What Happened to Prime Computer

Comments by
David Mandel


The computer industry is an extremely unstable business where a slight technical or marketing advantage can leverage a small company to stardom overnight. And once that advantage is gone, a company can fall just as rapidly. Thus, such one time powers as Univac, General Electric, and Control Data Corporation are out of computing (or out of business). And other former powers such as Cray, Data General, Digital Equipment, and Apple have lost considerable influence. In this environment, the demise of Prime Computer wasn't shocking. Still it is sad, because Prime Computer and it's sister company, Apollo Computer, had excellent operating systems which fit many users needs better than Unix or any OS from MicroSoft. Today, both companies and their operating systems are gone. Why?

A Short History

In the late 1960s there was a very innovative operating system project called Multics at GE, Bell Labs, and MIT. Many well known people worked on this project, which developed many techniques used in modern operating systems. In particular, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie from Bell Labs worked on Multics, and they used this experience in designing Unix. In fact, the name "Unix" may have been chosen because it's authors considered it to be a "castrated version of Multics".

William Poduska and other software engineers worked on the Multics project at MIT. In the early 1970s he and several others left MIT to form Prime Computer Corporation. They also used Multics as the foundation of their operating system, which they called Primos.

Prime computers were unique in certain ways. This was long before the advent of PCs and Unix workstations. Computing had been totally dominated by mainframes made by IBM, Control Data, and others. However, DEC and Data General had captured a share of the computer market with their 16 bit minicomputers. Prime entered this market with a 32 bit minicomputer aimed at scientific users. These Prime computers were affordable, easy to use and administrate, and fast. Moreover, the 32 bit architecture supported large address spaces needed for scientific computation. This was especially true after Prime implemented virtual memory which they did very early.

Indeed, Prime implemented:

So why did Prime fail?

People's opinions vary on this. Here is my opinion.

Prime grew from a startup into a Fortune 500 company overnight. To do this Prime brought in high level executives to guide the company. These executives made changes. In the short run these changes lead to better products and faster growth, but in the long run these changes also lead to Prime's demise.

The changes included:

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© 1996 David Mandel All rights reserved.
Created 6/96 by D. Mandel
Last updated 8/96 by D. Mandel