The Great Hardware Extinction of the 1990s started with a tiny computer explosion. Niakwa was one of the companies that lit the fuse.
After the birth of commercial digital computing in the 1950s, customer-users depended on hardware manufacturers, academia, or themselves for software. There were few third-party software vendors because computers were so rare, and those vendors that did exist typically only had one customer. Programming languages were so primitive and computers so different by make and even model that any software of the day was intentionally designed around a narrow hardware configuration.
Those customers who could afford a computer were “locked in” to both their software and hardware providers. A Univac customer wouldn’t dream of moving to cheaper IBM hardware (or vice versa) because the costs of change were prohibitive. For the manufacturers, the ongoing revenue from the “permanent customer” was more important than the initial “sale,” and hardware was discounted heavily to lock in each new future income stream.
This strategy began to change with the introduction of 3rd-generation languages such as Fortran and COBOL that allowed generalized programs to be mostly written for all computers and then “adapted” to a particular model, a quicker and cheaper process. Software migration became possible, and manufacturers didn’t like it.
At first, they retaliated in a positive way by inventing technically superior and competitive—and proprietary—programming languages. If they couldn’t lock up the customer with hardware discounts, they would do it with programming languages. For instance, IBM introduced PL/I (PL-One), Bell Labs had C (for their Unix operating system), Burroughs had Elliot ALGOL—and Wang Labs had Wang BASIC.
The Wang language, in particular, filled an especially fruitful industry niche, almost single-handedly transforming the world’s most popular calculator company of the 1960s into a successful, but reluctant computer company in the 1970s—Wang’s CEO (Dr. An Wang) was afraid that “computers” would scare off his customers by making his products seem too complicated. He compensated by making his products economical and simple to use—and calling them “calculators.” The strategy worked. Wang’s 2200-series of computers, using his combined BASIC languages and operating systems, rocketed upward to become the 2nd most popular multi-user minicomputers in the world.
IBM and other “big iron” computer builders scoffed at the little Wang suitcase computers, not realizing that their size was a feature. Basic-2 required only a tenth of the expensive memory used by greedy IBM compilers to perform the same task. And because Wang’s easy-to-learn language was also the operating system, programmers and businesses found that 2200s, though used by dozens of people at a time, could be managed by a staff of one.
Thus, 2200s began showing up in small businesses, colleges, and high schools that never hoped to afford a computer because the Wangs were relatively affordable, environmentally hardy, and could “talk” to every conceivable type of peripheral. They were even reputed to be used in US submarines, a feat that IBM “big iron” could not hope to achieve.
But in the 1980s, mighty Wang Labs lost its way. Having enjoyed double-digit economic growth throughout the 2200 era, the charismatic and pioneering An Wang became ill. His successors took a bite
of the apple and became ashamed of the little suitcase-that-could. Wang’s new leaders lusted for the prestige of running a company like IBM that made impressive looking computers, and over the course of a few short years, it became obvious that Wang intended to abandon the 2200 to join the League of Bloated Hardware where they could better compete in the Fortune 1000. That strategy would eventually kill the company, resulting in the largest corporate collapse in the history of the world at the time.
But in the meantime, tens of thousands of businesses, millions of students, accountants, engineers, scientists, and programmers throughout the world that depended on the 2200, watched in horror as their favorite computer was choked to death to make room for Wang’s vainglorious new vision. The betrayal was complete—there was no off ramp for 2200 users. Their programs would not run on the new line of hardware—but IBM’s would. Wang decided it was better to be IBM than Wang, and they attempted to erase the “shameful” computer that had been part of their success.
There was nothing 2200 users could do about it—Wang was taking the 2200 and its language off life support. It dispersed the 2200’s teams of creators. A few years later, both Wang Labs and its visionary creator were dead. So, it seemed, was the wonderful Basic-2 language.
In the early 1980s, the usual tensions between hardware and software prevailed around the 2200. Wang made its money from hardware, not software—software’s purpose was to sell hardware (like Apple).
