Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Spin-off: PC Harmony

In my previous 3 blog posts I talked about a data migration that I participated in. I'm going to segue into what happened with the IBM PC software that they used for the data migration after the project was finished.

First, I'll take a minute to talk about computer terminals and personal computers.

Mini-Computers vs. Micro-Computers

Back in the day, business computers were either mainframe computers or a new class called mini-computers.  Really large companies could afford a mainframe, but smaller and mid-sized companies generally were using mini-computers. These computers had floppy, tape, or possibly one hard drive.  Occasionally, you'd have an array of hard drives, like what PBD had (another previous blog post.)

Business computers generally involved getting someone to write you a program, or buying a ready-made program from someone and customizing it to your business needs.  But a new thing, called a micro-computer, otherwise known as a personal computer had come on the scene. One of the most powerful tools that business users were seeing on these things was something called a spreadsheet program.  Business users had always had spreadsheets, but these were on paper. This new innovation was electronic.  It was tremendously popular!  One of the best known ones, which was available on the IBM PC, was called Lotus 1-2-3. It came on a 720 KB 5 1/4 inch floppy disk.  Many PCs came with dual floppy drives, so you'd put your program disk in drive A and run the program, and you'd use drive B for your data disk.

Serial Terminals

Now, most business computers used serial terminals with keyboards and monochrome green monitors for data access.  (No, they did NOT have a mouse on PCs yet. Joysticks, yes; mouse no!)  These printers had the ability to go into what was called Slave Print mode. The computer would send a special escape sequence (a string of characters starting with an ASCII 27, otherwise known as ESC) which would tell the terminal to send output to it's secondary serial port, which was usually an attached printer (referred to as a slave printer.)

A Product is Born!

The only problem was that these business computers had all the data, but the PC had the wonderful spreadsheet tool. How can you bring these two things together?

Now put that together with software that captured printer output in the previous blog posts, and an idea was born!  Synex Systems decided to come up with a software package that imitated one of several popular serial computer terminals like the ADDS Regent 40 terminal, but they added a new escape sequence, one that none of the real terminals used for anything. That code did the equivalent of a slave print, but it would capture the output to an ASCII file on the computer.

Then, they had another tool that you could use to set a ruler on the output file, assuming that it was typical columnar report data, and it would import the data into a word processor mail-merge, or a spreadsheet, or a desktop publishing program like Framework, or a PC-based database like dBase.

They developed a version for MAI Basic Four first, as they had worked with one at Terry Winter. Then they went on to do versions for almost all the Business BASIC systems and for a Wang BASIC system.  This product family was called PC Harmony.  MAI licensed an OEM version called MAI PC-Link. Thoroughbred Business BASIC licensed an OEM version called Thoroughbred-Link.  Other Business BASIC vendors just pointed their customers at Synex.

The PC Harmony product included components that ran on the PC, and Business BASIC libraries that were made available on the mini-computer.

I wasn't involved in the development of PC Harmony, but was aware of it happening as I continued to work for Toga Computer Services.

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