Archive for June, 2016

Fortune Systems

June 5, 2016

Today, I want to talk about a relatively small company that existed in the 80s. They started off in time and with a good idea, but as so many forgotten companies, they delivered too late and then lost their strategic way after the original founder and visionary left. Little is known about that company in the Internet, there is not a single website dedicated to its memory although they produced interesting computers. So, let’s start the tale…

logo

Funnily, despite their quite unfortunate fate, the name of the company was Fortune Systems. They were US-based and started off in 1980 on the idea of producing multi-user systems for serious business purposes like word processing, accounting, and the like. The selling point would have been to be cheaper than the mini-computer-based competition by relying on a (at that time) new, relatively cheap, powerful microprocessor and an existing, relatively standard multi-user operating system. The CPU naturally was the Motorola 68000 and the operating system was Unix in the form of Microsoft’s Xenix.

Who now feels reminded of another startup of the 80s that used the power of the 68000 and Unix to surpass the competition and thinks “Sun” is on the right track. Fortune tried to be for the business market what Sun later on became for the scientific market. Although one can compare Fortune and Sun in their approach and they started at about the same time, their machines are quite different. This is because the requirements by their respective  markets are quite different.

A scientific workstation tries to provide the user sitting in front of the machine as much compute and graphics power as possible and typically put the focus on communication very early on. The price point is relatively high due to the amount of high-capacity components. The availability of commercially available software is a bonus, not a necessity. Users will write their own software anyway or use freely available packets from similar minded colleagues. Users and administrators are typically quite computer-literate, so a complex system is acceptable. The competition of workstations were typically super-computers.

In contrast, a business-oriented computer system tries to provide all needed services to all user groups inside a company for the smallest price. The audience is typically not very computer-literate, and easy administration is a clear plus. The provided services are typically either commercial software packets or services that use them. Therefore, it is important that the computer system appeals to the manufacturers of the software. This can be achieved either by a large installed system base or by using an operating system to which the manufacturer can easily port its software. All this typically leads to an architecture where the users access the system via terminals as terminals are cheaper than full-fledged computers and can be controlled better by an administrator. This architecture allows a computer of the same CPU power to serve more users than in a workstation scenario as every user only needs some compute power per time (e.g. when he or she types a letter in a word processor). The competition of Fortune were business-oriented mini-computer installations.

A sensation at COMDEX 1981

Therefore, it was quite a sensation when Fortune announced at the COMDEX 1981 a powerful  business-oriented computer at the price of only 5000$. The model, the Fortune 32:16 with a promised 128k of RAM, Unix, and a 1.5 MB floppy disk drive was one of the first 68000-based computers (although 68000 CPU cards for e.g. S100 systems existed before) and probably the first business computer based on this CPU. Would it have been available at that time, even in early 1982, at that price, it would have been really a steal. But as you can already tell, it was not available neither in 1981 nor 1982, but only in mid to late 1983. Also the price of $5000 was not the one of a usable system as the system required a harddisk (Unix, remember?), and this added some hefty amount to the overall price.

Even in May 1983, almost no 32:16 seems to have been available as even Apple’s Lisa “Marketing Binder” (a wonderful document that analyses the competition of the Lisa) speaks of the 32:16 only as hearsay: “As of December 1, 1982, Fortune is just beginning to deliver hard disk-based systems.  Fortune dealers quote a delivery date of two to five weeks on the hard disk systems, and they refuse to dicuss a delivery date for the floppy based systems.”

32:16 family

Still, what was delivered finally in 1983, was a neat system, but not the sensation it could have been in 1982. The initial 32:16 was a 6 MHz 68000 system with a 5.25” floppy drive, 256 kB of RAM, and harddisks ranging from 5 to 20 MB. The system included one 12” monochrome display, one serial interface, 5 extension slots, and 4 memory slots for a total amount of up to 2 MB of RAM. The system also included the text processing software. According to [Lisa], a  configuration of 256 kB RAM, and 5 MB harddisk was available for $8990. A 10MB version would cost $9990 ([Lisa] cites Fortune dealers saying that they strongly recommend the 10MB harddisk in order to make the system “usable”). Available as options were serial interface cards, and tape drives with a capacity of 20MB per tape. Software-wise you could by Business Basic, Cobol, Fortran, Pascal, and C. The basic machine was a 1-user system. According to [Lisa], extending it to more users would cost an additional $1700 for the second user and $1200 for any subsequent user.

