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The common sense approach to computers.

As a supplier of computer systems to beverage and snack distributors since 1978, it is of great importance to me to educate wholesaler users, so that they can make more informed decisions for computerization.

The Old Days

When I first entered the computer business, you never really saw the computer that you were using. You knew there was one somewhere, but you were never able to get near it. This was, I suppose, because it was extremely expensive, big, and required its own dedicated environment. My only connection to the computer was a teletype machine in which I entered instructions to the computer in the octal numbering system (those of you who are mathematically inclined should have some concept of communicating in this way).

Well, that was 1969. As the years progressed, the computer industry-advanced at an astronomical rate. During the 70s, companies like Digital and Data General began building minicomputers which did many of the same things that the big computers did but were actually accessible, i.e. you could not only see them, you could touch them!

Minicomputers were great. DEC, Data General, Wang, etc. were racking up sales. Even IBM, the mainframe giant, began producing more accessible smaller computers, e.g. Systems 34/36/38.

The positives for these mini- or mid-range computers were many.

1. They were relatively inexpensive compared to mainframes.

2. They allowed more than one person to operate the computer at the same time.

3. They provided an upgrade path (this ability to upgrade, which was then positive, has ultimately been the basis for the downfall of these systems).

The negatives for minis were also many.

1. They required expensive maintenance contracts with little or no warranty.

2. They were still pretty big, requiring their own operating environment with controlled temperature and humidity.

3. Each system was different. Not only were the hardware components different, the operating software (operating system) was different. This meant that people required extensive training to program and use these computers. Because people had to be highly trained in the programming and operation, it was necessary for distributors to pay in-house personnel high salaries just to utilize the computers. There was mystery and mystique surrounding these miniature mainframes. To say that they were complicated to use would be an accurate statement.

My company, Data Consultants, got on the minicomputer bandwagon as well. We utilized the highly-regarded Data General line of minicomputers. We chose DG because Ed DeCastro, founder of Data general, had been an engineer for Digital. He left to build a company to create minicomputers superior to DEC's but at a better price point. It proved an excellent decision for us and we enjoyed success with our beverage and snack software designed to run on the DG platform.

We were just rocking along in the 80s, selling lots of computer systems, when something blind-sided us--the personal computer.

Out with the old, in with the new

One of my distributor customers, Boots Mims (Mims Distributing, Raleigh, N.C.) called me, beginning in late 1985, to inform me that he was buying personal computers and using them for all sorts of dedicated tasks in his business. His people were doing word processing, spreadsheets, etc. At that time, PC's were typically of the AT variety selling for about $5,000, a bargain compare to minis.

Boots would call me each month, and say something like, "Bill, I keep buying these PCs. They don't cost me much, they are easy to use, and I can buy inexpensive software to run on them. Why then, can't I use these same computers to run my business?" Well, I didn't really have a good answer to that question.

I believe that the mid-80s marked the beginning of the end for minicomputers. Owners of businesses everywhere, not just Boots, were sick and tired of high-priced, complicated, highly-specialized computers with built-in obsolescence. It amazes me that there are still businesses that use antiquated technology. Ladies and gentlemen, times have changed!

Personal computers should really be called powerful computers

Modern personal computers have changed everything. Every past negative goes away. PCs are inexpensive (prices are dropping almost daily), are easy to use, require no special environment, are unbelievably powerful, and use a common people-oriented operating system called MS-DOS. Sure, I know there is this "new" thing called UNIX. Well, guess what. UNIX has been around for over 20 years. It's one of those things that comes into vogue every couple of years, and that's what is happening right now.

The title of this article includes the words "for owners only." My reasoning is simple. I can only assume that most owners of distributorships share nothing more with people like Steven Jobs and Bill Gates than financial success. Wholesalers probably know as much about computers as these gentlemen know about the distribution business. Because I believe this to be true, I have taken the time to submit this article and am avoiding providing technical jargon to prove my points. Instead, I am attempting to provide information so that you may form your own opinions.

I heard recently that, in the U.S. alone, there are 30,000 PCs being sold each day. It is obvious to me, and I would hope to you also, that these computers are not merely going into people's homes. They are being used in business--including distributorships. Sure, Bill Gates is one of the wealthiest men in the world--he deserves to be. He developed an operating environment that is usable by ordinary people--MS-DOS.

Certainly I have my biases. Any president of a corporation does. However, I intentionally omitted any information or opinions on our products in this article. It disturbs me when I read articles by my competitors purporting to be expert in computerization only to tout their own solution to influence your thinking.

You should have the knowledge to make an informed decision--not technical jargon, graphs showing the growth or non-growth, and certainly not gibberish designed to influence your decision-making process.

In terms of what I perceive to be the computer platform for today and for the foreseeable future, I offer the following analogy--Computer's are as simple as mom's homemade cherry pie.

If I told you that I had a homemade cherry pie, hot out of the oven, that I wanted to share with you, and you alone, you would probably be pretty happy about that (assuming you really like cherry pie, of course). But, if I told you that I wanted to share that same pie with 20 other people, you might decline, because your slice would be dramatically reduced.

I offer this analogy to make you think about one thing--PC networking. There is a company called Novell that has helped revolutionize the computer industry and at the same time has contributed to the demise of the computer giants. They pioneered the ability to cable connect PCs together. What a simple idea. Just like PCs, networks are simple to set up and simple to use.

Networks are fast--why?

Networks are extremely fast. The reason is simple. Think of my analogy with the pie. With a minicomputer, and also UNIX, you have one computer (pie). That computer is shared by users at each computer screen. These screens (CRTs) are called "dumb terminals," because they are connected to one central computer. Even if you have more than one person using the computer, you still only have one computer which is shared by each user, each receiving a slice of the pie.

Novell, and others, saw the potential of the personal computer and developed the ability to cable-connect them together to form a network of computers. So what's the difference?

With PCs networked together, you get lots of computers (pies). You don't have to share. That's it pure and simple. Just plain common sense.

And, when you have a network in place, you can run any of the software available today for MS/DOS, e.g. Lotus, Quattro Pro, Wordperfect, Harvard Graphics, etc. The possibilities are endless.

I mentioned earlier that the upgradibility of the minis and mid-range computers are both a plus and a minus. They were a plus in that you could add additional horsepower to the central computer to minimize poor response time or to add additional storage capability. But, there was an extremely high price to pay. Many of you, I am sure, have experienced "upgrade time." This is a typical marketing ploy of computer firms to create more revenue for themselves by offering you the "latest and greatest" upgrade. It simply means additional revenue to the computer firm and marginal improvement for you. Ladies and gentlemen--costly upgrades are a thing of the past.

PC networks have an indefinite life expectancy, not the traditional 5-10 years. Novell networks provide powerful computing power distributed to the points they are needed. You do not share a central computer for your computing. Each screen is a computer. You get the whole pie!


I would hope that my comments, if nothing else, have created thoughts in your mind that maybe this computer stuff is really not that complicated. That maybe it's just good old common sense.

William P. Scheff is the president and CEO of Data Consultants, Inc. Scheff graduated from the university of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1969 with a B.A. in Mathematics. After graduation, Scheff worked for the computer division of Litton Industries, and joined Data Consultants in 1977. Scheff started as a programmer at Data Consultants, working his way up to president of the company in 1981. He became the majority stockholder and CEO in 1988.
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Title Annotation:brewing industry
Author:Scheff, Bill
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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