Wang Laboratories

Wang Laboratories

Wang Laboratories was a computer company founded in 1951 by Dr. An Wang and Dr. G. Y. Chu. The company was successively headquartered in Cambridge (1954–1963), Tewksbury (1963–1976) and Lowell, Massachusetts (1976–1997). At its peak in the 1980s, it had revenues of $3 billion/year and employed over 40,000 people.

The company was always directed by Dr. Wang, who played a personal role in setting business strategy and product strategy and thus must be credited both with the company's successes and failures.

Dr. Wang took steps to ensure that the Wang family would retain control of the company even after going public. He created a second class of stock, class B, with higher dividends but only one-tenth the voting power of class C. The public mostly bought class B shares; the Wang family retained most of the class C shares. (The letters B and C were used to ensure that brokerages would fill any Wang stock orders with class B shares unless class C was specifically requested). Wang stock had been listed in the New York Stock Exchange, but this maneuver was not quite acceptable under NYSE's rules, and Wang was forced to delist with NYSE and relist on the more liberal American Stock Exchange.

Under his direction, the company went through several distinct transitions between different product lines.


The company's first major project was the Linasec in 1964. It was an electronic special purpose computer, designed to justify papertape for use on automated Linotype machines. It was developed under contract to Compugraphic, who manufactured phototypesetters. Compugraphic retained the rights to manufacture the Linasec without royalty. They exercised these rights, effectively forcing Wang out of the market.


The Wang LOCI-2 (there had been a LOCI-1 but it was not a real product) was introduced in 1965 and was probably the first desktop calculator capable of computing logarithms, quite an achievement for a machine without any integrated circuits. The electronics included 1275 discrete transistors. It actually performed multiplication by adding logarithms, and roundoff in the display conversion was noticeable; 2 times 2 yielded 3.999999999.

From 1965 to about 1971, Wang was a calculator company, and a very well-regarded one. Wang calculators cost in the mid-four-figures, used Nixie tube readouts, performed transcendental functions, had varying degrees of programmability, and exploited magnetic core memory in ingenious ways. Competition included HP, which introduced the HP9100A in 1968, and old-line calculator companies such as Monroe and Marchant.

Wang calculators were at first sold to scientists and engineers, but the company later won a solid niche in financial-services industries, which had previously relied on complicated printed tables for mortgages and annuities.

One perhaps apocryphal story tells of a banker who spot-checked a Wang calculator against a mortgage table and found a discrepancy. The calculator was right, the printed tables were wrong, and the company's reputation was made.

In the early seventies, Dr. Wang believed that calculators would become unprofitable low-margin commodities, and decided to exit the calculator business.

Word Processors

The Wang word processor was designed by Harold Koplow and David Moros, who began by first writing the user's manual. A 2002 Boston Globe article refers to Koplow as a "wisecracking rebel" who "was waiting for dismissal when, in 1975, he developed the product that made computers popularly accessible."

In Koplow's words, "Dr. Wang kicked me out of marketing. I, along with Dave Moros was relegated to Long Range Planning—'LRPed'. This ... was tantamount to being fired: 'here is a temporary job until you find another one in some other company.'"

Although he and Moros were told to design a word processing machine, they were given no resources. They perceived the assignment as busywork. They went ahead anyway, wrote the manual, and convinced Dr. Wang to turn it into a real project. The word processing machine—the Wang 1200 WPS—was introduced in June 1976 and was an instant success, as was its successor, the 1977 Wang OIS (Office Information System).

These products were technological breakthroughs. They were multi-user systems. Each workstation looked like a typical terminal but contained its own Z80 microprocessor and 64K of RAM (comparable, but lower, in power than the original IBM PC which came out in 1981). Disk storage was centralized in a master unit and shared by the workstations, and connection was via high-speed dual coax "928 Link". Multiple OIS masters could be networked to each other, allowing file sharing among hundreds of users. The systems were user-friendly and fairly easy to administer, with the latter task often performed by office personnel, in an era when most machines required trained administrators.