However, software companies saw it differently. They had refined their software applications through the years, and they were ready for a wider market, but Wang fiercely protected its hardware sales channel by limiting the language—and those refined applications—by refusing to allow 2200 software to migrate.
Peripherals such as diskette drives used a proprietary format that couldn’t be read by other computers—accept IBM’s. Meanwhile, the 2200 was beginning to fall behind its competitors while Wang funneled massive resources into the effort to shore up its IBM-killer, the 2200 VS (which later changed its name to just “VS”), and the hardware was underperforming and becoming too expensive in the marketplace compared to its competitors. Only software was keeping the 2200 hardware alive.
A revolt was inevitable. Around 1982, TOM Software, the largest supplier of software applications written in Basic-2, was the first to bolt, starting its TOM BASIC project, a version of Wang’s language that ran on Unix, an operating system available on dozens of other computer brands—including IBM.
This three-year effort eventually failed—though written in C by a professional team, the language proved to be slow and buggy, but its big problem was strategic—it ran on too many computer brands, all with different versions of Unix, and many more than TOM could effectively support with its existing staff. Each sale of TOM BASIC was turned into another headache for the company, and the project was abandoned in 1987—but the overall idea was still a good one.
Overtaking those efforts on the next lap was one of TOM’s own customers, a little accounting software company in Chicago that had access to a remarkable group of programmers led by Darrel Lynds and Pat Legg in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The company was Niakwa Management, and over the course of a year, its Canadian branch produced a demonstration version of Wang’s language, written in difficult-to-use, but very fast assembly, that amazed the hundreds of programmers when introduced circa 1984 at TOM Software’s annual convention in Seattle.
The product was called Basic-2c (for “compiled), it ran on Unix, and it was faster than Basic-2 on a 2200. It lacked a code editor—it actually needed a 2200 for that—but there was no question that a proper language rescue was possible.
Under the guidance of Jerry Dederich, Niakwa’s CEO, and Harry Cohn, the VP of software development, the language added a much-needed editor, spread to popular Unix computers, and then it did something almost magical:
Since Basic-2 was also the operating system on the 2200, the language operated as a “virtual machine”—a virtual 2200. Basic-2 didn’t run on Unix, it turned Unix into a 2200! Thus, without knowing it, Niakwa was ready for the Great Hardware Collapse.
In 1981, having seen the successes that “microcomputer” manufacturers such as Tandy, Apple, Atari, and Commodore were having, behemoth IBM threw its weight into the personal computer market, and in a single stroke, created an entirely new computer type and elevated an obscure two-man company called Microsoft to the pinnacle of the software world.
Networking followed, allowing multiple PCs to first outperform and later replace minicomputers at a fraction of the cost. The minicomputer manufacturers were caught flat-footed, but quickly rushed “compatibles”—small computers meant to be compatible with IBM PCs—to market.
Wang’s offerings were particularly awful and showed how few people on the Wang payroll understood the small computer market. Basic-3, a version of Basic-2 was offered on the Wang PC, but it was largely incompatible and veteran programmers found it was too much trouble—plus, the hardware was incompatible with IBM. It was a dismal, expensive failure.
Within five years, Wang suffered a spectacular collapse, followed by virtually every other business minicomputer manufacturer over the following decade—except IBM, which had the PC. It was a stunning implosion.
But Niakwa was unfazed. It moved its “2200 virtual machine” to DOS, the Microsoft operating system that ran on IBM PCs, and with the help of networking software such as Novell and the nature of Basic-2 itself, Niakwa’s software could turn an IBM PC into a Wang 2200. Hundreds of Basic-2 software companies saw their offramp, and they flooded onto PCs and Novell, taking their precious, industry tested applications into a market where they had few legitimate competitors. For several years, they thrived—and as a result, so did Niakwa.
Niakwa changed the name of Basic-2c to “NPL”—Niakwa Programming Language, and then did something Wang failed to do for nearly a decade—they improved the language, and with each iteration of NPL3, then NPL4, NPL5, and NPL6, they added power and support for new operating systems.