The Ephemeral Nature Of Tech
Can a tech company create a truly lasting legacy? Often, not ways they expect.
In Chelmsford, Massachusetts there is a short stretch of road near the highway that features a string of (as of this writing) abandoned office buildings. These buildings were built in the early 1980’s and have had various tenants over the years, but the vacancy rate eventually grew to the point where the whole area is now unoccupied.
Recent trends away from monolithic office parks towards mixed-use areas with more retail and residential space nearby lured away most of the businesses there to newer developments in the late 2010’s, and the great migration out of the office to the home in 2020 has not helped with re-leasing any of these properties.
The original constructor of these buildings however was a company called Apollo Computer. Apollo was a player in the great minicomputer (and later workstation) boom era of the 1970’s and 1980’s. This was a period of time that saw a number of companies flourish, including Digital Equipment Corporation ( a former employer of mine which I have written about before), Data General, and Wang Computer. These companies experienced amazing growth and profitability during their runs, and battled each other for global dominance in the business technology market.
All of them without exception are dead now, and for the most part, forgotten. Apollo especially so, because it was really only a minor player in the early workstation scene, and had an under-ten-year run of independent existence (1980-1989) before being bought by Hewlett Packard. HP kept the Apollo workstation line for a number of years before completely abandoning it, and nothing really remains of Apollo now.
Except for one thing. If you were to walk down Route 129 in Chelmsford today, you would come across a manhole cover in front of an old Apollo building, the very one pictured above. For reasons that seem ill-considered today, Apollo chose to monogram the sewage system covers for the brand new office development they were shelling out a considerable amount of money to build.
Corporate hubris, to be sure. (And also, more than a bit weird as a flex.) But the amazing thing to me here is the expectation of persistence without change it implies. You might argue that although it did not persist in its original form, Apollo was actually a successful company, because it managed to get bought by HP. And getting acquired is a frequent and sometimes very profitable goal of a lot of tech companies.
But it is clear that the founders of Apollo were not thinking that way. If they were expecting their company to only last a few years, they could have leased space, rather than develop an entire office park area, and saved a lot of equity. And they certainly wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of making personalized manhole covers.
The same story has played out to perhaps a less weird, but often more expensive degree with many tech companies of this era that grew to impressive proportions, before disappearing entirely. Down the road from Apollo’s old campus is Crosspoint Towers, a triple set of 12-story high-rise office buildings built by Wang Laboratories in the 1980s.
Still referred to by most locals as the “Wang Towers”, these buildings total 1.2 million square feet of office space, and are some of the largest and most recognizable office structures in the area. So much so that they were even evacuated on 9/11, for fear they would be the next target of attack.
Al Qaeda, luckily, wasn’t interested. But the terrified office workers running from the Towers that day were not Wang employees, not by a long shot. Wang Labs had already suffered its catastrophic collapse ten years earlier - by betting on the idea that companies would continue to shell out money for dedicated word processor hardware instead of generalized computers like PCs and workstations.
Expectation of persistence, without change. It’s a theme here, whether you are talking about the expectation that you will inhabit an area long enough to justify making your own sewer system, or whether you are talking about expecting people to quickly transition to your expensive new technology, but then somehow lose the capacity to adapt and grow beyond it later.
Wang declared bankruptcy in 1992, and it is not clear if the $60 million spent to build the Towers twelve years earlier was even entirely paid back to Wang’s creditors. The largely unoccupied buildings were sold in 1994 to a lucky, lucky developer at the fire-sale price of $525,000 (who then flipped them a few years later for huge profits.)
You can go another few miles down the road from Lowell to the “Route 128” (now Route 95) belt, and find another great example of this as you drive by the former headquarters of Polaroid Corporation. Now the site of a Market Basket supermarket, Polaroid once owned the instant photography business, and was in an excellent position to capitalize on their very strong brand by being a pioneer in digital photography. But the inability to focus on the end problem they had targeted years ago, and instead stubbornly cling to the specifics of the (now outmoded) technology they were using to solve it did them in.
Focusing on the means, not the end, is another theme in play here. Which brings us to a favorite corporate cautionary example of mine, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I’ve written in the past about my experiences working for DEC in its waning years, which I don’t intend to rehash again. It is mostly the same story, only on a larger scale. A huge company, creating an expansive, seemingly stable and persistent presence, visible everywhere you looked. But then, collapsing to nothing, in a shockingly short period of time. DEC failed both to continue driving the change they started with making smaller and cheaper solutions, and they generally failed to focus on providing solutions for customers, and spent far too much time just focusing on technology.