All software for the systems was developed by Wang Laboratories, and the operating system, file formats, and electronic interface specification were closely held proprietary secrets. Wang did not want third parties developing for or interconnecting with its systems. (This was relaxed somewhat in the late eighties).

Aggressive Marketing

In the late 1980s, a British television documentary accused the company of targeting a competitor, Canadian company AES Wordplex, in an attempt to take it out of the market. However, the documentary came to no conclusion regarding this.

Wang's approach was called internally "The Gas Cooker Program", named after similar programs to give discounts on new gas stoves by trading in an old one. Wang was accused of targeting Wordplex by offering a large discount on Wang OIS systems with a trade-in of Wordplex machines, regardless of the age or condition of the trade-in machine.

Based on its good reputation with users and its program of aggressive discounts, Wang gained an increasing share of a shrinking market. Wordplex was subsequently taken over by Norsk Data.

WP Market Collapse

The market for standalone word processing systems collapsed with the introduction of the personal computer, with MultiMate on the IBM PC replicating the interface and functions of the Wang word processor.

The Digital Voice Exchange

The Wang DVX was one of the first integrated switchboard and voicemail systems. In the United Kingdom it was selected for the DTI Office Automation Pilot schemes at the National Coal Board in about 1980.

PCs and PC Based Products

The Original Wang PC

The original Wang PC was released to counter the IBM PC which had gained wide acceptance in the market for which Wang traditionally positioned the OIS system. It was based on the Intel 8086 microprocessor, a more powerful CPU (i.e. faster, up to twice as fast, but otherwise no more capable) than the IBM PC's 8088. A hardware/software package that permitted the Wang PC to act as a terminal to the OIS and VS products was available. The hardware component, a large add-in board called the WLOC (Wang Local Office Connection), contained a Z-80 processor and 64k of memory.

One of the distinguishing features of the WANG PC was the system software. Similar to the WANG VS minicomputer, the command line was not immediately evident. Everything could be run from menus, including formatting a disk. Furthermore, each item on a menu could be explained by hitting a dedicated Help key on the keyboard.

The Wang word-processing software was also very graphical. The keyboard had 16 f-keys and unlike the popular word processor of the day, Wordstar, you didn't have to use control key combinations to navigate. The f-keys had the word processing functions labeled on them. This may be where WordPerfect got the idea of stickers with alt/ctrl/shift colors for the f-keys.

However the biggest stumbling block was that it was not compatible with the IBM PC. Wang used a 16-bit data bus instead of the 8-bit data bus used by IBM. Wang argued that applications would run much faster since most operations required I/O (disk, screen, keyboard, printer). With this 16-bit design, Wang used peripheral hardware devices, such as the Wang PC display adapter, that were not compatible with their counterparts in the IBM PC line. This meant that the vast library of software available for the IBM PC could not be directly run on the Wang PC. Only those programs that were either written specifically for the Wang PC or ported from the IBM PC were available. A basic word processing package developed by Wang and Microsoft's Multiplan spreadsheet were the two commonly marketed software products. Lotus 1-2-3 was also available. This dearth of application software led to the early demise of the original Wang PC, and it was replaced by an Intel 80286 based product that was fully plug compatible with the IBM PC. The unique system software was available at extra cost.

Most Wang PCs were released with a monochrome graphics adapter that supported a single video mode with text and graphics planes that could be scrolled independently, unlike IBM-compatible PCs of the time which required selecting a specific video mode to allow graphics. A color graphics adapter and Wang-branded color monitor were also available.

IBM Compatible Wang PCs

Wang later released an emulation board for Wang workstations that would allow the computer to boot into an IBM-PC compatible mode through a special program that would load the IBM operating system. The emulation board provided a virtual, monochrome, text-only video card to IBM-compatible programs, allowing simple text applications to function as if they were running on a standard IBM-compatible PC.

