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20 People Who Changed Tech: An Wang

How easy-to-use, single-application systems changed the face of computing, communications and business decision-making.

Dr. An Wang
Dr. An Wang
An Wang was a brilliant computer scientist who was a pioneer in magnetic core memory and storage, but that's not why he makes our list.

Before Dr. Wang, computing was done by the High Priests. Office automation wasn't even automated. Letters and documents were done by secretaries; every manager had a secretary, and executives had two. Wang bridged the gap. He automated the office just when the number of secretaries was waning because of cost cuts and the demand for speed and accuracy was waxing because of competition.

Wang, born in Shanghai, moved to the U.S. in 1945, received a Ph.D. from Harvard, and worked with Howard Aiken on his Mark IV, the second fully electronic computer built in the U.S. When Harvard cut funding and deemphasized computing (Way to go, Harvard!), he left to start Wang Laboratories in 1951.

His early product was a desktop calculator system whereby several devices could operate on one processing unit. By "time-sharing" this processor, he could give multiple number crunchers more power at lower cost and much faster speed than the mechanical solutions they had been weaned on. That same insight led him to his next big market.

By 1976, he had designed his first word processor, the WPS, followed by the OIS (Office Information System) and then Wang Office, a multiuser display-based system that had master disk storage connected to intelligent diskless slaves. Meantime, the Wang 2200 minicomputer, introduced in 1973, was the forerunner to the VS, a fully featured mini introduced four years later.

Wang's multiuser system, like the company's desktop calculator, was a time-shared system, but the user felt he/she had total control because it seemed that the system responded instantaneously. Wang Labs became the industry standard and leader; the company had loyal customers and a much better solution.

While Wang's prices were high ($4,000 for just a terminal), the word processing application worked elegantly. An entire generation of secretaries was first trained on Wangs, an enormous competitive advantage for any vendor. Happy users don't switch -- until they become unhappy or other companies enter with a substantially better/cheaper/faster alternative.

Dr. Wang once said, "Success is more a function of consistent common sense than it is of genius." Of course, that's easier to say if you actually are a genius. Today, we don't think of word processing as anything special; in its day it was revolutionary. It was an application everyone needed, but no one realized that until it was here. What the VisiCalc spreadsheet did for Apple and what Lotus 1-2-3 did for the IBM PC, word processing did for Wang Labs.

But here's the real reason An Wang makes our list: He taught the world to use computers. Before Wang, no executive would even consider actually typing. No, no, no … that was a job for a secretary with an IBM Selectric and some correcting fluid. Some of the advanced Selectrics could memorize an entire line of text, but no more.

Wang was giving them more. Secretaries and managers could see the entire page. They could move paragraphs and make endless revisions. Documents could be sent as drafts to others for comments and suggestions, and those suggestions could be incorporated into a final document. They could be stored, forwarded, annotated and messaged. Suddenly, the interoffice mail wasn't fast enough for the modern corporation.

Wang Computers

Even though they could do all of those things, Wang's innovations were simple to learn. And because they were networked, some cautious junior managers wanted -- and got -- direct access. They could compose, correct and send a document to others on their system … and then to others on similar Wang systems. And if a person could send a document, then he could send a message. So behind all of this cute technology was electronic mail.

At first electronic mail was a bastard child. Where did it fit? Who used it? What did it cost? The traditional IT shops wanted no part of office automation or electronic mail; they were fully employed in their domain. Only when corporations started screwing things up -- and the IT department saw that these damn office systems of the future were really minicomputers, and the IT guys realized that they really should control this beast before it got too far out of hand -- did some sanity arise.

When the top executives had an early email system to use, their secretaries would take dictation and send messages, then print out answers and bring them in. Very quickly, two things happened: First, managers wanted access to their executives, and to be cut out meant being at the bottom of the food chain. Which meant that everyone wanted to be on email. Second, the managers wanted to read and send answers themselves, at all hours of the day and without the secretary "intermediaries." So they started typing, albeit with two fingers, and found that it really wasn't emasculating at all.

So by building on his early core memory patents and his understanding of what businesses needed, Dr. Wang built his company around an application: documents. But the Wang VS system was really something more. It could be used as a data processing unit and/or a word processing device. It was user-programmable.

Old West scene

In other words, Wang's devices were really Trojan horses. They came in as single-application devices but became communicating engines and powerful client/server computers. That manager who might have used just word processing to submit a monthly report could now do some forecasting, access demand and backlog and make better decisions -- more quickly.

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