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Now that the stage set has been revealed and the actors introduced, here are vignettes of what Roger White saw in 1981. They show the excitement, the innovation, the compromise, and the coping that went on as Novell tried to make dreams fit reality on a limited budget.
Larry came on early, as Vice President of Sales in November 1980. As mentioned on p. 15 above, he was one of the attendees at Novell’s first Comdex.
Larry’s job was to organize those who would sell Novell products. This is significant because it shows that from day one Jack was bent on selling things. There was no low-overhead development phase at Novell, during which product was developed without the pressure of a sales staff waiting expectantly to rip the finished work out of the developers’ and manufacturers’ hands and begin hawking it.
Larry knew how to sell minicomputers. He immediately set out to build a national sales force with offices located regionally across the nation.
Larry was a man with experience, so he brought in salespeople he was experienced with. The first on board was Andy Olson, who would handle the southern California area. His experiences with introducing Novell products were typical.
Andy was born and raised in Northern Minnesota. His dad was a mining engineer who worked at exploring and developing the open pit iron mines in that area. But digging giant holes in the ground wasn’t a legacy to be passed from father to son.
Ten to fifteen years before, Andy had reached the California coast and flourished. When he signed on with Novell he had two houses and two ex-wives in Manhattan Beach and he was something of a local celebrity. He was into supporting local politicians and he was trying to reach a final settlement with his second wife. He was also a remodeling contractor.
Andy was the kind of guy who was always busy and always on the phone except at lunch, when he went to Orville’s, a classy restaurant in the center of Manhattan Beach where Andy knew the owners and the banker that financed the owners and so on. He treated the computer industry the same way he treated Manhattan Beach. He was one of the speakers at and advisors to the first Comdex, Comdex 79, and he had connections all through the southern California minicomputer sales scene.
When Roger was brought on in March 1981 to head Customer and Sales Support there weren’t any customers yet, so he helped in the task of getting some. Roger coordinated with Andy to set up a series of meetings with the five ComputerLand stores in southern California.
The meetings went smoothly enough but the response was reserved: None of the store owners wanted to be a pioneer. They wanted to see product and see customers before they committed.
As they left, Roger hummed “The times they are a-changing”. The days had ended when a ComputerLand store owner asked only two questions: “Does it run CP/M?” and “Will it work when I turn it on?”
Andy moved on to Plan B.
Andy’s next stop was Jade Computer, a mail order house pioneering in offering personal computers, where Andy had connections. The Jade people were more responsive. Mail order, it seemed, was still in the two-question era, and Jade was signed up as Novell’s first customer.
This left Roger uneasy. Mail order was the low-end whorish competitor to the retail store channel. It wasn’t clear that taking on Jade as a reseller would make the task of penetrating the retail channel any easier. It might if it helped generate awareness and demand, but it might not if it started a trend of margin shaving.
What Andy knew that Roger didn’t was that Jade had a retail side as well and this made it look attractive to Andy.
So Andy had his first blood and Roger returned to Utah.
The quickest way to turn Rusty’s terminal design into a computer was to add a CPU board to the terminal enclosure and put the disk drives in a separate box. This was the path chosen and it was a good one for at least two reasons: The terminal enclosure was big and heavy already, so having the disks in a separate box made the shipping and handling easier. In the early ’80s disk drives were noisy; with a separate box the drives could be moved away from the operator.
The pitfalls in this simple approach involved how these various parts were going to communicate with each other.
The terminal part of the microcomputer was already designed to talk with the outside world, being equipped with the twin RS-232 ports that made that possible. Once again, the simplest solution was to use those ports and let the CPU board do all its communicating through the terminal board. But this was a deviation from standard microcomputer practice in the early ’80s. The terminal computer looked like this:
[CPU] - - - - - [terminal] - - - - - RS-232 to outside world
when everyone expected:
[terminal] - - - - - [CPU] - - - - - RS-232 to outside world
Putting a CPU behind the terminal produced several other differences that, like the above, presented subtle challenges. Solving these challenges added overhead to the system. In spite of its size and the impressive claim of four CPUs in the system its performing speed was mediocre.
Rusty had been brought on board to design a high-quality terminal that supported graphics. When the terminal turned into a microcomputer there seemed no reason not to make it a graphics-supporting microcomputer, so he did.
The decision to go with graphics produced another hit against performance. The screen generator didn’t use a fast character-generator chip; it relied on slower ROM-based software.
One place that the terminal computer did excel was in offering a hard disk. In the early ’80s attaching a hard disk to a microcomputer was not unheard of but it wasn’t common, either. Novell took the bold step of making the hard disk an integral part of the system: You always got a hard disk with your Novell computer.
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