Further iterations of the PC line were released with the 80286-chipset and had an IBM-compatible BIOS. These later models booted directly into MS-DOS (or another compatible operating system) and supported ISA-standard expansion cards.

The Wang Laptop Computer

Wang Freestyle

Wang Freestyle was a 1990 product consisting of:

  • A tablet and stylus for written annotation of any file that could be displayed on the PC
  • A phone handset for voice annotation, but not voice communication. Demonstrated strongly in conjunction with the tablet for explaining the text annotations
  • email, via Wang OFFICE, of the resulting document set.

The product was not a success in anything except marketing terms. The article on USC shows the symptoms of the failure:

The $1.2 million USC system includes a VS 7150 mid-range computer; 30 image workstations, 25 with Freestyle capabilities; a laser printer; five endorsers; and five document scanners. Initial storage for document images is eight gigabytes of magnetic disk storage.

Only 25 of the stations were Freestyle stations. The system was so costly, even in the context of a Wang Integrated Imaging System, that Freestyle was only affordable for highly specialised or very senior staff. Apart from USC, unusual in that it was deployed at clerical level, it was sold as a C-Level tool for C grades to communicate with other C Grades. This reduced the marketplace immediately from the mass market where the system would have been effective.

Wang 2200

On its journey from calculators and word processing to serious data processing Wang developed and marketed several lines of small computer system, some of which were WP-based and some of which were DP-based. Instead of a clear, linear progression, the product lines overlapped and in some cases borrowed technology from each other.

The most identifiable Wang minicomputer performing recognizable data processing was the Wang 2200 which appeared in May, 1973. Unlike some other desktop computers such as the HP 9830, it had a CRT in a cabinet that also included an integrated computer controlled cassette tape storage unit and keyboard. Microcoded to run interpretive BASIC, about 65,000 systems were shipped in its lifetime and it found wide use in small and medium-size businesses worldwide. The 2200 evolved into a desktop computer and larger system to support up to 16 workstations and utilized commercial disk technologies that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The disk subsystems could be attached to up to 15 computers giving a theoretical upper limit of 240 workstations in a single cluster.

Unlike the other product lines such as the VS and OIS (both described below), Wang aggressively used value added resellers (VARs) to customize and market 2200 systems. One such creative solution deployed dozens of 2200 systems and was developed in conjunction with Hawaii- and Hong Kong-based firm, Algorithms, Inc. It provided paging (beeper) services for much of the Hong Kong market in the early 1980s. Overshadowed by the Wang VS, the 2200 languished as a cost-effective but forgotten solution in the hands of the customers who had it. In the late 1980s Wang revisited the 2200 for one last dip in the revenue well, offering 2200 customers a new 2200 CS with bundled maintenance for less than customers were then paying just for maintenance of their aging 2200 systems. The 2200 CS was accompanied by updated disk units and other peripherals, and most 2200 customers able to write their signatures on the contracts moved up to the 2200 CS, after which Wang dusted off its hands and never again developed or marketed any new 2200 products. In 1997 Wang reported having about 200 2200 systems still under maintenance around the world. Throughout, Wang had always offered maintenance services for the 2200.

Wang OIS

The Wang OIS (Office Information System) was heavily WP oriented and featured Wang's "Glossary" language, a system of programming that fitted into the WP model and was designed to be simple to master. The design goal was that secretaries would be able to use Glossary to extend the functionality of the document management and manipulation provided by the OIS.

Like the Wang 2200, the OIS was characterized by evolution into a 24-user system. The OIS and the VS overlapped. Features such a dual-coax connections to workstations and printers were common to both system families. Buried deep in the VS microcode are entire pieces of OIS code, probably because WP did not figure into the original design of the VS but was added later.

Wang also had a line called Alliance, which was based on the high end OIS (140/145) hardware architecture. It had more powerful software compared to the OIS word processing and list processing packages. The most significant enhancement was in the indexing capabilities of the Alliance system; documents could be indexed by every word contained in them. The database product, Visual Memory, permitted every word in each field to be indexed. In addition to the advanced indexing features, the Alliance word processor was also substantially enhanced, even though the Z80 platform on which it ran forced it to remain as an 8-bit application in a 64KB workstation.

