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The Products of 1981

The goal of all the people joining Novell was to build computer products that the marketplace would buy. Jack had an impressive list in his business plan and 1981 was the year in which those ideas would be transformed into metal and plastic.

The Printer

The first product out the door was the printer. Incorporating the Tritel design had gone quickly and Image 800 printers were moving off the shipping dock in March. The Image 800 was a medium-duty wide-carriage dot-matrix printer. It printed at 160 characters per second and had a character selection comparable to the early Epson printers: Four basic widths plus double-high and double-wide, with international and extended sets.

Through most of 1981 the printers sold well, and this brought assurance that Novell was on the right track. But printers carry low profit margins, so Novell was going to have to sell more than printers if it was to be the kind of company Jack and George had in mind.

The Terminal

Early in 1981 Rusty had started designing the terminal. Jack’s vision was that it would sell to the Sperry-Univac marketplace, but shortly after Rusty arrived he was diverted from designing a Sperry-compatible terminal to one that would be the front end for the personal computer.

In theory this would be no problem. In practice, Rusty took all the Sperry-compatible ideas floating around in his head and put them into the personal computer product. The result was an “engineer’s delight”: A product with a lot of features that were easy for an engineer to implement but not particularly relevant to the market for which the product was designed.

The terminal Rusty produced had graphics capabilities and two kinds of programmable function keys. It was housed in a large case and the keyboard was broad and detached from the screen. All this was being presented to a personal computer marketplace that was used to working with simple, small, character-only terminals.

The terminal was premium, but how much of the market was willing to pay for a premium terminal? No one knew and top management didn’t have the time to find out. They were relying on Jack’s experience in the marketplace to lead them through to profitability. Once they were profitable, then they would have time to experiment and do market research. Meanwhile, Jack was busy building a company.

As Rusty finished the terminal for the computer, he turned back once again to working on the Sperry terminal. But before he could finish, the first wave of crisis in the fall of 1981 put it on the shelf.

The Terminal Computer

The terminal computer was a child of the Cynic’s Golden Rule: He who has the gold, rules. The Safeguard connection drove this product to the front of the development list. It was a combination of Rusty’s terminal plus a 64KB-RAM computer board incorporating Zilog’s Z‑80 CPU. The computer would run CP/M and have two serial ports for talking with printers, modems, and other peripheral devices.

The terminal computer suffered from being brought into the planning in a hasty way. Novell was structured so that it was counting on Jack’s experience in marketing to substitute for batteries of consultants and hours of market research—the company didn’t have the time for those if it was going to be quickly profitable.

The flaw was that Jack hadn’t paid that much attention to the personal computer marketplace. His attention was focused on terminals, printers, and minicomputers. In these areas his instinct as to what constituted a winning product was sharp. In personal computers it was fuzzy, but the terminal computer was to be the company’s second product. As a result, he let Rusty’s engineer’s delight slip out the door without bringing it sharply into focus with what the market was looking for.

The Novell terminal computer ended up being a high-end feature-loaded personal computer system when all the company needed to produce was a computerized accounting system that One Write salespeople could sell. But by the summer of 1981 that was what they had, and that was what they had to sell.

Ironically, this engineer’s delight was a vital step in developing the local area network product.

The Minicomputer

The minicomputer was to be developed with profits from the sales of other Novell products. It went on the shelf (on indefinite delay) almost as soon as Safeguard financing was arranged.

AutoGen: A TSI Software Legacy

Jack’s work at TSI also garnered him rights to a program called AutoGen. It never became a Novell product but its evolution gives more insight into Jack’s style.

The AutoGen idea started when Jack encountered an earlier program-generator program put together by a group in Hawaii for the Nova line of minicomputers.

The intent of program generators is to allow relatively inexperienced programmers to produce code quickly by automating parts of the code-generating process. A beginner programmer may build a screen with a screen editor, then the program generator scans what the programmer has done and generates code that will tell a high-level language—typically COBOL, BASIC, FORTRAN, or Pascal—to build a similar screen. This leaves the programmer free to concentrate on other parts of the programming task.

The program generator concept has been around a long time, but it is one of those parts of computerdom that rarely lives up to expectation. The concept is highly cyclical. It rises suddenly as a panacea for each new generation of computer programmer wannabes, then dies quickly as those people see the reality of the product and find that programming is still tedious.

(A modern incarnation of this concept that has actually been successful is converting WYSIWYG screens into HTML code for web sites. Dreamweaver is an example.)

Jack saw this Nova program generator and felt the concept was a breakthrough. He wanted to buy the rights to this package and sell them through TSI. He was foiled; the programmers had already sold interests to other companies and one of those objected that selling to TSI would conflict with their interest.

So Jack did an end run. He brought in a programming friend of his to look at the package and asked him if he could reverse-engineer it. “Of course,” said the programmer. He developed AutoGen for TSI and Jack put another piece in his minicomputer “hope chest”. (In the tight circles of the Utah computer industry, few people disappear. This programmer was Charles Burgoyne, a jack-of-all-[computer-related]-trades who later started one of Salt Lake’s most long-lived retail computer stores).

AutoGen shows that Jack was resourceful and his connections were widespread through the Utah and southern California computer industry. It also shows that he was sloppy about his follow-through; he would build fast while leaving lots of holes behind.

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