Computervision was my first real software development job. I worked on CADDS4, a so-called "turnkey" Computer Aided Design (CAD) product. "Turnkey" meant you bought the hardware and software from Computervision. The CPU was based on the Data General Nova minicomputer. The monitor was an enormous monochrome Instaview display. The tablet in front of the monitor was an input device. You used a stylus to draw on the tablet and select commands from a static template.
We programmed exclusively in FORTRAN. This is mind-boggling to me now. I don't know how we got anything done. FORTRAN has a rigid, punch card-oriented syntax. A 'C' in column 1 indicates the line is a comment. Otherwise, columns 1-5 are reserved for line numbers. Column 6 is used only when the line is a continuation of the previous line. But you can do anything you want with the remaining 74 columns.
And people did. The language was created before many of the fundamentals of structured programming were developed. Think GOTO statements -- lots of them.
But I digress. What I really want to convey is an important lesson I learned at Computervision. Here it is:
Innovation inside a company can be a threat to the business. Innovation outside the company is a bigger threat.This may sound trite, but when you are in the thick of things, it can be hard to see.
In 1984 Computervision, long the dominant player in CAD, was in a pitched battle with the likes of Applicon and Intergraph. These companies had come up with a new spin on turnkey CAD. Instead of building their own hardware, they packaged their software on hardware from other vendors. As I recall, Applicon and Intergraph both wrote software for Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) hardware. Other CAD vendors developed software for Sun and Apollo hardware. Market pressure forced Computervision to embark on a major migration from its proprietary hardware to Sun microcomputers. But Computervision, Applicon and Intergraph were all still in the turnkey CAD business.
Computervision was struggling mightily with the SunOS migration when another threat developed -- this time from inside the company. Ken Ledeen and some other smart people started a "greenhouse" project to investigate the Personal Computer-based CAD market. I don't know why they started the project. Maybe they noticed PC-based WordStar was starting to erode Wang's turnkey word processing business. Maybe they wondered if the same thing could happen to turnkey CAD. In any case, they struck a deal with a small development company and quickly released Personal Designer. It wasn't nearly as capable as CADDS4, but over a couple of releases, it became increasingly powerful. And Personal Designer ran on any 286 PC with a math co-processor installed. Customers could even run it on the same machine they were already using for WordStar.
Personal Designer was sold through a completely new channel. It was shrink-wrapped, shipped in volume to companies like Egghead, and sold by mail order. It started to take off. Pretty soon the traditional Computervision sales department took notice. They complained Personal Designer was "cannibalizing" the CADDS4 business. Although Ken Ledeen tried to reason with the sales department, Personal Designer remained a pariah. I won't say it was killed, but it did slowly die of neglect. It never got the funding and support it deserved.
I won't bore you with all the details, but a little company called AutoDesk rode the PC revolution to take huge chunks of the CAD market from the turnkey vendors. The way I remember it, Personal Designer had the jump on AutoCAD, but AutoDesk was hungrier than Computervision. Computervision, Applicon, and Intergraph were eventually either decimated or acquired.
I have seen the same thing happen a few times in my career. A company stifles innovation because it threatens the main business. Don't get me wrong -- innovation can be painful. For example it hurts to transform a company from a low-volume, high-margin business to a high-volume, low-margin one. But it hurts more when your competitor eats your lunch.
Apparently, the Computervision brand and products are now wholly owned by Parametric Technology Company. For a slice of Computervision history visit this page. For more on the history of CAD, see this one.