The Wang VS computer line

The first Wang VS computer was introduced in 1977, about the same time as Digital Equipment Corporation's VAX, and continues in use 31 years later. Its instruction set was compatible with the IBM 360 series but it did not run any IBM 360 system software. The VS operating system and all system software were built from the ground up to support interactive users as well as batch operations. The VS was aimed directly at the business data processing market in general, and IBM in particular. While many programming languages were available, the VS was typically programmed in COBOL. Other languages supported in the VS integrated development environment included Assembler, COBOL 74, COBOL 85, BASIC, Ada, RPG II, C, PL/I, FORTRAN, Glossary, MABASIC and Procedure (a scripting language). Pascal was also supported for I/O co-processor development. The Wang PACE (Professional Application Creation Environment) 4GL and database was used from the mid-1980s onward by customers and third party developers to build complex applications sometimes involving many thousands of screens, hundreds of distinct application modules, and serving many hundreds of users. Substantial vertical applications were developed for the Wang VS by third party software houses throughout the 1980s in COBOL, PACE, BASIC, PL/I and RPG II. The Wang OFFICE family of applications and Wang WP were both popular applications on the VS. Word Processing ran on the VS through services that emulated the OIS environment and downloaded the WP software as "microcode" (in Wang terminology) to VS workstations.

The press and the industry referred to the class of machines made by Wang, including the VS, as "minicomputers, and Kenney's 1992 book refers to the VS line as "minicomputers" throughout. Although some argue that the high-end VSes and their successors should qualify as mainframes, Dr. Wang avoided this term. In his autobiography, Dr. Wang, rather than calling the VS 300 a mainframe, said that it "verges on mainframe performance.". He went on to draw distinction between the "mainframes" at the high end of IBM's line ("just as Detroit would rather sell large cars ... so IBM would rather sell mainframes")—in which IBM had a virtual monopoly—with the "mid-sized systems" in which IBM had not achieved dominance: "The minicomputer market is still healthy. This is good for the customer and good for minicomputer makers. Wang Laboratories positioned the VS line as minicomputers, and reflected this in its marketing collateral and press releases. Later models, the small VS5000 series, launched in approx 1988, were user installable, the smallest being physically similar in size to PCs of the era. The largest supported an increasingly substantial number of users.

Going after IBM

Dr. Wang felt a personal sense of rivalry with IBM, partly as a result of heavy-handed treatment by IBM in 1955-6 over the rights to his magnetic-core patents. (This encounter formed the subject of a long chapter in Wang's own book, Lessons.) According to Charles C. Kenney, "Jack Connors remembers being in Wang's office one day when the Doctor pulled out a chart on which he had plotted Wang's growth and projected that Wang Laboratories would overtake IBM sometime in the middle of the 1990s. 'He had kept it a long time,' says Connors. 'And he believed it.'"

Wang was one of the first computer companies to advertise on television, and the first to run an ad during the Super Bowl. Their first ad literally cast Wang Laboratories as David and IBM as Goliath. A later ad depicted Wang Laboratories as a helicopter gunship taking aim at IBM.

Wang wanted to compete against IBM as a computer company, selling directly to MIS departments. Before the VS, however, Wang Laboratories was not taken seriously as a computer company. The calculators, word processing systems and OIS were sold into individual departments, bypassing the corporate data-processing decision-makers. The chapter in Wang's book dealing with them shows that he saw them only as "a beachhead in the Fortune 1000." The Wang VS was Wang's entrée into IT departments. In his book, Dr. Wang notes that, to sell the VS, "we aggressively recruited salesmen with strong backgrounds in data processing... who had experience dealing with MIS executives, and who knew their way around Fortune 1000 companies." As the VS took hold, the word processor and OIS lines were phased out. The word processing software continued, in the form of a loadable-microcode environment that allowed VS workstations to take on the behavior of traditional Wang WP terminals to operate with the VS and use it as a document server.