Not really any different from the other stories really, except for the fact that it is within my personal experience. And I am just as guilty of expecting things would persist as-is forever, back when I was working at DEC. I remember in 1986, driving up Route 495 to go to work, passing fleets of Semis with the Digital logo on them, hearing our ads on the radio, seeing one of the corporate helicopters landing as I made my way into a mega-office-complex where thousands of engineers worked on products used all over the world.
To think it was a short-lived thing, something ephemeral and unable to stand through time with a lasting legacy, would have been a ridiculous thought to me back then. Now I should point out, Digital did have a 40-year lifespan as an independent company, which many might say is in fact impressive and long-lived for the tech industry. But this is also where I take a slight detour, and talk about Hummel Figurines.
For my commute in 1986, I used to drive up to Littleton, Massachusetts from my apartment in Shrewsbury, and I would pass a store called “The Shropshire Curiosity Shop”. This store featured knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, or whatever you call the stuff your grandma might collect. The shop window would display rows of Hummel figurines, little painted porcelain sculptures of cute kids in various poses such as carrying baskets, singing hymns, and stuff like that.
Today if you said you collected them, I would say cool, and maybe admire your collection (turns out some of them are actually quite valuable). But I wouldn’t want one as a gift, just not my thing. Younger me in 1986 would have gone further, and said the stuff sold at the Shropshire Curiosity Shop was some of the tackiest, kitschy stuff you could find, and would have a negative opinion of a shopper there, unless they were buying something as a gag gift.
I would briefly look that direction sometimes when passing the intersection where the shop was on my way to work, and generally held everything about it - the contents, the idea, the patrons, the owners - in low regard. Something inconsequential, insubstantial, and not worthy of any serious consideration.
But here’s the thing. They were established in the late 1950’s, around the same time as Digital. And they are still there today, in the same spot. Still going, still selling figures, and even expanded their offerings into Thomas Kinkade painting reproductions (another very acquired taste). Long after the last DEC helicopter took flight, and the last corporate-branded semi rolled down Route 495, Shropshire was open and doing business with its customers. They’ve been around more than 60 years, and I can’t help but think if they had financed a manhole cover featuring a Hummel figurine for Main St. in front of their shop, that loan would have been paid off a long time ago.
Later after I got married, I started frequenting an establishment that was a favorite of my wife’s - Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut. Logee’s is a fantastic place to visit. Not really very big in scale, but it does feature a series of old, interconnecting greenhouses selling tropical and sometimes rare plants. The experience of walking through Logee’s is one-of-a-kind. Plants hang, sit on rickety shelving and are generally growing everywhere here, leaving one to weave through the narrow open spaces and past towering trees, ancient and rusty pipes, and old glass walls patinaed with layers of organic residue.
Logee’s has been in business continuously, since 1892. My friends in other parts of the world should be able to easily one-up me on this oldest-business thing, by pointing to taverns and so on that span even longer stretches of operation. But this is my local reference, when I think about a business that has truly endured. The formula here is simple: grow plants and sell them to customers. Over the years the technology has changed a bit, even though ancient parts of the greenhouse remain. Most notably, Logee’s has built more modern growing houses, and sells online in addition to their iconic retail store.
They have persisted, and yet also changed. And they have remained focused on their customers, and paid little attention to other diversions, technological or otherwise. I don’t know if they would even want a branded manhole cover outside of their retail location, but if they did, it would be a safe bet, because they physically cannot relocate.
Inside the oldest of the greenhouses in the Logee’s complex, grows a Ponderosa Lemon Tree, planted by company founder William D. Logee in 1900. It is the same greenhouse, and same tree today as then, and the tree at least would most definitely be near impossible to move without killing it. The tree grows gigantic lemons, the size of softballs, and over the years, various cuttings and fruits from this and other exotic plants in the greenhouse have been taken, given and sold to people around the world.
If I were given the impossible task of reducing Logee’s legacy down to a single thing, it would be this tree. And if the sad day ever came that Logee’s closed, or some ill fate befell the greenhouse or the lemon tree, there would still be countless other trees and plants growing around the world that can trace their direct existence back to this place. It’s a legacy that is frankly almost impossible to match.
This isn’t a magic article, and I don’t have any killer insights here. Talking about old lemon trees is not going to solve anyone’s tech startup issues with staying in business, or give you the secret formula to creating a lasting legacy with your company. Maybe you might even feel I’m trying to compare essentially incomparable things, and any advice you can give that applies to both a greenhouse and computer company is only the most obvious, basic sort.
