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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.

The power of office automation had little to do with secretaries and more to do with better management. A company could have far greater control of its operation if information could be shared, if departments could have budgets and progress could be measured against budgets, and if the span of control could go from 5:1 to 8:1 because information flowed naturally and seamlessly.

20 People Who Changed Tech

The office telephone suddenly became part of the mix. Voice mail could supplement and sometimes replace the phone tag that used to be endless. Electronic mail, which would cost about $1 per message on a mainframe, could be put on a LAN or a minicomputer at a cost so trivial it wasn't even calculated.

By the mid-1970s, Wang was into calculators, word processors and minicomputers. Companies such as GE would standardize on DEC for minicomputers, Wang for word processors and IBM for higher-end computers. Wang was riding high; by 1989 it had 30,000 employees and was a recognized leader.

Then Dr. Wang made two fateful errors. He confused family with business. He gave his son, Freddie, responsibility for R&D, clearly not his strength.

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His second error was staying in the hardware business, where the company had some awful issues with quality. Like DEC founder Ken Olsen, Dr. Wang was a believer that it was a hardware world and software was a necessary evil. He had it completely wrong. He also moved too slowly in responding to the IBM PC and realizing that his wonderful word processing software would be just an app.

If you were unfamiliar with computers, Wangs weren't intimidating. Once you started using them for documents, it was an easy migration to database management. Doing business calculations on them was a cinch. And by networking these devices together, time and space became no obstacle.

Customer companies really didn't worry that it was a closed system -- everything was a closed system back then. Your company knew that if it wanted this office automation multiplier, it had better stick with a system it already had installed. Wang's early system begat its later systems, and no one wandered off the reservation -- for a while.

Wang Computers

When you think about it, both Ken Olsen and An Wang made enormous contributions to technology, but their companies lasted only one generation. Edison, Moore/Noyce and Marconi spawned multiple-generation companies: GE, Intel, Marconi Radio.

Next we'll explore how satellite technology changed the technology landscape when we look at Irving Kahn, the father of cable television -- and a man who did some time in prison for bribing officials in Johnstown, Penn.

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/28/2015 | 10:28:02 AM
Article needs a rewrite based on facts
There is no doubt that "The Doctor" was a remarkable man and absolutely changed the world but not for the reasons mentioned here. I had the opportunity to work there for 5 years and for one of those I met with him weekly. Sometimes in his private board room along with Paul R. We often joked that "he had a whim of iron", because he would insist on making minute expensive changes simply on a whim. I left because both he, his son and many of the others in charge could not grasp the paradigm shift from hardware to software shortly after the IBM PC was announced. Bill Gates got it. He had actually visited us in the old Wang building and was interested in our WP system and selling us Basic later on for the Wangwriter. I refused to go out to lunch with him because he was such a geek and I was busy wriiting code. His goal I think was to copy the WPS and he did a poor job. Word still today is the most unfriendly program ever written for the masses. Dr. Wang was focused on hardware and Gates on software. Gates built his monopoly by forcing hardware vendors to adopt his operating system and thus he was able to completely take over the WP and other application markets in a relatively short period of time. Eventually he helped make my prediction come true. In 1982 I left after a group of managers were designing the OIS50. Yet another piece of hardware to run our WP software on. I had first made a version of the software for the system 5 a stand along WPS. Later I rewrote the code in a portable higher level language in a form whose first incarnation was the Wangwriter. That hardware design the doctor had much influence on. Thats all I'll say about that. Then there was my favorite the first electrostatic printer, we softeware guys affectionately called the FLAME THROWER because pieces of paper would come flying out either charred or sometimes actually burning. This was of course ultimately fixed before shipping. I left Wang after two REMARKABLY dumb decisions were made. The reversal of the registers in the design of the Wang PC to purposefully make it incompatible with the IBM PC and the impending decision to build the OIS50. They were worried someone might steal their software to run on the PC. My idea was to take the newly written portable software and put it ON the IBM PC. They thought I was mad. My quote going out the door in a high level managers meeting on the OIS 50, " You folks are delusional. The next Word Processing hardware is already built and its the IBM PC. If you dont listen to me Wang will be bankrupt in just a few years." They all laughed and I was actually wrong. It took about 10 years. Corrections: The first word processor was not the WPS, it was the 1200 a tape based single line WP. Dr Wang did NOT design the WPS OIS etc. Don Dunning, Dave Moros, Harold Koplow and the folks that worked for them did. On 9/28/1976 the "928" was approved by the Dr after much lobbying by Harold and Dave. It was the basis on all WPS and OIS systems.
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