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Computer Pioneer Bill Norris, Control Data Founder, Dies At 95

An unconventional thinker equipped with a feisty personality, Norris built CDC into a $5 billion company while pursuing social goals and going after IBM on anti-trust grounds.
Bill Norris, the computer pioneer who founded Control Data Corp. and built it into a $5 billion empire with more than 60,000 employees, died Monday at age 95.

Shy but feisty, Norris liked his foes big: he constantly battled Wall Street and his antitrust challenge to IBM forced the then-dominant computer company to change its business practices.

He had an unusual social conscience for a business tycoon: when critics said it didn't make sense for business to concentrate in inner cities, he established projects in an attempt to disprove the critics. When the energy crisis hit hard in the 1970s, Norris moved into an earth shelter. He was a heavy promoter of venture capital in Minnesota.

"He was often criticized by Wall Street analysts for his unconventional business opportunities," said Albert Eisele, a Washington journalist who was close to Norris in Minnesota. "Many blamed his business strategy aimed at helping under privileged people and inner cities and making money while doing it."

In the 1960s and early 1970s Control Data rode its supercomputers -- designed by its famous architect Seymour Cray -- to the top of the technology heap and challenged IBM, which panicked when its supercomputers weren't as good. But, Eisele noted, supercomputers and big mainframes gave way to minicomputers, desktop PCs and laptops and CDC failed the make the transition.

CDC spent more than $1 billion on its Plato education system. While Plato eventually fizzled, many young engineers and programmers cut their teeth on the system. Among them was Ray Ozzie, who is now leading Microsoft's software development efforts.

Norris retired in 1986 at 74. A few years later the company was split into the dwindling mainframe business and an information services business called Ceridian. The hardware business eventually disappeared into the maw of British Telecommunications

At the time of his death, Norris had been struggling with Parkinson's disease for years. Roger Norris, his son, said his father's mind was clear to the very end.