In the early 1980s, Wang computers were in use at over 80% of the 2,000 largest U.S. companies. Less than ten years later, Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy protection. Even in the volatile tech world, the rapidity of the decline is remarkable.
Wang’s main claim to fame was its word processing system (WPS), a family of computers which revolutionized the daily lives of the secretarial pool and helped to forever consign White-Out to the distant back shelves of the office supply cabinet. Though they were a far cry from the What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) systems that were to come, these machines, with their green-hued CRTs and dedicated microprocessors, were among the first to provide advanced digital editing functions on multiple lines of text and sharing of files across hundreds of networked users. They were the best of the first generation of technology that a user today might even consider calling a “word processor” (as opposed to, say, an intelligent typewriter) and they represented a milestone in the evolution of data processing in general.
The WPS origin story is a charmer. Perhaps not as magical as Jobs and Wozniak in their Los Altos garage, but close. Wang had been founded in the ’50s by An Wang, a Harvard Ph.D. who did pioneering work on magnetic core memory, which was the predominant type of random access memory (RAM) before the advent of the semi-conductor. The Doctor, as he was referred to in the corridors of the company’s Lowell, MA headquarters, was a brilliant man and forceful leader who embraced Confucian values such as balance, moderation, and simplicity in his personal and professional life.
The company had early success with typesetters and calculators before Dr. Wang decided in the early ’70s to expand into the broader office automation and minicomputer markets. Their first attempt at a word processor was essentially an intelligent interface between an IBM Selectric and a programmable calculator. Its performance was spotty and it sold poorly.
On Dr. Wang’s instructions, two executives − a “wise-cracking rebel” named Harold Koplow and Dave Moros − were charged with making a second attempt. His expectations for the pair cannot have been very high. By that point, the two men were on the outs at the company, having been relegated to a “Long Range Planning” department that was generally considered a temporary holding place for under-achievers while they found other jobs.
Partly because they were given no resources to work with, the pair decided to start by writing a user manual for the new machine, describing by screen-shot and keystroke the features one would ideally want in a word processor. It was a somewhat radical approach for its day (and even for today), but it worked. When they showed their vision to Dr. Wang, he said, “We build.” And so they did. Koplow and Moros worked with a programmer to define the architecture. Then all three of them, with Dr. Wang’s assistance, wrote the code. A team effort.
The system was an immediate success on its launch in 1976, reversing a period of slow decline that had resulted in reduced salaries and lay-offs the year before. By the end of 1978, Wang was claiming to be the world’s largest supplier of CRT-based word processing systems and the largest supplier of small business computers in North America. The company was energized. In a 1978 ad campaign, Wang cast themselves as David to IBM’s Goliath, pre-dating the similarly themed, and iconic, Apple Super Bowl ad by six years. From ’79-’84, revenues rose 61% annually. Their R&D budget increased from $3 million in ’76 to $160 million in ’84, when annual sales topped $2 billion. Wang appeared on Fortune Magazine’s first list of “most admired” companies in 1983.
If you were an MIS Director at a Fortune 500 company making buying decisions in the early 80s, Wang was very much in the conversation. Their minicomputers could compete with the DEC VAX and IBM System/36, and everyone knew their word processors were the state of the art.
What Happened Next
The rise of the personal computer in the ’80s took Wang out of the conversation. By putting a dedicated microprocessor capable of running a variety of different software programs on everyone’s desktop, the PC undermined Wang’s two main strengths: server-centric computing architectures based on minicomputers, and machines dedicated to a single function like word processing. Both were almost immediately obsolete.
A program called MultiMate emulated many of the functions of the Wang WPS. If you were one of the millions of Wang users at the time, you could shift over to MultiMate on an IBM PC with little retraining. As time went on, you’d have your pick of an increasingly wide range of word processing programs, from WordStar to WordPerfect to Microsoft Word. And since you could also run other productivity programs on the same machine, like spreadsheets (VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel) and database programs (dBase, FoxPro), there was no reason to buy a dedicated word processor.
Wang failed to adapt. They did launch a line of personal computers but, at An Wang’s insistence, they were not compatible with the de facto IBM standard. Wang’s minicomputer line, though well regarded, was also not initially interoperable with other systems and so did not play well in the emerging world of decentralized, networked systems. To make matters worse, in a clear misstep, An Wang installed his son, Fred, in the company’s main leadership role in 1986, a position he was not well suited for.
Losses, layoffs, defections, and changes in strategic direction followed. In ’89, An Wang replaced his son with a former GE executive. A year later, An Wang died. In ’91, in a desperate and perhaps symbolic move akin to David tossing aside his slingshot, grabbing Goliath’s sword and taking up with the Philistines, the new leadership agreed to re-sell IBM computers. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1992. When it emerged a few years later, it pivoted away from equipment manufacture altogether towards IT services, a transformation that IBM itself took under CEO Louis Gerstner at about the same time. The company has since been acquired and re-sold to larger corporate interests.
Where Are They Now?
While distant ensuing generations of the Wang minicomputer line are still being actively sold and supported, the legacy products have all been discontinued. To all but the most persnickety corporate anthropologist, the Wang DNA is extinct.
Harold Koplow died in 2004.
An Wang’s legacy is robust. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of the Arts and Education for much of his life. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
One of An Wang’s most-quoted sayings is: “Success is more a function of consistent common sense than it is of genius.” It’s slightly ironic. The man himself was indeed a genius. Did that play a role in his decisions to buck the prevailing trends, the conventional wisdom of his time? In an era of increased interoperability and the ascendance of the PC, common sense might have dictated an embrace of micro-computing on the de facto IBM standard over proprietary mini-computers and dedicated word processing workstations. Common sense seems to have gone unheeded.
An Wang’s autobiography, “Lessons,” was published in 1986, the same year he elevated his son to Wang’s presidency. Shareholders may have wished it had been called “Lessons Learned,” instead.