The Forth's Dilemma,

When Great Firms Cause New Technologies to Fail

Recognition of Forth as a <Disruptive Technology> as defined by Harvard Professor Christensen and new insights into the <Principles> of Disruptive Technology for a successful Survival Strategy.

Forth is a computer language, which was developed in 1970 and originally used for Instrument control, but soon applied for many other embedded systems. The best-known application is probably the scientific calculator by Hewlett Packard, a great business success in the late 70's. Another first was the "Hand-held Computer", the "Quasar" by Matsushita. This little wonder had provisions for many peripherals, just like the Handspring Visor of today. The first "addition" I bought for my Quasar was a Forth compiler (on a ROM chip) to teach programming to this hardware engineer; it did so. A great beginning, but INDUSTRY ACCEPTANCE was never obtained for the Forth language. This paper will give a <completely new insight> into why this is so.

Necessary reading is the preface of, "Thoughtful Programming and Forth", by J. Fox, <>, and the path breaking research by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, on which this paper is based. The book title is, The Innovator's Dilemma, When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.

My own life-experiences with such a "Great Firm" was with Bell Laboratories, part of AT&T at the time. After a year with Bell, in the middle 60th, I became the lead-engineer for a fairly large project. (Because I was the only "warm body" in that group who knew how to design with "solid-state" stuff, - remember that word?) When that project came in on schedule and substantially under cost, it was looked on, believe it or not, as a great "curiosity". Because never in the history of that department had this happened before. For 20 years, I believed in these objectives for excellence in engineering, always assuming that it was for the benefit of our "customers" and therefor of interest to "management". Until one day, when talking to a department head (a friend) about my design objectives and why some of upper management seem to dislike me for it, he pulled me into his office, for privacy, and told me the secret. "The users of our phones and long-distance services are not our customers, the regulatory agencies of the government are. AT&T gets a "fixed profit margin" on any new equipment they install, the more it costs to manufacture, the higher our profits"! Striving all the time for excellence in engineering, getting 12 patents for AT&T, and finally learning it was not a desirable goal for my management.

While my experience was about the "fraudulent profit motive" of people managing a "monopoly", Mr. Fox's experiences are of a more general nature. He very astutely observed that the computer, and related industry operates with a single-minded objective of "high profit margins", by selling only "high-priced" products. To "emotional" observers, such as Jeff and Harry (of ten years ago), this looks very much like a motive of unmitigated Greed. However, Corporate management is convinced this is not so. Managers and stockholders call it "good business practice". Most of the time, that is correct for maintaining a viable firm, and only when a <disruptive technology> is "allowed" to strike, will the system breakdown.

After early retirement from Bell Labs and some time away from engineering, I decided to use my ability to unravel and analyze engineering systems to also understand this "human-system" phenomenon described by Mr. Fox. I soon discovered that someone else had just done precisely this research, Professor Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School; "The Innovator's Dilemma, When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail". If you decide not to study this research at this time, you must at least read my <Disruptive Innovation 101>, and you will have to trust me, about "Forth" being a <disruptive technology> as defined by Christensen. As such, the major industry will never promote or adopt it, because "rational" conclusions (within their business model) convinces managers that it would be "bad business"!

What is a Disruptive Technology?

And why "Rational" Investment Concepts cause the Rejection

(Excerpts from Christensen's research) --- "Disruptive technologies bring to market a very different value proposition than had been available previously. Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in the "mainstream" markets. But they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. --- << Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and frequently more convenient to use. >>"

"... the conclusion by established companies that investing aggressively in disruptive technologies is not a rational decision for them to make, has three bases. First, disruptive products are simpler and cheaper; they generally promise lower margins, not greater profits. Second, disruptive technologies are first commercialized typically in emerging or insignificant markets. And third, leading firms' most profitable customers generally don't want, and indeed initially can't use; products based on disruptive technologies. By and large, a disruptive technology is embraced by the least profitable customers in a market. Hence, most companies with a practiced discipline of listening to their best customers and identifying new products that promise greater profitability and growth are rarely able to build a case for investing in disruptive technologies until it is too late."

