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One of the first things Jack and Larry needed to decide was how to approach their marketplace: The newly emerging retail computer store channel. Jack knew such a channel existed because these new stores were buying some of the terminals that he sold at TSI. Since Praxis software was sold to dentists on minicomputers, Larry had had few dealings with dealers.
One of their early sources was Roger, the ex-ComputerLand store owner. With his input about how ComputerLand was organized and what was expected of margins and pricing, the product marketing and promotion features were hashed out.
Roger recounted his pricing experiences to Jack and Larry, saying something like this.
In the early years of retail computer stores, the late ’70s, hardware products carried margins of 25 to 33%. These were very low. One of the first lessons in the ComputerLand training seminars was a cash flow lesson that demonstrated how important a good margin was to profitable sales. The moral: Don’t discount just to increase sales volume. If you do discount, make sure you pick your margin back up on the accessory sales.
One of ComputerLand corporate’s major goals was to raise that margin, and by the beginning of the ’80s the 25% items were rarely seen and a few 40% items were appearing.
Given this background the terminal computer was priced with a 45% margin and no discount for volume dealing. Novell wanted something dealers could become strong by selling.
As Larry assembled the sales force Roger trained them. He assembled classes in CP/M basics: Booting the system, word processing with WordStar, and showing how these tools could be used in office automation.
Novell was going to build a CP/M computer but no one in the front office or top management had any experience with one. The only CP/M machines at Novell were two Intertech Superbrains in Phil’s lab and they were in the usual state of Superbrains—dead. (Intertech was a company that survived for several years on the new blood entering the personal computer field. Their quality was terrible but they were always the lowest price, so they always got tried first.)
Roger saw this as a big oversight. To give the company some insight into what it was dealing with he brought in his pride from ComputerLand days: A dual-eight-inch-drive Digital Microsystems computer with an IBM 3101 ASCII terminal and a Diablo daisywheel printer. He also brought in his software collection and set the system up near the break room where lots of people could have access to it.
From this system the company management and staff learned their first lessons about CP/M word processing and database management.
Following minicomputer tradition, Novell was going to sell software for their personal computer. Roger, being the most experienced with personal computer software, got involved in picking packages.
Novell needed a word processor. The most popular in the CP/M world of 1981 was WordStar. Novell signed a deal with MicroPro and began offering WordStar.
It was a good choice. WordStar was a well-known full-featured package that worked well on the terminal computer. With a little extra work it was customized so that it could take advantage of the function keys on the terminal computer as well and it became a hot package.
Like the course of true love, the course of true business rarely runs smoothly. Jack felt that WordStar wasn’t a Novell product. It was okay as an interim solution but Novell needed something that Novell could call its own and get better margins on. He continued the search.
This resulted in a parade of word processing developers coming in to offer their product as something Novell could OEM. It also led to Jack’s making the BYU contact that eventually brought the SuperSet programmers to Novell.
And while that was happening, other big changes were occurring. Jack and Mike King’s search for “Novell’s own” word processor was bearing fruit. A group from Phoenix called Metasoft had reached Jack’s ear via Sherrill Harmon. They would build Jack a word processer. As credentials they presented their existing WP [word processor]—Benchmark. They had sold this package to Zenith and Harris.
I had seen Benchmark in its Zenith incarnation and it was no great shakes. It was page oriented and did nothing special in my mind to compensate for that. WordStar was better.
But Jack wanted Novell’s own, so he struck a deal: We would give them a machine, they would give us a WP. Like many other deals Novell made during this period, it sounded simple enough, but the implementation was another matter.
In this case we had a chicken and egg problem. Metasoft needed the latest terminal firmware to develop their software on so it could incorporate all the bells and whistles they had agreed with Jack to add. We didn’t have the latest firmware released yet. But Jack had a show coming up and he wanted to show the WP off.
So Jack put pressure on Rusty, who would then release preliminary (and buggy) firmware to Metasoft. But as soon as Metasoft found bugs, they would stop work.
At one point I was appointed project manager to see if this could get completed. But there was no way I could get into that loop meaningfully, and after a week or so no one tried anymore. I didn’t because I became a sales manager and all I needed was WordStar. NovellWriter was a waste of time as far as I was concerned.
In 1981 the VisiCalc spreadsheet program had been out for two years. It was immensely popular on the Apple II and had made a business machine of that computer. But its developer, VisiCorp, was very slow about porting the package to other kinds of computers. They had a Commodore PET version out (PET was pronounced, and apparently meant to suggest, pet) but nothing for CP/M. Roger called them several times and always got back a “we’re considering it” sort of answer.
Roger knew having a spreadsheet was as critical as having a word processor. For weeks he phoned, researched, and networked through his connections in the personal computer world looking for a suitable substitute. Just as the impossible looked like it was happening—that there was no substitute—the Osborne 1 computer, a CP/M machine, was announced. Bundled with it was a spreadsheet package called SuperCalc from an outfit called Sorcim Software. (The Osborne was marketed as the first portable computer. Sorcim later merged with Computer Associates.)
Roger called Sorcim and Novell was probably the first place in Utah to have SuperCalc. The spreadsheet problem was solved.
Roger didn’t see any way Novell could hope to be a single-source supplier of applications software, and personal computer users and sellers weren’t expecting Novell to be one, either. What they were expecting was an easy way to get CP/M applications from many sources onto the Novell disk format.
Some Novell personal computers used 8" floppy disk drives—which were fairly standardized, so getting applications on 8" disks that Novell computers could read wasn’t a problem. But the 5" floppy disk situation couldn’t be solved so easily. There wasn’t a single standard for 5"‑drive disk formats, there were dozens.
There were two alternatives: Either Novell was going to become a center for disk conversions or it was going to offer a product that could be sold into the field, where conversion would become a reseller activity—a much faster, more flexible solution.
The solution Novell ultimately offered was an error-checking file-transfer program developed by Gary Byrom, another Utah pioneer in the personal computer industry. This product, BSTAM (the Byrom Software Telecommunications Access Method), could communicate between the serial ports of different kinds of CP/M machines. A reseller could buy 8" versions of software and use BSTAM to transfer the programs to Novell 5" disks.
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