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ICL started off as an initiative of the Wilson government — specifically technology minister Tony Benn — to create a strong British rival to the likes of IBM. Formed from various smaller companies in 1968, it began life with two mainframe product lines: the IBM System/360-compatible System 4 and the ICT 1900 series, which was not compatible with any other company's products.
ICL launched a new line, the 2900 Series, in 1974. Running the Virtual Machine Environment (VME) operating system, these machines were able to emulate both of their predecessors. The ICL Series 39 range of mainframes and minicomputers, introduced in 1985, included major hardware advances such as the use of optical fibres for central interconnect.
In 1984, ICL was taken over by Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) in a move that foresaw the convergence of computers and telecoms. Subsequent acquisitions included that of Nokia Data in 1991, taking ICL into the PC and desktop software markets.
However, ICL's long-standing partnership with Fujitsu became more permanent around that time, with the Japanese company buying up 80 percent of ICL in 1990. When Fujitsu Siemens was formed in 1999, the ICL brand was finally dropped from its PC and server lines.
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Wang Laboratories always remained under the control of co-founder Dr An Wang and his family, from its inception in 1951 to the doctor's death in 1990.
The company moved from typesetting equipment to the desktop calculator business in 1965 with the LOC-2, arguably the first of such devices to handle computing logarithms, which it achieved without the use of an integrated circuit. At the start of the 1970s, though, calculators began to be commoditised, and Dr Wang moved on to what were, at the time, extremely innovative word processors. They allowed text to be edited without requiring the retyping of entire pages.
The word-processing business developed alongside minicomputers such as the Wang 2200 (pictured), which had the novel feature of a CRT monitor built into the same unit as the storage unit and keyboard. Released in 1973 and running Basic, it was in many ways an early example of the desktop computer.
Dr Wang believed his company would one day overtake his bête noire, IBM. His VS range of minicomputers went some way towards this goal in the 1980s, but, ironically, early Wang PCs suffered from their lack of compatibility with IBM's rival system. Later, IBM-compatible Wang PCs were more successful. Ultimately, though, Wang's increasingly outdated focus on word-processing and an embarrassing 'vapourware' announcement in 1983 — in which Wang promised products that had not been started or completed — led to escalating losses.
Dr Wang died in 1990, and the company turned towards industry-standard rather than proprietary software. In 1991 the company even began to resell IBM hardware. Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy protection the following year. It re-emerged in the mid-1990s as a network services firm rather than a computer company, and in 1999 it was bought by the Dutch firm Getronics.
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Along with Microsoft and Lotus, Ashton-Tate was one of the big three software companies of the 1980s. It began life as a garage outfit called Software Plus, Inc (SPI) in 1980 and went on to create the first major database managements system for microcomputers, dBase.
An IBM-compatible version of dBase II came out in 1983 to great success, and in the same year the company became Ashton-Tate and went public. It released the C-written dBase III (opening screen for dBase III+ pictured above) in 1984, but later that year co-founder George Tate died of a heart attack. Company president David Cole briefly took over, but marketing man Ed Esber quickly succeeded him (Cole went to work for Ziff-Davis, which founded this publication).
Esber led the company very successfully for seven years, but he became known for being litigious, particularly when it came to companies that released dBase clones. Large corporations kept on using dBase, but smaller businesses deserted the platform. The 1988 version of dBase IV was slow and unstable, but rather than fix the bugs, the company concentrated instead on its next planned product line. The update for dBase IV only came out in 1990, by which time sales were down drastically.
Having turned down several merger opportunities — including with Microsoft and Symantec — Ashton-Tate finally merged with Borland in 1991. However, Microsoft introduced Access in 1992, trouncing dBase in the Windows marketplace.
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