In the CC-Seller copy of June 1983, in Germany, the following competing computers were available at similar or lower prices:

  • Altos ACS 8600 and 68000 series running Xenix
  • Burroughs B20 under BTOS
  • Tandy TRS-80 Model 16 (running Xenix later on)

To compare the machine to others, one also can have a look on the Dhrystone measure as there is an entry for a “Fortune 32:16 68000-6 MHz” system with a “V7+sys3+4.1BSD” operating system. This value put this machine performance-wise between an IBM XT with 8086 at 8 MHz and a PDP-11/34A. A (later) Macintosh512 with a 68000 at 7.7MHz is about 75% faster.

The PS and XP families

3216PS

Already in 1983, the initial model was replaced by two new models. The lower end PS series had only 2 memory and 3 extension slots, the higher end XP series (like the original 32:16) 4 memory and 5 extension slots. All models now come with more initial RAM and the hard disks start at 10 MB. The PS series could be extended up to 3 users, the XP series up to 9 users (or terminals). Everything else stays the same, the CPU, the case, and the periperals. The only other difference is that the harddisk subsystem of the XP is faster than the one of the PS.

I recently had a more detailled look on a 32:16 PS10 (Photos will follow in a later posting). What I found was that in that PS model, probably the same PCB was used as in the XP, but only 3 of the 5 extension slots and 2 of the 4 memory slots were populated. Unsuprisingly, both memory slots were used, each one was filled by a 256 kB RAM card. From the 3 extension slots, one was used by the (text-based) display controller, one by the harddisk controller and only one was available for e.g. a multi-serial card (it had a 4-port-card in it). So if you want to connect a display (not a terminal) to the machine, you could already subtract 2 extension slots from any configuration. The PS model I examined also had a CPU that was specified up to 8MHz. I cannot tell whether it still was clocked only to 6 MHz or higher.

3216keyboard

Also a nice feature of a 32:16 model is the keyboard. As wide as the computer case, massive, and with many special keys such as “Execute” (no, there is a separate “Enter” key”), “Help”, “CANCEL / DEL” (a “DELETE” key also exists), a “LF GL” key, 3 keys with tilde, swung brackets,a colon etc., and 16(!) function keys. The keys are not mechanically clicky, but this keyboard is probably the only one with a dedicated wheel for the volume of the click sound! Finally, there is a space for a function key template below the function keys and underneath the keyboard there is a space to store unused templates… The keyboard that I opened during the mentioned PS model examination was produced by the Digitran Company.

Reportedly ([Warnock 2004]), the 32:16 series did not have a MMU (because it was not available yet). Now, for Unix-like systems you typically need something like a MMU (unless it’s Minix). Therefore, Fortune designed their own circuit (using MSI TTL chips) that allowed at least swapping (but not paging).

Also quite interesting is their reasonably effective copy protection scheme according to [ClassicCMP2005]: “Uninstalled Fortune software on distribution media was encrypted using a key known to Fortune and to Fortune’s installation program.  When you installed software from the distribution media, the software would be decrypted and then re-encrypted using a key based on the motherboard serial number for storage on the hard disk (so you couldn’t just copy the executables from your system to some other system: installed software only ran on the system on which it had been installed); and of course the installer marked the distribution medium as “installed” so you couldn’t just go install it again somewhere else.”

Price per user

The significant value for a Fortune customer was always the price of the system per user. Therefore, let’s have a look at them. The following calculations are based on the 1983 IBR price list and a conversion factor of 1.5 USD per GBP in 1983. The one end of the scale was a 2-user PS10 system with (probably) 512 kB RAM, 10 MB harddisk, a 2-port serial card and the multi-user upgrade for the operating system. This would cost around 13000$, or 6500$ per user (quite a difference to the promised price of 5000$ for the smallest initial model). The other end of the scale would be a 10 user XP20 system with 2 MB of RAM, a 20 MB harddisk, two 4-port serial cards and 9 Fortune terminals. This would cost 38’000$ or 3’800$ per user. We abstract from the fact that 10 users would put quite a strain on the system and that you also would need to buy some more application software, but these prices are probably comparable among different computer systems. If we now compare this price to a quite cheap competitor, the TRS-80 Model 16 with 3 users (1984, 512 kB RAM, 48 MB harddisk) at about 5600$ per user we can see that at least initially, the prices per user were competitive. On a one-user-per-computer-scale, though, the TRS80 Model 16 in 1983 and 1984 would be cheaper before on this market the original Macintosh ($2495), and in 1985 e.g. the Atari ST ($800) would crush the prices and offer a much better user interface. However, Fortune Systems never tried to be in this market.

