Part VII: A Computer for Every Designer
In 1980, for the first time, I witnessed the PC doing trusses. Then, over the next 10 years, I watched that machine take over every designer’s desktop. Getting to that end, though, wasn’t easy. Unprecedented technological change roiled our industry (see the Eighties below) and a severe recession curtailed investment by truss software incumbents. That left an opening for enterprising trussers to take the initiative, much like Jobs and Gates were doing in the PC business.
The earliest of these innovators, Jack Ghiz and Gene Cucciera (shown here), I encountered at the 1980 Florida Truss Manufacturers conference. They had debuted a layout program that they developed on the Apple II PC while working at East Coast Lumber’s Truss Division in Florida. Their aim was to lessen the drafting time involved in truss design, “from one hour to 5 minutes,” according to Cucciera. Gene and Jack sold their program for $4,000 under the banner of C&G Micrographics. (More on their work will follow in a subsequent installment.)
The Apple II’s debut in 1977 and its roaring success into the Eighties threatened giant IBM’s $18 Billion in sales, and inspired entrepreneurship across the industry. Apple’s graphical display, though not elegant, predated any comparable capability and would soon prove to greatly accelerate a designer’s productivity. Its starting price of $1298 was one-tenth the cost of the not-yet-released Hewlett Packard machines. That same year the Commodore PET and the Tandy TRS-80 made their debuts. By the early 1980s, these early PCs began appearing in a few truss plants. However, all these machines were home computers, not yet powerful enough to design trusses, but capable of running a few business applications like VisiCalc, an early spreadsheet program.
In 1981, Apple released its corporate-oriented Apple III for $4,340 just ahead of IBM’s $1585 PC, igniting the battle for the business desktop. By 1983, with an Apple IIe at home, and having demoed an Apple Lisa computer in our St. Louis office, I was convinced that our mainframe-developed software needed drastic overhaul. By 1984, the PC race shifted into overdrive, as IBM’s PC sales eclipsed Apple’s, and Michael Dell began the “PC-compatible” revolution in his dorm room. However, by the mid-Eighties our company and most of our large competitors were unable to invest in PC-based software, as we were riveted by a five year, 40% decline in the housing market.
Into this innovation vacuum, a second group of engineering entrepreneurs, John Ilter and Gilles Bouchacourt, began aggressively developing truss software for the PC. They created “A.C.E.S.,” Advanced Computer Engineering Specialties software from scratch, using the knowledge they gained, in part, from their ownership of Quality Truss in South Florida, and from what John had learned working with his father, noted truss PE Mehmet Ilter. John and Gilles drastically lowered the truss design learning curve with their fresh approach that leveraged “prompting” input. Their timing couldn’t have been better, as competition from PC clones continued to dramatically increase computing speed and power without significantly increasing prices.
By 1988, the PC had eclipsed all the numerous legacy systems upon which we had based our business (shown on the timeline), and we were scrambling to compete with upstarts like A.C.E.S. Since we had invested nearly 20 years of development in our mainframe truss design software, we began a crash effort to port it in onto a PC. The resulting software, rebranded “PowerCalc,” did not run smoothly, and it retained the same unfriendly “line-input” of our mainframe system. Consequently, we had failed to leverage the potential of the PC that we had identified 5 years earlier. In short, our future was in jeopardy.
A Future with Windows