20 People Who Changed Tech: An Wang

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

Howard Anderson, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

May 15, 2013

3 Min Read

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

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

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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About the Author(s)

Howard Anderson

Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

Howard Anderson is on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He was the founder of the Yankee Group and co-founder of Battery Ventures. He attempts to keep his rampant skepticism from morphing into galloping cynicism, a battle he seems to be losing.

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