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Electronic Empires
Knights of the New Technology
By David Thomas
Key Porter Books, 192 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Werner Bartsch


Since high 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 first integrated 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 Canadian electronics 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 luxury pleasure 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 ole' telephone.

Computer giants, IBM in particular, are moving heavily into 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 about the possibility 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 briefly.

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.

Werner Bartsch is a Toronto freelance writer.


Published in Sources, Summer 1984


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