21 - LIVE ACTION FOR EARLY GENETIX
by BERNARD A HODSON
At this point of time, in the early seventies, I was involved with the predecessor to GENETIX, which was very different to what has currently been achieved, which is what you might expect with a dynamic software development. For one thing there was no capability for graphics or CDROM, telecommunications were achieved via the operating system, and there was no ability to do text processing. Instead of writing out a series of software gene names, with associated parameters, as is done now, developers completed a rather crude form which indicated all the steps which needed to be carried out. In many ways it can be compared with the B0 developed by Dr Grace Hopper, which later became COBOL, although the two concepts were entirely different.
One rather significant development was the establishment of a common interface, achieved by a computer program resident in one of the ten small processors attached to the two main processors of the CDC 6500 computer which we were using (a peripheral device can be thought of as a disc drive, a monitor, a keyboard, a light pen etc.). At that time there were many different peripheral devices and each one needed to have a special conversion program to enable its data to enter the computer memory, which was mainly done through the operating system (the situation is much worse today, as the number of possible peripherals has exploded). A standard protocol was established and one of the ten peripheral processors, operating in parallel, converted the signals from each peripheral to the standard protocol, removing that chore from the operating system and thus simplifying operations. In today's operating systems you have scores of routines,, most of them not used, to allow different peripherals to talk to the computer, what a horrible waste of resources.
The most significant on-line activity was the pilot hospital information system which was under development. This was using four monitors, with nurses entering data on patient transactions. At this time the patients were fictitious but the data was real. The interaction was as briefly described in the earlier chapter on hospital systems. One interesting event, which was never technically explained, was when two nurses were entering data at two different monitors. For some reason, in the middle of the process, the monitor images were switched. This never occurred again so was obviously some transient in the controller to which the monitors were attached, but indicated a need for nurses to verify the end result carefully, which anyway was a standard procedure.
RCA, a USA company who were at that time involved with computer development and manufacture, decided to choose the hospital system for their own marketing of hospital systems. A Company Vice President's office in Montreal had become vacant and they set it up as a typical hospital patient room, with the monitor attached to the computer in Winnipeg, some 1500 miles away. They then invited potential customers to see the system in Montreal. I also participated with them in two ways, one by giving seminars on the system to interested hospitals, mainly in Quebec, the other by writing the systems part of their rather sizeable marketing document. Patrick, my main contact at RCA, was later shot by someone, but fortunately recovered from his wounds. RCA later withdrew from the computer development game.
Another on-line development was that with the Canadian Credit Men's Association (CCMA, later called Creditel). This was a company funded by the main retailers in Canada (Eaton's, the Bay, Canadian Pacific etc.), who were interested in the credit worthiness of the small companies with which they did business. They would input details of their various transactions and CCMA would collate this data for credit reports on these businesses. Under no circumstances was specific data from one company to be given to another, and the customer lists of participating retailers was to be confidential. Using SOLIS we set up a 40,000 record database covering small businesses in Western Canada and the system performed very well. It performed so well that when an on-line demonstration was given in Vancouver to an international gathering of credit grantors (with the monitor linked to Winnipeg, some 1400 miles or so away) it generated an internal memo to staff within the Dun and Bradstreet company (at that time a US company involved with credit reporting on business) that this development could be a real threat to their business. This particular demonstration was carried out simultaneously with a demonstration of the hospital system in Houston, Texas, both systems running with exactly the same SOLIS software.
Another development with SOLIS was to have accountants on line who would input client data and summarise it as a General Ledger operation, a typical chore for every accountant.
One amusing, but typical marketing experience, was our initial pricing of the software. At first it was priced at $8,000 per copy but companies were not interested, thinking that nothing good could be achieved for that price. It was only when we raised the price to $25,000 (with no change in the software) that companies became interested in discussion.
Two interesting developments occurred in Europe. The first involved what was then the Midland Bank (now taken over by Hong Kong interests). They were interested in serving their many accounting firm clients with on line input of data and then the generation of reports such as General Ledgers, Profit and Loss Statements, and the like. They evaluated SOLIS and said that this was the only software at the time capable of doing the task. One reason for this was that the SOLIS software was always current with its data file updating. All other on-line software at that time accumulated transactions over several hours and then at periodic intervals updated the files. If anything happened to the computer then entire batches of data could be lost. With SOLIS (and the same with today's GENETIX) only one transaction stood to be lost, and even that could be recovered because the state of the transaction was known and the client could be asked to complete the transaction when the system was back in operation. They were ready to conclude a Joint Venture arrangement when the problems of Symbionics back in Winnepeg (see an earlier chapter) intervened.
Another group was ICL France, who were negotiating with a company called SOFINCO to install two RCA computers (they had a marketing arrangement with RCA). SOFINCO was like a financier to finance companies who, in turn, financed purchases of such things as washing machines. SOFINCO evaluated SOLIS and, just like the Midland Bank, said that this was the only software capable of doing the tasks they wanted. As a result ICL France and I negotiated a contract on the express train from Arras (in Northern France) to Paris, that they would use the SOLIS software should SOFINCO proceed with an order for the two RCA computers.
One amusing incident occurred in Arras, where we gave a SOLIS demonstration. The demonstration was preceded by our testing the system on an ICL 1904E computer, the only time available being at the hour of 3 am. I was in Arras with my colleague, Basil V de G Walden. Basil's ancestor had been a Russian General and he was married to a lady whose ancestor had been a French General. I believe they had fought each other. Before the testing time we had dinner at a restaurant in Arras and the proprietor must have liked us because at the end of the meal he plied us with a huge glass of cognac (on the house). So we set off to walk to where we were doing the testing. As we were walking a large truck pulled up and in halting French the driver asked us something. When we asked if he would rather speak in English he could not get over the fact that in the early hours of the morning there was someone in Arras who could speak English. He wanted directions to the Customs office.
There were two other developments which could have taken place, had there been no problems at Symbionics, work being done on both.
One involved the development of an airline reservation system for a small airline in Calgary, the other was the development of a theatre, sport and other event reservation system.
The airline reservation system was a simple affair covering the seating capacity of each plane, flight schedules, seats already booked with passenger name and contact, and such matters. Tickets were still generated manually in those days.
The events reservation system was a little more complicated. The monitor had to present the seating plan of a theatre or a sports arena, along with the seats available and their prices. If the customer then requested tickets the SOLIS system would print them. This was an interesting application and was ready to work once a ticket printing machine had become available to us. As is done today we proposed a small transaction fee for each ticket sold, if I recall it was a mere 25 cents in those days.
While development of SOLIS was discontinued it had proven the viability of my concepts, not just for handling simple applications but also quite large and sophisticated ones, in particular being of potentially great value for networks of terminals, such as later developed with Internet.