This is a book about real events and the real people who lived them. It’s neither a history book nor a novel, yet it has elements of both – perhaps tending more towards the latter than the former, albeit in short story format rather than a continuous flow, end-to-end thriller.
In all, there are 29 case studies about companies and people, and many of the stories have more twists and turns than a Jeffrey Archer spellbinder – and just as much innovation and creativity. The difference is that every one of them is fact and not fiction.
In the 1970s there were no business examples to follow, technology was primitive, and the market we were trying to sell to was almost completely ignorant of what computers could do. People in business had to be educated about the technology and it's benefits before they could be sold anything. It was a time when the most common – and accurate – collective noun for the early software package developers and resellers was ‘cowboys’.
Most of the individuals whose profiles appear in these pages confess to spending much of those early years flying by the seat of their pants – doing cheap deals for quick cash to pay staff, pushing out early software versions with lots of bugs, and training their ‘expert’ consultants on the job.
Given there were the first glimmerings of a computer industry in Australia as far back as 1949 and we have now entered the age of algorithms and apps, I made the decision to broadly limit my 50-year canvas to the 1960 to 2010 period because it had two perfect bookends for a narrative about the local software industry. The first was the launch by IBM in 1964 of their System/360 mainframe computer, and the second was the revolution that started in 2007 when Apple first released its iPhone smartphone. Before 1960 the software industry was virtually non-existent, and since 2010 computing has been put into the hands of millions worldwide and is therefore of little relevance to this work.
On the premise that the long-term is made up of a lot of short terms, the tables that begin on page 212 also indicate that the primary business software development activity could be further distilled to not much more than a 20- year period, from 1975 to 1995 – a period when it was bordering on frenetic. This narrower period might quite reasonably be referred to as ‘the golden age of opportunity’ or ‘the golden age of computing’. These two descriptions might also overlay a further analogy: 1960 to 1995 was also ‘the golden age of IBM’. The golden age of computing and its correlation to IBM is easy to understand, but why could the same period also be described as the golden age of opportunity?
Collectively, the early software pioneers had to create a shift in the business market mindset from one where many believed computers were just a passing fad, through to one which accepted that these new-fangled beasts could, in fact, make it much easier to run their businesses more efficiently, and do so at an acceptable price point. At the start, virtually no businesses had a computer at all, so it was a very tempting blank canvas – a moonscape – for the hardware and software entrepreneurs to paint their individual landscapes. It was indeed the start of a golden age of opportunity for everyone involved.
David Merson, the founder of Mincom, has a couple of very interesting theories that are hard to refute. The first is that most of the early midrange software entrepreneurs emerged in cities such as Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth because the computing graduates in Sydney and Melbourne gravitated more towards the many opportunities available to them in the large mainframe sites based in those cities. His second theory is that Australians became extremely good at developing application software because the Americans seemed to be mostly attracted to developing systems software. We had to be extremely self-sufficient with applications and this is something that has stood Australians in good stead when selling in the US.
Changes in technology were only the enablers – the tools – for people to work with to deliver the outcomes business needed as it became more and more sophisticated. Miniaturisation was always going to occur, processing topologies – structures – were going to change, and prices were going to tumble, but the most critical common denominator has been the entrepreneurs. They were the people who took the risks, worked closely with their customers to create solutions, and established the businesses that delivered on the customers’ need for a healthy and viable Australian computer software industry.
This is their story.