Gepard – Part Seven: The Gepard Company

As with many startup companies, the history of the Gepard company is very intense, but unlike many unsuccessful startups, it is both rather short *and* produced tangible results in time.

So, let’s start at the beginning.

It is the year 1983. The computers in the consumer market are mainly 8-bit computers. It is already clear at this point that the Next Big Thing will be 16-bit computers, but in Germany you can buy 16-bit computers only as expensive, professional computers. Examples for these models are:

  • the HP 9816 (starting at $3895 or about DM 14,000)
  • the Tandy TRS 80 Model 16 (admittedly more a semi-professional machine) at about DM 17,500
  • the Fortune 32:16 at DM 25,000

In the US, there is the “Dtack Grounded” single board computer sporting a Motorola 68000 CPU at the maximally possible 12 MHz. It uses SRAM in order to use this speed, but the board does not offer too much more. The people behind this computer also publish a newsletter of the same name which is informing its potential customership about the current developments regarding this board and the industry.

Having this in mind, a group of friends aims at founding a computer company that targets a computer these group would like to buy themselves. The assumption behind this strategy is that such a computer should meet the needs of a market of similar minded people. The requirements of this computers would be:

  • a Motorola 68000 CPU
  • modular design for maximal flexibility
  • initially designed as an add-on for an Apple II computer because:
    • the friends are Apple fans
    • this approach has the advantage of not needing to develop own UI and storage hardware from the start
    • this allows for a cheaper price for the first product

This company, the “Gepard Computer GmbH & Co. KG” is founded in Oldenburg, Germany in August 1984. The initial founders are:

  • Thomas Schumann
  • Herman Spille
  • Klaus Onnen

Later on, two more founders join:

  • Meinolf Schneider (nowadays: Amekudzi)
  • Bernd Heyer

In order to finance the company, each founder has to contribute DM 40,000. More money is contributed by an investor. The inital round of financing sums up to DM 410,000. A second round adds additional DM 180,000.

In the spirit of Dtack Grounded, also Gepard published a periodical newsletter on paper even before the actual company was started. It informed potential customers and interested parties about the current and upcoming state of Gepard developments, it provided information in different, related topics, and it dissed the competion. The newsletter was completely free. It was published from October 1983 to March 1986 in 12 issues of typically 12 A5 pages in an edition of 500 copies each. The newsletter lead to several contacts, not least it was read by a contact of the later investor of Gepard.

Development of the hardware starts already in 1983. The founders and some first employees design three cards (CPU, RAM, Apple II Interface) for the Gepard, a backplane, an Apple II card (which connects to the Interface card), the Modula-2 compiler, the operating system (GDOS), and the software that runs on the Apple II. They have the PCBs then produced locally (in Oldenburg), buy components, and populate and solder the PCBs themselves. A first run of 30 sets is produced and in 1984 the first sets can be sold to the people who had registered via the newsletter.

ad

Marketing-wise, Gepard was not very active, but tried to get the most out of its limited effort. The main marketing channel was the Apple User Group Europe (AUGE). So it distributed the newsletter generously via AUGE channels. In the newsletter readers could register an option on a Gepard for free. 30 options were registered and 3/4 of the options were resulting in purchases. AUGE was divided in regional chapters, and in many of those chapters there was one Gepard owner, so there was always one to present a Gepard or who could be asked for opinions. As a consequence, and because of a 10% commission Gepards are mainly sold by word of mouth and by existing customers. There was also an article in the AUGE magazine (8/84) on the Gepard. Articles on the Gepard are very rare, not least because at that time, journals prefer promoting their own computer projects than reporting on a new computer with a very small customerbase. Nevertheless, Gepard also runs (small) ads in the most important computer journals. Finally, Gepard is represented with (probably very small) booths both at the Hannover Messe 1986 and at the Orgatechnik 1986.

In 1984, Apple releases the first Macintosh, also a 68000-based computer. Fortunately for Gepard, although the Mac has a mouse and a GUI, and is sold complete in a neat, compact package, it is more expensive (at DM 10,000), and it is (at 8 MHz) slower than the Gepard. It is also by and large not expandable. As also the typical customer of a Mac and a Gepard differ substantially, the Mac is no threat to the Gepard.

Until 1985 Gepard had 70% private and 30% professional customers. In the fall of 1985 Atari starts selling a new model, the Atari ST for an unrivaled low price (~DM 3,000 including floppy disk drive, monitor, mouse, and GUI) and basically ends sales of Gepards to private customers. The Gepard company does not know how to react to this competition, has not finalized all of its developments and is out of money. Eventually, 1986, the company files for bancruptcy.

In hindsight, Thomas Schumann, the former CEO of Gepard, thinks that it would probably have been possible to save the company if the management would have had more experience, and if it would have moved its focus to professional customers, offering a Unix-like operating system. After having found that the later 68020 version of the Gepard was quite unique at least on the German market for its price, I agree.

After Gepard went bust, one of the original founders, Hermann Spille founds his own company, HS Computer, to continue the Gepard business. He continues selling hard- and software from the Gepard catalogue, but also develops and sells new hardware. The most important development activity is the finalisation of the 68020 card and the development of the second version of this card. Other hardware includes:

  • a Z80 card
  • an EPROM burner

Apart from HS Computer, there are a whole number of small projects starting in the aftermath of Gepard:

  • ports of OS-9, PC DOS 2.1/GemDos, Eumel/Elan are started or at least proposed
  • version 1.4 of GDOS is finalized by Thomas Tempelmann
  • version 2.0 of GDOS is written by Harald Hellmann
  • an “Atari ST” graphics card is developed that can be connected to an Atari monitor

But eventually, over time, the Gepard business trickles off and HS Computer is liquidated in 2009.

Ok, so, here you have it. My collected findings about the German Gepard computer. I hope you liked it. It took me a long time to collect, analyse, and write, but it was fun, it was new, and it was basically never documented before (especially in English).

Tags:

One Response to “Gepard – Part Seven: The Gepard Company”

  1. Gepard – An early German 68000 hobbyist workstation | Rare & Old Computers Says:

    […] the Gepard company […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: