It Used To Be Called Timesharing

As I mentioned in a previous post, Fairchild Market Research and Planning (MRP) had elected to write computer applications themselves for 1) association reporting commitments and 2) in-house data analysis and custom reports. There was a MRP department employee who chose a solution enabled by using a computer timesharing service. He selected Tymshare as the service provider and Super Basic as the language in which it was to be written. The guy doing the project was only part way through implementation when he left the company! Nobody else knew much about what he was doing, and there were no design documents or other notes available. The MRP folks approached Product Marketing looking for someone to help them complete this project. I heard their requirements and was intrigued by the challenge. As a result I signed on for what was to be a six month commitment to get the project completed and able to operate on an ongoing basis every month in the future.

At that point my total experience with computing had been three courses I took at Georgia Tech as a part of obtaining my EE degree. In those courses I had programmed in ALGOL (a FORTRAN like language.) I had no prior knowledge of Super Basic or any of the other resources Tymshare offered that were needed to get this done. This is where the simplicity of Super Basic, its self documenting nature and the excellent training and documentation from Tymshare made up for my lack of knowledge.

I plunged in, took some classes from Tymshare in Super Basic and its OS command level Exec plus Editor, the interactive application for editing code. The Tymshare service model included teams of Tymshare field sales and support people that learned what each customer was doing and needed, and not only advised them on how to do it but often directly helped get customers through tough spots.

The first task was to complete the data entry and device type consolidation process so we could meet the reporting deadlines for the monthly association report.  And reduce errors while dramatically cutting down the time to complete this task. We chose  Data Point CRT terminals with mag tape cassette for the data entry (our own MIS could not supply us with a computer readable version of the company raw sales report.) We took delivery of the very first ones delivered and immediately put them into use. The terminals and mag tapes allowed data entry, verification and editing offline.

When the monthly data was all entered on tape the Data Point terminal was then connected to Tymshare’s network and computer via modem, and the data was uploaded to our department Tymshare account and then formed into sales data files. The first application I wrote processed the raw unit and dollars data given to us by MIS into product groups by generic device type. Next it formatted the device types and accompanying sales data to fit the report format we had to submit to the industry association. And finally we produced a properly formatted report using a small printing terminal. Then the report was off to the association. They were not able to take a computer file of the report!

When in two weeks or so we got a consolidated industry report back from the association the next phase of the work began. The report received was entered into our Tymshare account disk files much like the company data was earlier-typing it onto the mag tape cassettes and then uploaded. It  then became a pretty simple task to use that consolidated industry member’s data and our own data to produce a number of standard monthly reports and analytics that were top priority for Fairchild management. Using matrix operations we pretty much divided the Fairchild matrix (units and dollars by generic device type) by the consolidated industry matrix to produce market share reports by device type. By virtue of previous months data we stored in our account we could also plot historic price and volume graphs for Fairchild and the industry.

We reduced this report/analyze/report cycle from almost exactly one month to about a week. Now the internal analysis reports were three weeks newer than before, enabling timely analysis and decisions that could help drive the business. Three weeks sooner was critical. Tymshare and computer timesharing helped make us heroes!

The biggest resulting challenge was the ensuing demand by management for ad hoc reports and analysis. Now that they had data much sooner than before they thought of a number of other cuts of the data they wanted. This was my introduction to what is of course a constant and the norm in computing: improve the delivery of data some and the result is a request for more!

Depending on market conditions, success, failures, competitors and Fairchild’s new product introductions and production problems there were many new demands for reporting that differed greatly each month. At that time (1971) Tymshare had no general report generation facility. Each report had to be written in Super Basic. Even though portions of previous report code could often be reused along with new code there was no easy or super quick way to supply those newly requested reports. But even so it was much, much faster than the old manual method so it was deemed acceptable.

Early versions of report generators would come along within two years but it still amazes me that neither I nor any of the folks at Tymshare I worked with saw that we could generalize some of the code we had already written to allow new reports to be produced faster each time they were needed, It was an obvious business opportunity we were blind to but we were too happy with what we were already accomplishing for the task at hand to see it!

Here’s a summary of the critical pieces that Tymshare’s (and other vendors) products and services provided that allowed the initial goals in MRP to be accomplished:

  1. The availability of an on-demand computing service to build, operate and deliver applications to end users
  2. Languages that were interactive so that building apps was fairly quick allowing testing and completion to occur without waits for periodic ‘batch’ runs which revealed errors and problems that could seriously set back results
  3. A highly reliable computer network that allowed the app building, processing and reporting to be done from any location at work or home with a phone line – via a modem and a terminal. The incredible hours I put in to develop the programs and maintain them were sometimes able to perform from home or other locations.
  4. Terminals to fit each need from off line entry and editing, online uploading, verification, reports and analysis
  5. At our end-user site help and advice from the team assigned by Tymshare to my account. These people did the same support for other customers and were often able use that experience to suggest better and more efficient ways to accomplish our computing needs
  6. A behind-the-scenes operations staff at Tymshare. They kept the computers and network running and available more or less 24/7. They did regular tape backup for all customer accounts so that system problems or human error would not have much effect. For massive data requirements they could also accept on-site data input in mag tape or card formats
  7. A recurring schedule of classes locally for each of the major languages, the Tymshare operating system and subsidiary applications like Editor.
  8. Superb easy to read documentation made for non-computing professionals. There were quick summary guides and reference manuals all very readable and with clear examples. They differed night and day from what was being supplied by the mainframe vendors to their MIS customers.
  9. Evolving technologies that added help to building and operating applications. The first of these was a built in ‘Sort’ capability that allowed an application program to call it, point it to a data matrix for sorting and return a correctly sorted data set. Before that the sort function had to be written into each program! Availability of several other related vital functions followed rapidly-merge, select, delete and report. Program operation became faster and maintenance was easier.

That’s our first story of a real life need and how computer timesharing provided a solution! Upcoming segments will cover aspects of these enabling services and technologies plus many others as well. We hope you will participate wherever you wish by commenting in the blog or contact us to post a new segment of your own.


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