Wang made inroads into IBM and DEC markets in the 1980s, but didn't have a serious impact on IBM's mainframe market due to self-limiting factors. Even though Dr. Wang wanted to compete with IBM, too many Wang salespeople were incompletely trained on the significant DP capabilities of the VS. In many instances the VS ran smaller enterprises up to about $500 million/year and in larger organizations found use as a gateway to larger corporate mainframes, handling workstation pass-through and massive print services.

At Exxon Company USA, for instance, 13 1985-top-of-the-line VS300s at the Houston headquarters were used in the 1980s and into the 1990s to receive mainframe reports and make them viewable online by executives.

At Mellon Mortgage 18 VS systems from the smallest to the largest were used as the enterprise mortgage origination, servicing, finance, documentation and hedge system and also for mainframe gateway services for logon and printing. Between Mellon Mortgage and parent Mellon Bank, their network contained 45 VS systems and the Bank portion of the network supported about 16,000 Wang Office users for email, report distribution and scheduling.

At Kent and KTec Electronics, two related Houston companies, separate VS clusters were the enterprise systems, handling distribution, manufacturing and accounting, with significant EDI capability for receiving customer forecasts, sending invoices, and sending purchase orders and receiving shipping notifications. Both systems ran the GEISCO EDI package. Kent, which grew to $600 million/year, ran the Arcus distribution software in COBOL and KTec, which grew to $250 million/year, ran the CAELUS MRP system for manufacturing in BASIC.

The high water mark of the VS in the marketplace was probably about 30,000 systems operating worldwide at one time in the mid-to-late 1980s, serving at least several million desktop users.

Decline and fall

A common view within the PC community is that the company failed because it specialized in computers designed specifically for word processing and did not foresee (and was unable to compete against) general-purpose personal computers with word processing software in the 1980s. However, word processing was not the mainstay of Wang's business by the time desktop computers began to gain in popularity. Although Wang manufactured desktops, its main business by the 1980s was its VS line of mini-computer and "midframe" systems. However, the market for these mini-computers was ultimately conquered by enhanced micro-computers like the Apple Macintosh and the "wintel" PC on one end and Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard servers on the other end. Wang would be only one of a large number of New England-based computer companies that would falter in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Dr. Wang's insistence that his son, Fred Wang, succeed him contributed to the company's failure. Fred Wang was a business school graduate, "but by almost any definition," wrote Charles C. Kenney, "unsuited for the job in which his father had placed him." His assignment, first as head of research and development, then as president of the company, led to resignations by key R&D and business personnel.

One turning point occurred when Fred Wang was head of R&D. On October 4, 1983, Wang Laboratories announced fourteen major hardware and software products, and promised dates of delivery. The announcement was well received, but even at the time there were warning signs. According to Datamation, Wang announced "everything but the kitchen sink. And if you could attach the kitchen sink to a personal computer they would announce that too. Very few of the products were close to completion and many of them had not even been started. All were delivered late and some were never delivered at all. In retrospect this was referred to as the "vaporware announcement" and it hurt the credibility of Fred Wang and Wang Laboratories.

In 1986 Fred Wang, then 36 years old, was installed as president of Wang Laboratories. On August 4th, 1989, Dr. Wang fired his son. Richard W. Miller replaced him as the president of Wang Laboratories, having been with the company since 1988.

Miller announced in December 1989 that the company would start to embrace established software standards, rather than use traditional proprietary designs. An Wang died in March 1990. The company underwent massive restructuring, and in August 1990, it eliminated its bank debt, but still ended the year with a record net loss.

In November 1990, they announced their first personal computers running Unix. Wang's presence in the Unix and open systems markets has been modest. UNIX ran on the VS, but as an emulation running under the VSOS, and thus had major performance challenges. PACE, which offered its data dictionary, excellent referential integrity, and speedy application development, was not ported to UNIX, nor were plans made to port it there.