The outcome of such "rational" thinking, says Christensen, is that: "Never in history have the leading companies in an industry led a disruptive revolution, They typically have not just ignored the potential disruption, < they have actively worked to discredit and oppose them. >"


This "active work" by the industry to discredit and oppose Forth has been going on for more than ten years, and has been very successful. Even Charles Moore, the originator of Forth, has apparently given up on Forth as a commercial language. He said in his Dec. 99 Fireside chat: (< >)

"I've been worrying a lot about where we are and where we are going and this is the time at the new millennium. It's kind of pathetic actually that we are all sitting here talking about Forth. It is not the wave of the future."


If you have been fascinated by Forth for a long time, as I have, you know that it has qualities no other language can come even close to and there is no need to elaborate on this here. This paper is about the rejection of Forth as a "commercial" language, and here is where the industry is succeeding. Very many of our most brilliant and creative people had to leave the Forth community. (Because most of us have to eat and feed our children) These people are of vital importance, because no technology can survive without a constant stream of <sustaining innovations>. (See Christensen) In the last ten years, <sustaining innovations> have transform the "C" language into "C++" for object oriented programming and C-Compilers have been optimized and improved. Only one small company, Forth Inc., which has to compete with a multi-billion dollar software industry, is doing this work for Forth.

I intended to present the fate of two of the most brilliant Forth-people we have lost during the last decade, and quote their experiences. While only "anecdotal" as evidence, it would have presented a vivid picture of the "malevolent behavior" of a powerful "Industry" and "Academia". However, even with no names mentioned, their privacy could not be protected. - Calling the behavior of the "Power structures" malevolent is not a slip into primitive polemics, but is derived from the Christian ethics which (right or wrong), is predominant in our Western culture. That events concerning <Disruptive Innovations> are not just "morally neutral" business became very clear to me from a recent paper, "Managing the Disruption of Healthcare", by Prof. Christensen, R.Bohmer, MD, J.Kenagy, MD and J. Elton, Pres. Integral, Inc.. (Ask for e-mail attachment) --- Yes, Healthcare is the largest Industrial-complex in the US and in the World and their actions of suppressing <disruptive innovations> is responsible for the death of millions of people every year. (Just "good business practice"?) There is basically no ethical difference in concept between an industry in one particular field or in another, all have to do with the "quality of our lives".

Solving the Forth Dilemma

Chips for Forth, Money for nothin' and Chicks for free. Now that ain't workin'. ------------------------------ The Dire Straits band - The group around Charles Moore, originator of Forth, (C.H. Ting, J. Fox, etc., etc.) has tried for more than a decade to convince "the industry" that Forth is a better product. (Benchmarks, Forth-engines in silicon, compact-code, less man-hours). ----- It can't be done, because you are trying to sell a <disruptive technology>, to the industry, which will destroy their "business model" and kill them. We have been trying to sell a "tool", a "method" to the management of the industry, which is quite different from selling an "application" to the market. The "market" is --- <The people>, the "industry" is the --- <Power structure>. Please try to understand this, think of selling the concept (method) of "Democracy" to a Kingdom and an aristocracy. No matter how convincing you can show (benchmarking) that the welfare of everyone will improve tenfold or more, they will never listen to you.


Fortunately, we already have a democracy with a (supposedly) free market economy, which includes competition. The problem is that most big industries are homogenous concerning their business model, e.g. the T&M industry. In this case it takes a small, but courageous, company to introduce a <Disruptive Technology>, because non-of the, even medium size, firms will ever think of changing this "accepted" business model. Have you ever wondered why the term "unfair advantage" is used in business circles to characterize such an event? What is unfair about it? What has ethics got to do with it? The answer is that this small company is not "playing by the rules", the rules which the power structure has silently agreed upon. ------ Since these <Disruptive Technologies>, will kill multi billion dollar industries, there must be a basic FLAW in the business models of all of industry; Christensen concludes:

-------- The very Capabilities that make their Organizations Effective ------- also Define their Disabilities.

