Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Soul of a New Machine

Computers at one time were complex machines that only large businesses could afford to buy. Mini-computers brought down the cost of computing and started to allow even greater numbers of companies to adopt technology. Initially these computers were doing simple "rote" tasks (such as mathematical calculations.) However, they gradually grew to take on newer and more powerful tasks. (Alas, it does seem that some of these early programs from the 1980s can still be found in the wild today!)
The Soul of a New Machine goes back to the early days of computing when Data General was one of the powerhouse companies in the mini-computer field. The company was started by engineers that left Digital to form their bigger and better company. They recruited the hot-shot engineers that lived for computing, and pretty much drove them to burn out while they were in their twenties. The corporate misadventures and drive could easily be mistaken for a late 1990s dot-com, or a modern day social media company. However, this was an early 1980s computer company. They were making hardware and low-level operating systems instead of high-level webapps and software. They were also hidden out in a suburban Boston office park, rather than a central San Francisco office building. However, the internal drive was still the same.
The interleaves the stories of the personalities with the technical details of what they were doing. (Much of the technical discussion is still at the underpinnings of modern computing. However, today, there are but a few dominant players, such as intel, with most computers being assembled by what would be considered "OEMs" in this story.) There is also a turf war over "outsourcing". However, in this case it was a separate office set up in North Carolina, rather than one overseas. Eventually, the Boston team succeeds in creating their glamorous machine. The Eagle helped to save Data General and spur the company to a billion dollars in sales. The book ends with the high note. However, data general was to hit hard times afterwards as they failed to make inroads in the micro-computer industry. They introduced a legitimate laptop in 1984 - but were ahead of the times with a 3.5 inch disk drive. The company was eventually sold to EMC, who shuttered everything other than the storage lines. The domain name was eventually sold to dollar general, pretty much ending any traces of the company. (Digital did not fare much better. They did manage to launch Altavista, one of the best early search engines. However, it fell behind google and was sold. Digital eventually ended up being owned by HP, who also sold off the domain name.)

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