Ira Magaziner, who was brought in by Miller in 1990, proposed to take Wang out of the manufacture of computers altogether, and to go big into imaging software instead. In March 1991, the company introduced its Office 2000 marketing strategy, focusing on office productivity.

In June 1991 Wang started reselling IBM computers, in exchange for IBM investing into Wang stock. Wang hardware strategy to re-sell IBM RS/6000s also included further pursuit of UNIX software.

In August 1991, they won a suit against NEC and Toshiba which violated Wang's patents on single in-line memory modules (SIMMs). The company still recorded a net loss for the 1991 fiscal year.

Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy protection on August 18, 1992.

The three Wang towers in Lowell, which originally cost $60 million to build and housed 4,500 workers in over a million square feet (100,000 m²) of office space, were foreclosed and sold for $525,000. Wang itself would have bought the towers property at the foreclosure sale but no one at Wang had anticipated that the final price would be so low, and so an opportunity to reacquire the towers was lost. (The towers, now known as the CrossPoint Towers, have since been converted to office buildings, occupied by companies like Cisco Systems, Motorola, Eastman Kodak, AT&T, and Sovereign Bank.)

Richard Miller stepped down as chairman and chief executive officer in January 1993, and moved to AT&T.


The company emerged from bankruptcy a year or two later with $200 million in hand and embarked on a course of acquisition and self-reinvention, eschewing its former role as an innovative designer and manufacturer of computer and related systems. Later in the 1990s, and under the guidance of then CEO Joe Tucci, with the acquisition of the Olsy division of Olivetti the company changed its name to Wang Global. By then Wang had settled on "network services" as its chosen business.

In 1999 Wang Global, by then back up to $3.5 billion in annual revenues, was acquired by Getronics of The Netherlands, a $1.5 billion network services company active only in parts of Europe and Australia. Joe Tucci departed Wang, after the acquisition, for EMC Corporation.

The Wang VS product line, not actively marketed since the 1992 bankruptcy and now a tiny portion of the Getronics business, survives to this day (February 2006) with 1,000 to 2,000 systems worldwide. The most advanced legacy VS model, capable of supporting over 1,000 users -- the VS18000 Model 950 -- was released in 1999, and smaller models based on the same CPU chip were released in 2000 -- the VS6760 and the VS6780. A new line of Wang VS was introduced in 2005 using completely new hardware.

On July 27, 2007, Dutch telecommunications operator KPN NV said it will launch a management-backed cash bid of €766 million ($1.04 billion) for information-technology-services company Getronics. KPN Chief Executive Ad Scheepbouwer said he doesn't rule out job cuts after the merger. "But in that case, this will be a couple of hundred of jobs rather than thousands," he said. Getronics CEO Klaas Wagenaar will step down after the merger is completed.

Rebirth of the Wang VS

In 2005 Getronics announced New VS, a product that is said to seamlessly run the VS OS and all VS software. It is based on a hardware abstraction layer for Intel x86 and IBM POWER. The product is a joint commercial effort of Getronics and TransVirtual Systems In 2006 the New VS was officially designated the "VS22000" family by Getronics. VS software can be run on the New VS, however, without program or data conversion. The New VS is a combination of very specifically configured mainstream PC or PowerPC server hardware running virtualization software. It is interoperable with SCSI-based Wang VS tape and disk drives, which provide a means of restoring VS files from standard backup tapes or copying VS disk drives. Wang networking and clustering are supported over TCP/IP.

End of Life for the Legacy Wang VS

On July 21, 2008, Getronics announced that they were notifying Wang VS customers of the end of support for legacy Wang VS systems. According to the press release, "All existing contracts will be honored to their current and agreed-to end dates." TransVirtual Systems is named in the release as the exclusive reseller of the "New VS" platform going forward. The fastest legacy Wang VS, the 1999 VS18950, has a rating of 6300 in the Wang "FAST" benchmark system; "New VS" systems perform up to the 12000-15000 range.

Notes and references

External links

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