Veitch Speaks: Return of the dinosaurs

You may think they still belong in the land time forgot but the old faces that ruled the earth in the sixties are back - and this time they have brains, says Martin Veitch.

Don't expect Raquel Welch in a skimpy fur bikini, but it's beginning to look like One Million Years BC again.

While all those fab startups that we raved about a few years ago take a back seat, the dinosaurs you recall from the 1960s and 1970s are back in the forefront. Step aside and take your ra-ra skirts with you Netscape, Marimba, PointCast. Come back, all is forgiven Unisys, ICL, Wang and Digital.

Like dear old Gran at the Christmas party slipping off the furry slippers and dancing to Boyzone, these are entities reborn and unfamiliar from their drab old selves. In the early 1990s they were reviled as the musty old school, dependent on squeezing a few more quid out of customers condemned to live (seemingly) forever with their outmoded hardware and locked in to a punishing cycle of extortionate software charges. Now they represent the Comeback Kids, and with a better chance of going the distance than Bill Clinton.

They've done it in a variety of ways but there are some interesting points of similarity.

Item: Windows NT, the life-blood giver. Ironically, NT was supposed by many to be the force that would kill off Unix and its associates. Instead, it has proven to be a phial of smelling salts for these companies who could point to a real understanding of how to build systems that have to stay up. The new datacentre heartbeat is in systems like ICL's Trimetra and Unisys' ClearPath that combine the ability to run partitioned legacy and Unix applications alongside NT applications.

Item: Services. Who are the companies that are digging the road for Microsoft to enter the datacentre? Not the box-shifters who made Windows such a smash on the desktop but firms that understood the architectural requirements in retail, banks, dealing rooms and other highly complex environments where scalability and robustness are more than buzz words. Nowhere has Microsoft been smarter in NT than in its choice of partners. Tying up with Amdahl on enterprise-class reliability, ICL on government and retail, Unisys in financial houses - a clear and direct statement of intent on where it wants to take NT.

Item: The Net. Ironically, the trendiest thing ever in computing has played a role. The emergence of the Internet has been a force for the good for those old mainframe dinosaurs, allowing the dull old legacy system to be reborn as a data repository that makes your products and services accessible from any Java-enabled Web browser.

The old boys are doing fine. In fact, with myriad outsourcing and other services, they're cashing in spectacularly. Just a few years ago, Wang was described by a prominent industry analyst as being ‘dead meat' after its spectacular fall from grace in hardware. Well, it's still undergoing radical surgery but the prognosis is excellent as it makes the transition to becoming a services company. Wang recently bought Olivetti's Olsy division and won a high-profile contract to provide services to Dell. Annualised revenues make it round about a $3bn company. Smells good for dead meat.

Unisys has had a spectacular about turn in fortunes. The 112-year-old company finally made services its largest business in 1994. It is now a $6.6bn firm with only 20 percent of revenues stemming from hardware.

These are companies that have gone the distance and merit your attention. Although they'll never rule the world again, like the dinosaurs they were once thought to be, they're going to be around for a very long time.