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 38: Prime and the Lionel Singer story
Prime Computer, founded in Massachusetts in 1972, was only briefly a major minicomputer supplier on the global scene, but was remarkably successful in Australia, due to the marketing prowess of its local distributor.
Prime’s first computer, the Prime 200, was a Honeywell 516 clone. The company subsequently developed a range of minicomputers in the 1970s and 1980s that were notable for their excellent price-performance.
They used a proprietary operating system called PRIMOS, but Prime’s key differentiator was Prime Information, an operating and development environment based on the Pick operating system, developed by Dick Pick for the US Department of Defense. It enabled fast applications development and high-performance.
In Australia, its products were initially distributed by electronics company Warburton Franki, which started selling Prime computers locally in 1974.
In 1977, the distributorship passed to colourful entrepreneur Lionel Singer, who had been looking for suitable hardware and software to distribute in Australia. Singer made a great success of Prime, and in doing so became a legend in the Australian computer industry.
The company became known for its innovative advertising and aggressive marketing. Its 1980 TV advertisements featuring Doctor Who actor Tom Baker are still remembered today, as are the ads featuring a C3PO type robot called Albert EinPrime.
The Prime 750, released in 1979, was an enormous success, in Australia and internationally. In the early 1980s Prime reached the number four position in the US minicomputer market, after DEC, Data General and Hewlett-Packard. In 1980, it was the fastest moving stock on the New York Stock Exchange – its share price grew by 272 percent in the year.
It was even more successful in Australia. Under the exuberant Singer, Prime became one of the largest minicomputer suppliers in the local market. At a time when most US computer suppliers did around 2 percent of their annual global revenues in Australia, Prime regularly exceeded 10 percent.
Australia was the company’s largest international operation. The company was so successful in Australia that Prime established a direct subsidiary in 1981, with Singer continuing as managing director for another year.
Prime continued to be a very successful vendor in Australia in the 1980s, but the company’s local success was not shared by the US parent. In 1988, it purchased Computervision, an early CAD (computer aided design) company, whose software it had used to develop its own CAD systems.
But it was unable to integrate the two companies successfully, and was also suffering from declining sales with the growth of the Unix operating system and more powerful hardware from its rivals.
In 1992, Prime sold its Prime Information software to emerging software company Vmark, exited the hardware business, and changed its name Computervision. Prime Computer was no more.
Meanwhile back in Australia, Lionel Singer was going from strength to strength. After he lost the distributorship of Prime, he formed the modestly named Lionel Singer Corporation to distribute hardware and software from other US computer vendors. Lionel Singer had become a brand.
In a conversation with the author in the early 1990s, he said he used to drive around Silicon Valley, look at the signage of new computer companies that had sprung up, and ring them immediately for an interview.
He eventually distributed products from dozens of companies, which led to UK magazine Computer Business Review referring to ‘the octopus-like Lionel Singer Corporation’.
Major distributorships that Singer signed during this period included Sun Microsystems, Pyramid and Wicat.
Pyramid set up its own local operation in 1989, under former senior employee Gary Jackson. it was very successful in Australia, at one stage getting 10 percent of its global revenues from the local operation.
The extroverted Jackson was to become one of the highest profile figures in the Australian computer industry, later running the local operations of Microsoft, then Cisco. (His tenure at Microsoft was cut short after an unfortunate misunderstanding over a golf sponsorship.)
Pyramid was particularly strong in Unix, and was a popular platform for the emerging relational database management systems in that era. Telecom (later to be renamed Telstra) was a very large customer. Pyramid was acquired by German company Siemens in 1995.
Sun Microsystems was a comparatively late entry into the minicomputer market, founded in 1982 in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley. It grew very quickly and was a major player in the Australian market in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Sun began as a workstation vendor. Workstations, conceived as powerful single user machines, were eventually superseded by powerful microcomputers. Most workstation vendors, such as Apollo, disappeared, but Sun grew into a significant hardware vendor by concentrating on open systems, and in particular the Unix operating system.
When Unix became very popular at the end the 1980s, Sun was in the right place at the right time. Its workstations grew into powerful servers, Sun became a major industry player.
‘Sun’ stood for Stanford University Network, after the famous Silicon Valley university where it was conceived. One of the founders, Scott McNealy, remained its CEO until 2002.
The company’s computers were initially distributed in Australia by Lionel Singer, but it set up a local subsidiary in 1986, under Val Mickan, who had previously run ICL in Australia. Subsequent managing directors were Shaun McConnan (1990), Les Hayman (1992), and Russ Bate (1994).
Sun in Australia grew in the 1990s as many other minicomputer suppliers declined. It strongly emphasised its support for the Internet, with McNealy pioneering the phrase ‘the network is the computer’.
Many of its sales were to companies riding the Internet boom. Duncan Bennet became managing director in 1999, at the height of Sun’s success. He held that position for ten years, only to see the company decline.
Sun was hit hard by the tech crash of the 2000s. The fact that it had tied its fortunes so closely to the Internet was ultimately the cause of its demise. Its revenues and share price plummeted. It made many vain attempts to strike out in a new direction, even acquiring former storage leader StorageTek in 2005. It was eventually acquired by software company Oracle in 2009, mostly for its software assets, such as Java and MySQL.
Wicat was a small Utah-based company that attracted Singer because of its early use of Motorola’s powerful 68000 processor. Wicat stood for ‘World Institute for Computer Assisted Teaching.’
It was a Mormon educational software company which developed the hardware as a platform for its products. Singer ported the Pick operating environment to it and sold it in Australia as a commercial machine. His success in Australia proved something of an embarrassment back in Utah; the company did not want to be in that business, and Singer was forced to end the distributorship.
By the mid-1990s most of the companies that Singer had brought to Australia had set up their own subsidiaries, and the rise of the Internet meant the world was changing.
Seeking a new challenge, Singer left Australia in the late 1990s to live and work in New York, where he started a small software development company, with big ambitions, on Wall Street. He died there unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2000.
Veteran ICT journalist Graeme Philipson has written ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Computing in Australia’.
It will be available as a PDF download from acs.org.au and ebook from Amazon on 2 November 2017.
Expressions of interest for a hard copy of the book are being accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org.