What can we learn from Wang?

Saturday, April 1, 2006

This issue of Security Systems News, perhaps like no issue before it, is consumed with IP, IT, and the changing course of the industry. Splayed out on the front page is Cisco's entry into our somewhat cloistered little world. Stitched into these pages is our IP Security Technology White Paper, with any number of voices calling for TCP/IP interoperability. Even veteran consultant Roy Bordes makes news by teaming up with an IT security consultant so he can keep his business current.
Everyone, it seems, will soon employ the services of the IT department. Company custodial staffs will probably have networked RFID tags on their garbage bins to make sure the route they take around the building is the most efficient possible.
There are, of course, those who will resist this change, most likely by promoting the quality of their legacy products. If it ain't broke, they'll argue, why fix it?
Well, why not ask Wang Computers?
Growing up largely in Boston-area Massachusetts, Wang for me was simply a good joke. "Ha ha," we'd laugh at kids in school, "your dad works at Wang!" We didn't care that Wang had basically introduced word processing and DP/telephony to the modern world. We just thought it had a funny name.
What got Wang to the top of the mountain in the late 1970s was something called the VS system, what one writer called "a true multi-tasking, multi-user data processing system supporting multiple programming languages under a decidedly proprietary operating system." Because Wang did computers better than just about anybody else at the time, the company guarded its technology like a dog with a bone. And it worked for a good long while--until 1992 when the company filed for Chapter 11 protection.
What happened? Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Apple, and just about every other guy with a soldering iron and a circuit board started putting out computers that could do similar things to the VS, though maybe not quite as well. And many of those companies invited anyone to write code and software for their systems. They were wide-open, many of them. Others were less so, but still played nicely with others.
Thus, despite the fact that the VS was so good that people still used it 25 years later, Wang was eventually gobbled up by Getronics, and little kids in New England no longer have that easy punch line. Once Wang's technology became only slightly superior to that of their competition, their proprietary thinking doomed them. Customers don't like being told they have no other options.
Wang did, of course, rebound from bankruptcy to become a networking house that ended up being very successful, indeed. Getronics was 99 percent VS free by 2001, and seemingly content to build and maintain other people's networked systems.
Now, in the ultimate ironic twist, Getronics in 2005 released a new VS technology with Transvirtual Systems that allows you to run the old VS Operating System in a controlled Unix or Linux environment. Yes, you can now run the Wang VS on a Dell PowerEdge server. Everything old is new again.
One wonders why it took Wang 15 years to come to their senses. How many Wangs are there in physical security?