50 years of software — some things never change
50 years ago this month I quit my job and took a huge risk by starting a pioneering software company, aptly named Ross Systems. This was very unusual move in 1972. There were just a handful of pure software companies, a couple of VC’s and no “startup ecosystem.” Most business software was custom developed by the leading computer hardware companies — IBM and “the BUNCH” (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell), and virtually all of it was used for company back-office applications such as accounting or manufacturing.
We developed a computer application that enabled companies to easily create tabular reports such as budgets, financial forecast and accounting reports (like a spreadsheet for teletypes and other printers of that day). We offered it on a DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) PDP-11 timesharing system that enabled users to dial in over a telephone modem and run their spreadsheet models. In retrospect, this was a precursor to “Software as a Service” (or SaaS). Uniquely, we also offered the option to license our software for on-premise use. Ross Systems was highly successful during the 1970s and early 1980s, especially in Silicon Valley, where legendary technology companies such as Intel, ROLM and Apple, and major financial institutions like Wells Fargo Bank used Ross software for financial management.
However, technology was changing rapidly; the success of the Apple II (with VisiCalc) in 1979 and the IBM PC (with Lotus 123) in 1983 changed the dynamics and economics of Computer Timesharing. That business deteriorated as PC’s replaced terminals, but Ross Systems was able to transition successfully to an Enterprise Software business model, selling Financial Management and ERP software on DEC VAX “supermini” computers. Ross rode the wave of departmental computing and minicomputers during the 1980’s.
But technological change was relentless; toward the end of the 1980s client/server computing for business applications began to supplant minicomputers’ market dominance. Seeing the coming transition, I decided to sell Ross Systems to a buyout group lead by a few well-known VC’s and move on to other professional endeavors. At that time, Ross had become a leader in Financial Management and ERP software with hundreds of employees and offices in the U.S. and Europe. Ross’ focus on the Digital Equipment Corporation market proved to be prescient as DEC had become the second largest computer company in the world. Sadly, DEC’s fall from grace happened rapidly after Ross was sold, and DEC was acquired by Compaq Computer in 1998.
Ross Systems eventually went public and was later taken private but it still exists as a division of Atlanta-based Aptean and is still in use by hundreds of companies to manage their financial and manufacturing operations — this must be some kind of record for software longevity. Google “Ross Systems” for more information.
I’m still involved in the software industry and continue to be amazed at how many of the challenges and opportunities facing software entrepreneurs and customers remain unchanged, despite massive shifts in compute power and economics that were unimaginable 50 years ago. Today I am Chairman of MedaSystems (see www.medasystems.com), and we’re developing SaaS software to speed the processing of Expanded Access (Compassionate Use) drug requests for pharmaceutical manufacturers. It’s just as exciting today to see the potential for our cloud-based software to improve patient outcomes and possibly save lives as it was 50 years ago to see our customers, using teletypes over dial-up telephone lines, manage their finances.
And importantly, I want to acknowledge all the incredible people who contributed to Ross Systems’ success. We had a fantastic team, and I’m grateful for having been in the right place at the right time and to have worked with them to build a company that had so much success in the early days of computing.