The CEO leaves the company

At the 1983 new models announcement, Gary Friedman, the CEO also announced that he was to leave the company. Gary Friedman co-founded the company, secured two rounds of venture capital funding. The first round of venture capital in October 1981 added up to 8.5M$, and the second round in May 1982 of 10.5M$. In addition, Thomson-CSF added in May 1982 1.5M$, “reportedly the largest commitment of venture capital ever made to a micro-computer company”. He also brought Fortune Systems on the stock market in March of 1983. There were 5 million shares sold which brought in a sum of 110 million dollars. In 1982 Fortune had a umsatz of about 26 M$ and a profit of 2.9 M$. In October 1983, Gary Friedman resigns on a “disagreement with the board of directors over management style.” Gary Friedman says that “if I didn’t [resign], I probably would have been fired.”. It was rumoured that the companies that put money into Fortune were not happy with the CEO anymore and that the initial technical difficulties of the 32:16 machines (some said that pratictically note more than two terminal could be supported) led to his demise.

SX family

In 1985, Fortune announces the 32:16 SX family. This time the 68000 runs at 12MHz and is announced to support up to 24 terminals. The maximum RAM is still 2MB (so I guess it has still 4 memory slots). A basic SX45 model gives you 1MB of RAM, 45MB harddisk and costs $12995. It seems that the integrated text terminal, the display, and the keyboard are not part of the packet anymore, so you had to buy a terminal with the machine before you could even set it up.

Fortune often sells to bigger companies. In August 1985 InfoWorld reports that nearly 1000 Fortune systems are both installed at Ford and Bell South.

Formula 8000 family

Formula8000

In 1986, Fortune announces the Formula family. They are 68020-based and actually use a new (tower) case! They are claimed of supporting up to 80 users. There are two versions. The lower version for $21900 has 1MB RAM, 70 MB harddisk, a 70 MB streamer. The higher version for $24900 has a 70 MB harddisk. In the announcements, the models are simply called Formula, but later on they are named Formula 8000 series.

Selling the business to SCI

In 1987 Fortune sells its hardware business to the much bigger SCI Systems for between $17M and $20M. SCI has an own line of Unix-based computers, but is more in the scientific and military business. SCI keeps the Fortune brand until about 1988. SCI still exists today.

Formula 4000 family

Also in 1987 a lower-end Formula family is announced. The Formula 4000 family has the same processor at the same speed as the Formula 8000 series, but is aimed at supporting 22 users at maximum. The entry-level 40MB harddisk configuration starts at $9900. The high-end 145MB harddisk, 4MB RAM, 60MB tape drive configuration is at $19900.

Conclusion

So, to conclude the company history, what do we find? We see a company with the right idea at the right time. We see that technical difficulties let the company access the market too late with the competion already at their toes. We see that the company from an investor’s point of view is not up to the promise and burns a lot of money very fast. As a consequence the CEO is fired, and the company falls behind the competition over time, selling the business for a small amount to a competitor.

Mysteries

What I’m seriously confused about are the graphics capabilities of the 32:16 series, or, to be more exact, the lack thereof. Different sources state different things. [Lisa] assumes a resolution of 640 x 480 in “Graphics Mode”, but says that the standard display is capable only of text. [oldcom] speaks about an “optional High resolution graphic card”, but I never saw one appearing in a price list. [CC] does not list any graphics capability or even an option for any Fortune model. Fortune’s own prospectus in 1983, [FS1983a], claims that “Two options may be added to the standard video display controller. First, a bit-mapped graphics display controller with its own 64 Kilobyte memory provides 640 x 480 and 800 x 480 high resolution graphics on the standard 12 inch monochrome display. The second option provides additional memory (256 Kilobytes total) and a second MC68000 microprocessor which is used to drive either the monochrome or color display. This option allows the operator to select 16 colors from a palette of 512 with resolutions up to 1024 x 1024 in the pan mode.“ The very official UK November 1983 price list ([IBR1983]) does not know anything about graphics options at all. So, my guess is that Fortune always promised a graphics option, but never delivered, maybe also because the market never really wanted it. There is no doubt, though, that you could connect (serially) a terminal with some graphics capability from a 3rd party vendor.

