Knights of the New Technology
By David Thomas
Porter Books, 192 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Werner Bartsch
tech became fashionable, journalists of all stripes have
been forced to take a new look at the role technology plays in their
lives. Not only have they had to adapt to entirely new electronic
communications systems, they suddenly had to be concerned with unknown
— often enormous — business networks. David Thomas
has done his best to fill the gaps, and in the process seems to have
joined the electronic revolution he describes.
Thomas is an example of what sometimes happens to
journalists when they
discover a fascinating new field. A once-hardcore print journalist with
a history at The
Gazette in Montreal, Canadian Press and Maclean's,
Thomas has become one of the knights he describes.
Thomas is founder of Immedia Telematics, Canada's
electronic mail-messaging and news and information service. Launched
last November, Immedia aims to provide business people tied to the
office with up-to-the-minute news. Someone using the system to send an
electronic message could, for example, quickly scan international news
on the World Report, or microcomputer news on The
Aurora Report. Large corporations could build a system within a system
using their own passwords, directories and bulletins.
As he takes readers behind the scenes of the
industry in Knights of
the New Technology, Thomas demonstrates that he
knows his field. The book will undoubtedly become a standard text for
those who want an insider's story of what appears to be this decades'
only growth industry. Readers are carried into a mysterious electronic
world where engineers — who tinker with circuit boards just
for fun — aren't afraid to live their dreams. Unabashedly
fascinated with the business, it is clear from the way he writes that
Thomas shares the entrepreneurial spirit.
There's a proselyte's zeal at work here. Thomas is
obviously part of
this electronic underground bent on revolutionizing society to the tune
of bits and bytes forever. The title of chapters in the book reveal the
mood: "The Key to the Kingdom" tells how Kanata became Canada's silicon
valley; "The Prophet Motive" is the story of Stephen Dorsey, AES and
Micom and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" relates the birth of the
Hyperion. The slickly written account is as much a period piece as it
is the story of the intricately connected histories of Northern
Telecom, Mitel, AES, Micom. l.P. Sharp, Telidon, Systemhouse,
Dynalogic and every other major Canadian player in the field.
Though he leans rather heavily on high tech
glamour to carry him
through. Thomas has cleverly blended three diverse disciplines
— technology, history, and business — into one
thoroughly readable. 192-page package. Tidbits of information scattered
throughout the book will please trivia buffs. but perhaps frustrate
those seeking more meat.
Readers learn, for example, that SCI Systems of
Alabama made the
circuit boards for IBM's PC, that APL (a computer programming language)
was invented by Albertan Kenneth Iverson, or that there never was a
dBase I. In a business where terminology is everything, Thomas says,
the name dBase II was invented to make a new product appear to be a
second-generation all-the-bugs-have-been-worked-out system.
Gossip mongers will be intrigued by his stories of
cruises organized by Northern Telecom to introduce OPEN World to
Fortune 500 executives. OPEN World is Northern Telecom's strategy for
ensuring it will always form a vital link in the chain of largely
incompatible companies that comprise what's loosely called the
information industry. OPEN is an acronym for "Open Protocol Enhanced
Network", a typical bit of computerese for a proposed $l.2-billion
system to "integrate" incompatible computer systems through the good
Computer giants, IBM in particular, are moving
telecommunications. Thomas notes that IBM established its own
Information Network in 1982. is already routing 160.000 of its own
telephone calls via its satellites and offers Americans cheaper
long-distance service. In 1983, the computer manufacturer bought a 20
per cent share of Rolm Corporation, one of Northern Telecom's
major competitors in business telephone systems.
Telephone companies are understandably worried
of rival world communications systems that circumvent their networks.
It's evident. Thomas says. that "IBM intends to bundle complete
telephone service in with its computer networks, freezing Northern and
other telephone systems out of important markets.' Northern has decided
to beat big blue at it's own game. In 1983. Northern's former
vice-president of marketing. Robert Dyer, moved from Mississauga to
Dallas to take charge of Northern's development of a family of computer
terminals and work stations.
The stakes in this business are obviously big and
Thomas is at his best
when he describes the wheelings and dealings behind the scenes. The
story of the Hyperion's development is another of these intricate
accounts. It's the story of "mad-scientist kind of kids" who grow up to
become mad-scientist kind of adults. Central character is one Murray
Bell, founder of Dynalogic. and one of the first people to successfully
connect disk drives to smaller computers.
Dynalogic was building its own micros while Steve
Jobs and Steve
Wozniak were pulling together the first Apples in a California garage.
Unfortunately, the Dynalogic system was built around the then obscure
I MX operating system and was effectively cut off from the CP/M
software. Sales were never sufficient to make the company a winner
and Bell sold 80 per cent of his shares to Glen St. John and Michael
Cowpland of Bytee Management. With Bytee backing. Bell began working
on a new micro, which eventually became the highly successful Hyperion.
The story, has a sad ending though, one which
tells volumes about the
industry. As are most computers and most new electronic communications
systems (OPEN World included), the Hyperion was "sold" belore it
actually existed. There were some tense moments when demand exceeded a
nonexistent supply; unfortunately Bell caught the blame. After some
high-level manoeuvering that Bell thought left him out in the cold, he
quit to launch another venture.
Geared to the popular market, the book may not be
designed for serious
readers who know the business. It's unfortunate though that tantalizing
ideas about innovative corporate structures, or hints that computer
types have a uniquely creative view of reality, linger undeveloped.
Complex technical and business developments are summed up all too
Thomas is skilled at tying the loose ends
together, particularly in his discussion of the incestuous net of
business associations that gave birth to most of the companies he
describes. Bailouts, mergers and independently spirited employees
determined to give former bosses "what fer" were the order of the day.
As expected, the ample breasts of Bell Northern Research. Northern
Telecom, IBM and the federal government nursed a generous share of
struggling entrepreneurs into a healthy life.
Bartsch is a Toronto freelance writer.
Published in Sources,
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