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Computer Wiz Tries Harder to Get Users to Pick His System

November 03, 1985|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

The old Dick Pick was a perfect example of the imperfect businessman.

A computer wizard who is generally credited with devising one of the world's best operating systems for business computers, Pick often gave potential customers a cavalier take-it-or-leave-it sales pitch. And if computer manufacturers wanted their machines to operate on Pick's innovative system, he demanded licensing fees of up to $1 million, many times the cost of competing systems.

These days, however, Pick is trying to shed his mad scientist image. Prodded by a new wife who cares more about the business of selling computers than their inner workings, Pick has dropped his prices dramatically. He's backing a new, high-powered marketing association made up of 22 manufacturers who use the Pick operating system in their computers. And, after 15 years of dressing casually for business, the 47-year-old Pick has even agreed to wear a tie to the office every day.

Nevertheless, industry analysts say these moves by Irvine-based Pick Systems may be a case of too little, too late.

Already, the analysts are saying the competition among operating systems for users appears to be heading toward lopsided victories by AT&T's Unix system for large computers and, in the desk-top category, by Microsoft's MS-DOS, the system that powers the IBM personal computer.

Broad Implications

Although interest in this competition is largely limited to computer manufacturers, software writers and amateur tekkies, its outcome has broad implications for the future of computing.

Furthermore, the competition underscores how the maturing computer industry is increasingly seeking standards to govern its products and services.

The operating system that powers the greatest number of computers will be the system for which the greatest number of software programs are designed. And according to Robert Lefkowits of InfoCorp, a Cupertino market research firm, the brand of computer a customer buys increasingly will be determined by the specific software programs the customer needs. Few software programs are written to work on more than one operating system.

The link between system, software and computer-makers' sales is "the only reason people are even concerned about operating systems," Lefkowits says. "Otherwise, the user probably doesn't even know his computer has one."

Still, an operating system is among the most important parts of any computer's internal workings. Without one, a computer can't really be called a computer.

The operating system determines how the computer organizes the information it holds. In many respects it functions as, say, an executive secretary who establishes and runs an office's filing system. The operating system specifies how data is stored in the computer and how it is retrieved. The operating system also can dictate the speed at which the machine completes a task and the tasks for which the machine is best suited.

System's Best Uses

The Pick operating system's best uses include cataloguing material in an electronic library (CBS News uses it in its archives) or operating a retail store where inventory levels are constantly changing (Contempo Casuals uses it).

By Pick's own admission, the system is not particularly suited for word processing or handling mathematical and scientific computations. "You wouldn't use us to design or keep track of the space shuttle," Pick says. "But our system is the best for keeping track of all the parts used to build it."

The system has also earned high marks because it allows owners of Pick-based machines to switch to another Pick-based computer system more easily than is the case with business computers that rely on their own independent operating systems. This relieves businesses of the expense and headache of having to rewrite or repurchase software.

The Pick system traces its roots to the mid-1960s when Pick was an engineer at TRW in El Segundo. According to Pick, the Army asked TRW to develop a computer system that would keep track of every bit of information about the Cheyenne helicopter project, a machine whose development progress and performance TRW was hired to monitor.

Pick was one of about a half-dozen employees who spent nearly four years writing the programs for the system the Army wanted. However, the Army had decided to scrap the helicopter project by the time the program was delivered.

Program in Public Domain

But the program was in the public domain, and with several additional ideas, Pick decided he had an operating system he thought he could copyright and market.

Initially, Pick worked with the founders of Microdata, a business computer maker in Irvine that since has been purchased by McDonnell Douglas Corp. In 1973, Microdata and Pick entered into a contract that allowed the computer maker to put the Pick operating system on its machines.

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