From a collector’s point of view

Let’s also talk about Fortune System machines from a collector’s point of view. Text-only 68000-based Unix machines are typically not something collector’s are especially excited about. They are not home computers, they are professional machines, they are not the first in any relevant aspect, and their performance is not extremely good. Probably noone has ever desired to have one in their heydays. On the plus side, the models are all very rare, especially the later ones. They are quite self-contained, so if the main box is running, you probably can use the entire system if you have a monitor and a keyboard or a serial terminal for the later models. It’s a friendly, nice-looking system, and it is one of the earliest 68000 systems you can find. Finally, at that has been always the slogan of this blog anyway, if you have one, even your snobby collector friend will admit that he has never seen or heard about it before. And isn’t that the best reason of all, to have exclusive bragging rights?

Models

As the company existed only for some years, the number of models they produced is limited.

32:16

The initial model, presented in 1981, but not delivered before 1983, was called 32:16 after the 68000 CPU which was internally a 32 bit design with a 16 bit bus system. Unfortunately, this was not only the name of the first model, but also the name of the entire model family, so sometimes it is hard decide what is meant when 32:16 is mentioned.

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 128kB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 5 – 20 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $5000 (for an useless one-user model  without harddisk) to $9990

Thomson Micromega 32

Thomson CSF, the (in 1982) newly nationalized French electronics company participated in financing Fortune Systems from very early on. In 1982, they invested $1.5M and received also the rights to market Fortune’s computer in France exclusively. They did this under their own brand and using their own model name, the Micromega 32 (there has been a Micromega 16 of a completely different design). It also seems to have used a different (probably French) keyboard. A user at old-computers.com (http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=89) remembers: “I worked on this computer in the 80s in a french government ministry where it was used for word processing and custom applications based on the Informix database. French ambassies either had Micromegas (for large ones) or Bull PC clones (for the small ones) that would enable them to run the software we wrote based on the Informix database, as this RDBMS was available on Unix (Micromega) and MS-DOS (Bull Micral 30).”

The data of the Micromega 32 (which was sold from 1983) were the same as the 32:16.

InfoMate

These series was designed to be non-upgradable to multi-users, i.e. strictly single-user only. 5 – 20 MB of harddisks were available, the RAM was 256 kB. I never have seen these models mentioned other than in the IBR price list of 1983, so I do not know whether they were really offered.

32:16 PS

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 384kB – 1MB (2 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 10 – 20 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 3
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $7500 – $10000

32:16 XP

CPU: 68000@6MHz
RAM: 512kB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
ROM: 16 kB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 20 – 30 MB
OS: Unix
Text: 80 x 24
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics), 1 keyboard port, 1 display interface
Initial prices: $17000 – $19500

32:16 SX

CPU: 68000@12MHz
RAM: 1MB – 2MB (4 memory slots)
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 45 – 70 MB
OS: For:Pro
Graphics: none
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: : 1 serial port (RS232C), 1 printer port (centronics)
Initial prices: $12995 – $14995

Formula 8000

CPU: 68020@16MHz
RAM: 1MB – 4MB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 70 – 145 MB
OS: For:Pro 3.0 or Unix System V.2
Graphics: ??
Extension slots: 5
Interfaces: : 4 serial ports, SCSI
Initial prices: $21900 – $24900

Formula 4000

This is the first model after the hardware business is sold to SCI.

CPU: 68020@16MHz
RAM: 1MB – 4MB
Floppy: 800 kB
Harddisk: 40 – 145 MB
OS: For:Pro 3.0 or Unix System V.2
Graphics: ??
Extension slots: 3
Interfaces: : 4 serial ports, SCSI
Initial prices: $9900 – $19900

Later models

Fortune/SCI had a last series of models in 1990. The FORTUNE/SCI System 5000 family had an Intel 80×86-based low end (using Unix) and a high end that added a Motorola 88000 CPU to the system. But in my opinion, that were SCI, not Fortune models, therefore I omit them here.

Resources

[CC] CC-Computerarchiv, http://cc-computerarchiv.de/
[Lisa] Lisa Sales Marketing Binder, June 1983
[oldcom] http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=767
[IBR1983] Fortune 32:16 Microcomputer Systems Suggested Retail Price List effective 1 November, 1983. IBR Microcomputers Limited.
[FS1983a] Fortune Systems. Fortune 32:16. The Complete Business System. 1983
[Warnock 2004] comp.unix.bsd.freebsd.misc, 26 May 2004, Rob Warnock, Re: Andrew Tanenbaum on the origins of Unix/Linux
[ClassicCMP2005] 2005 posting to ClassicCmp cited after http://www.retro.co.za/blog/?p=2268