I’m just saying what I think about, as I drive down Route 495 these days, past sometimes empty, but more often repurposed old DEC buildings. I have a nice collection of coffee mugs from past projects I worked on at defunct companies, but little else of them physically remains. And I do also think sometimes, even obvious advice is worth repeating.
I wonder for instance, what will eventually become of today's huge, seemingly-everlasting constructions — like the Apple’s new Cupertino “Spaceship” headquarters building. Up until 2020 even I could not imagine a kind of event or misfortune in any immediate future that would cause that building to become unoccupied. Yet it happened, in a way no one could have ever predicted. And there is still considerable debate about how many will return there now.
My intent is not doom-saying or suggesting that Apple or other tech giants are ephemeral companies. But the simple Logee’s formula of “grow plants and sell them” when mapped to technology becomes “create change and sell it”. And it is pretty hard to sell change in a lasting, persistent way. It seems like tech companies either forget that the need to change also applies to them, or they end up prioritizing the creating change part, over the satisfying customer needs part. That’s why being a pure technology company is kind of a recipe for a short lifespan, if you ask me.
Harnessing technology is important of course, as long as it is not the main thing. Logee’s, as mentioned did make the leap to online sales, and probably needed to in order to continue keeping their operation going. But the business was always about something else.
Same goes for a company like IBM, a rare exception, which has somehow survived as a technology company since the 1920s — through an incredibly changing landscape. It is not the company it once was, but is still in business and has navigated change and survived, where other tech companies have failed. A key thing they have done right is focus on business (aka their customers), with the technology being important, but secondary. Focus on the ends, not just the means. Put the customer first.
Common sense and probably often-given advice, but if you ask me, the jury is still out on whether the FAANG giants of our present time are going to follow it and go the distance. On the one hand, you can see the huge impact to the world these behemoths have had. You probably are reading this on a device that is built by or which includes software from one of these companies. We see their giant buildings, their fleets of delivery trucks, their multi-color search page logos, constantly in our lives.
But on the other hand, my personal experiences in the tech industry have taught me that there are no sure bets, and no company too big to fail. Will a day come when no one buys an iPhone, when Amazon is no longer selling things, and when people do not find information via Google? Of course. Everything dies eventually, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. But is “normal company lifespan” for our current crop of tech stars defined in the 126-year terms of Logee’s, or the 10-year terms of Apollo?
We are bad predictors of our collective future, and when we are talking about the realm of technology companies, especially so. My question above is as impossible to accurately answer as it is rhetorical. We might be tempted to place bets on some favorites that we think will last longer than others. But even that is fraught with peril. I would have picked the second largest computer company in the world to last longer than a porcelain figurine shop, for instance. And I was sure wrong about that.
So, thanks for bumming us out, Mad Ned. We get it. You’re an old guy, worked for some old companies that died. You think about death and want us to think about it too.
Not quite. While I, like others, do contemplate death from time time, (a highly underrated exercise, if you ask me) its not the thing about companies dying that should be the takeaway. I could have easily written the equivalent article to this one, except substitute in people for companies. If I had done that, the reminders I would try to convey when broaching the subject of mortality would have been more about remembering to focus on what matters, making people in your life happy, and not getting too wrapped up in the materialistic aspects of living your life. About being flexible and accepting change when it comes, but remaining true to yourself.
Strange how the advice applies equally well to both corporations and people. And for the sake of not being a bummer article, I will leave on an up-note. Although nothing often remains physically from the tech giants of the past (apart from coffee cups and manhole covers) their legacy survives, in invisible and immeasurable ways. The products these companies created were bought by other, younger companies, and used to design the next generation of technology. Those products were used for building the next generation in turn, in a very understandable pattern to us as humans, and also not unlike the lemon tree cuttings that have propagated from Logee’s.
These days I am working with a new generation of engineers, who are in some cases younger than my kids. If I bring up Wang or Apollo or Digital in a conversation, there is always a lot of historical explaining to do, and I certainly cannot blame them for never having heard of a company that shut its doors before they were even born. The invisible legacy though is there, baked into every electronic device they own. It’s not an obvious thing, like a helicopter or a spaceship. But I find it to be enough.
Next Time: How bad was computer security in the 1980’s? Bad enough that even vaguely capable teen nerds could bring down huge mainframes, just by reading a trade magazine. Three guesses as to who had that subscription. Mad Ned’s shadowy hacker past brought to light in: Black Hat Exploits of the Stupid-Easy ‘80s
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