Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Reflections on Computervision

Yesterday, Brian and I were reminiscing about our days working at Computervision. Reminiscing may not be the right word. Although I have known Brian for a while, I never realized we both worked at Computervision in the early 1980s -- not until yesterday. We traded a dozen names and a few stories. Apparently, we were in the same relatively small circle, but never met back then. Funny.

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.


Brian said...

Great post Dave! Really brings back some memories. I worked on CADDS3, 4, 4x and then various flavors of CADDS on workstations. I can't remember what we called that.

CV was also my first job and a lot of fun until the Prime acquisition. Then everything went downhill fast.

CV was one of the first of the great Route 128 "technology highway" companies. It's depressing how many "youngsters" I work with today who have never heard of it.

directorblue said...

You can cannibalize you... or someone can cannibalize you. Which would you prefer?

Didn't they teach that at MBA school?

Anonymous said...

i was a Computervision employee for almost 12 years. there were of course lots of good times and good people back then. the merger with Prime was a big adjustment for everyone and looking back it is easy to see the writing on the wall. the selling off of the field service division left a bad taste for everyone. i miss some of the folks i worked with and the friendships that were developed. i have been self-employed now since 1995 and am still servicing computers.
any comments or interest please email me.
God Bless.

dhi said...

Great Story! I worked with CADDS3, CADDS4x & CADDS5 from 1985 to 1992 @ BSHG in Germany. And a little with the personal designer. Yes, the one with that 10000$ graphics card. But I think it wasnt PD who killed CV - It was the hybrid modeling. CV should have build a real next generation product out of CADDS5.

btw - we changed from Designer VX to SUN Pizzabox - and my perspective was that the migration went well. Maybe the _pd file wasn't looking that well :-)

Anonymous said...

Very nice but also very sad. I originally began my computer career with CV and later moved to Prime Computer where we competed against CV with our product - Medusa CAD/CAM. Six years later, Prime acquired CV. I remained with Prime until the leveraged buyout by J H Whitney. I left just at the beginning of the end for Prime. However, looking back I would have to say Prime lost their focus, straying into other areas with their acquisition of CV, Calma, manufacture and remarketing of SUN Microsystems workstations, joint venture with SGI, and the introduction of the Prime EXL SystemV UNIX server. So many operating systems, acquisitions, and without focus. Other businesses have followed similar paths. The most recent would be EMC with their acquisition of RSA and other non-storage array focused acquisitions. When will those Mass-based companies learn? How long will EMC continue before falling way to the fate of those before them?

D. Johnson / Scottsdale, AZ said...

Wow! What powerful memories this dredged up. I was a CV employee from 1982 until 1997, when PTC acquired us. I lived through the APU debacle ( CV's own VAX 11/780 equivalent), the porting of CADDS4 to Unix ( SunOS ), the takeover by Prime...what a roller coaster, but mostly I remember it all extremely fondly.

Anonymous said...

Was there from 1987-1997. Lots of ups and downs, lots of wild deals, lots of money. A good time overall. Looking for the next big ride! In the words of the late Jerry Garcia, "...what a long strange trips its been!"

Anonymous said...

I was there too (4X, Port) - as first job.

The question I did not ask at the interview was - what do you use for a debugger on cadds 4X?

The stories of questionable business practices bad decisions still amaze me, and serve as examples I use today.

Anonymous said...

hi, great CV reading!
My first job as a PCB designer at ITT in Oslo, Norway in 1974 was also my first contact with CV and CADDS 1 (system #76!!). I soon got the job as a systems manager, and after several year at differnt CV customers, I joined CV as an Application Engineeer in 1981 at their newly opened norwegian office. I had several positions as supervisor, service manager, buisness dev. etc as the years went by, and I stayed until 1993. I remember this as a period of my life with great fun, good colleagues, and many interesting businesstrips all over Europe and US.
At this moment a couple of former colleagues I kept contact with, and myself, are planning CV-reunioning party this summer in Oslo. So far we tracked down about 30 individuals from the norwegian operations years 1980-88. I'm really looking forwad to that!
Take care, Jon Erik in Norway

Anonymous said...

It's so interesting to read and hear some of the comments about the old days. I was an end user of Comoputervision for Reliance Electric when it ran on Data General in 1972. I moved to Westinghouse on a more updated version, PW93/95's and then went to work for Prime. I was at Prime in the days of Medusa, Midas Plus, Primos, and whne they partnered with GM and Ford. Once Prime went bankrupt, I went to work for FEDEX, whihc was a Prime customer as well. The good old days...

Bob said...

Wow! What a trip this is. I was making comments over on Lockergnome about Corporate Predatory practices and HP's name came up. Tektronix Storage Tubes, I was in CV from 1973 to 1975 when the big layoff hit. Again, I knew not Brian, but everyone "almost" knew me, 'cause I needed to fix their ASR-33 for program printouts prior to shipping!!


Anonymous said...

Fun to read this and reminisce. I worked for CV from 1986-1987, before the Prime acquisition. We were so excited then at the modelling and surfacing capabilities of CADDS4x - stuff that's easily done on a PC now. How times have changed, including the clothing and hairstyles!

Anonymous said...

I worked for CV Germany from 1984 to 1986 running their field service office in Ingolstadt. We supported their largest customer Audi and the local engineering offices who were compelled to use CV to design their car bodies. 1984 was great but once the CV CEO got nailed for insider stock trading the company started its march to hell. What a shame that a market leader for so long is now barely remembered. I did get to work with a lot of good people however.

swingbozo at gmail dot com said...

I worked for "4D Graphics," the company that wrote the original PC version of Cadds4X, and the company Ken partnered with to get what was finally branded "Personal Designer."

The PC version was also written in FORTRAN. Man, what a nightmare. The ComputerVision code was torn out of Personal Designer and it still barely exists as 4Design. If you want to remember those panic inducing DOS days before 32 bit Windows you can download it at What's left of 4D Graphics. I think both Steve Ford and Norm Case, the two principals of 4D Graphics, where able to retire to obscurity after the PTC takeover.

John Rankin said...

Does anyone know of a forum for personal designer? I have been using pd for about 18 yrs. and currently use rev.5 ( I don't like the latest rev. 6 style)
PD is an excellent versatile cad system and I am loathe to change to autocadd or similar.
My particular problem is that I would like to change to an up todate computer using usb ports for the plotter and digitiser but I am unable to find an I.T. engineer who can achieve this.
I have been able to use pd on a dual boot system with dos and windows XP but it does not solve the problem of upgrading to usb ports.

John Rankin

Anonymous said...

I worked at Rover cars in the 1980s on CADDS4X and thought it brilliant. I migrated on to a 5 axis machining project running CV NC on the sun workstations.

Later I worked for Delcam on their duct5 product and became a software engineer working in PowerMILL.

I always liked the command language of CADDS:-

insert line x 10, IX 20

MalamuteMan said...

Hey swingbozo,

Obscurity yes, retired no.

MalamuteMan, AKA Steve Ford

PS- Norm just got remarried and moved to CA

Steve Ford said...


I was stunned to read your account of the PD story. Spot on! You were the visionary that got that ball rolling. On the day I gave the demos at CV... at the very last possible minute you came in... saw what I had and took a chance on it. Wow! This takes me back. If you want to chat, my email addy is

Steve Ford

Anonymous said...

It's funny that a previous post compares the buyout of CV by Prime to that of RSA by EMC. I worked at CV from 85 to 93 mostly on 4X and then THEDA. I left to work for a small company called Security Dynamics which grew into RSA and now owned by EMC. CV was a great place to work at back in the day. We still talk about those experiences.