in Australia than in apartheid South Africa, and with two partners, moved to Sydney in 1974. They set up Sigma Data to distribute products from Datapoint and from British word processor vendor Wordplex.
Sigma Data sold Datapoint products in Australia until 1982, when the American company set up its own local subsidiary. By that time Datapoint had become a Fortune 500 company, and was regarded as a major minicomputer supplier.
But its fall from grace was very rapid. Datapoint got into severe financial problems by inflating its revenues, and fell foul of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Its stock price plummeted and it was acquired by corporate raider Asher Edelman in 1985 and sold off for the sum of its parts. The Datapoint story ended as quickly as it had begun.
The loss of the Datapoint distributorship just before the company’s demise was thus a blessing in disguise for Mike Faktor’s Sigma Data, which re-emerged in 1984 after a two-year non-compete period as a distributor for products for US vendors Convergent Technologies and Sequent.
Both these product lines were successful in Australia, and Sigma Data was a major player on the local scene in the late 1980s. Convergent Technologies was founded in 1979 by ex-employees of Intel and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) to build workstations based on Intel’s 8086 chip. Over the next few years, it produced a range of advanced terminals and workstations which were rebadged by a number of leading computer vendors including Bull, Burroughs NCR, Prime and Unisys.
Its CTOS operating system was initially popular, but Convergent Technologies’ products became popular Unix platforms. The company was acquired by Unisys in 1988 and became the Unisys Network Systems Division, after which time it declined along with the rest of the company.
Sequent was a high-performance minicomputer that was briefly successful in the 1990s. Sigma Data lost the Sequent distributorship in 1990 when the company established a local subsidiary. Michael Faktor attempted to plug the gap with new distributorship arrangements, including products from AT&T and NetFrame, but they were not enough. Sigma Data went into voluntary receivership in 1991, and disappeared shortly afterwards.