Comprehending this 2500-year-old idea from Lao Tzu's, Tao Te Ching or Heraclitus' Logos, is the key to circumvent Industries' suppression of disruptive innovations. It points us strait to a principle of Martial Arts: <Turning the Strength of an Opponent against him>. This is the "conscious" way to win against large industries instead of the "accidental" way in which it has always happened in the past. But regardless of the way it happens, the established industry is helpless to prevent it. They are "boxed-in", trapped in the confines of their "business model". Experienced hunters use this type of knowledge to track and kill "animals". A knowledge of the "fixed-instincts" of animals, which gives them great capabilities, but also disables them to respond to changes in the environment, such as hunters. If there were such a substantial differences in <level of consciousness> between entrepreneurs and management of established industry as there is between human-hunters and animals, this method would work. Of course, there is not. Neither group comprehends the process. Evolution in technology and business remains "unconscious".

The means by which established industries were always overturned in the past was with a unique weapon, a "killer-application", which is a <disruptive technology>. I personally don't like the term "killer", and prefer to call it "enabling application" instead, because of the very positive effects they have on the large majority of people, outside of the effected industry. Clayton writes:

"Nearly every one of the disruptive technologies reviewed in the The Innovator's Dilemma - including hydraulic excavators, steel minimills and small business accounting software - had the effect of enabling a larger population of less-skilled [and less wealthy] people to do things that historically had been in the domain of expensive specialists. In each of these examples, customers ultimately found themselves with products and services that were far more reliable, more convenient to use, and cost less, than what would have been available had these disruptive revolutions not occurred. ---- Though they were simple and inadequate at the outset, the disruptive innovations that overturned their industries left us much better off - even though they invariably left in their wake the wrecks of the companies that were the industry's prior leaders. --- In fact, these disruptions have been a fundamental mechanism by which the quality of our lives has improved."

The solution for the "Forth Dilemma" is to find "killer/enabling applications" with market potentials of over $500 Million (annual sales) for each design. These must be application that can take advantage of the Strong-characteristics of Forth. Which I believe is Embedded-Systems, specifically for Portable-products and Real-time applications. At this time, I only have designs for a line of products for the T&M market, High-bandwidth DSOs. These designs are a <disruptive technology> in their own right. --- Interestingly, this was achieved by hardware design in "Forth". (Thinking-in-Forth, see EQUIVALENCY for Hardware/Software Co-design in Forth.) ---- The label - Forth inside - should be made mandatory for all products!

Comprehension of this new business insight is essential for the survival of Forth as living computer language, and viable commercial product. Chuck and "his merry men" have done their utmost, a supreme job of proving and improving Forth, but have failed, because of the opposition by an industry with a capital in the three digit Billion-dollar range.

I am asking myself; now that I discovered the reason for the rejection of Forth by the Industry, and the method of counteracting it, is there any chance to do so? Some years ago, when I presented a new type of hardware design to a group of engineers at a company. Programmers in the group began to giggle and whisper to each other when I said I was doing the programming for the instrument in Forth. What chances do young Forth-enthusiasts have for a position in industry, when they list Forth expertise in their resumes as main qualification? - None! --- Two things must happen before Forth can be revived. First, we must admit to ourselves that Forth is dying and second, the research by Professor Christensen must be understood by a sufficient number of us. Is this possible? The smart Management of HP couldn't do so!

It's a great pity, because a Forth programmer can solve an application in code that is several times smaller than an equivalent C or C++ program, and in less time. But one might ask, why is the code size so important when computer memory has become incredibly cheap and CPUs so much faster? For many reasons, reliability, speed, ease of understanding; and there always will be problems more difficult and complex than the processing power and memory of our computers can handle. But there is a more basic reason for the "special position" of Forth in the family of languages. The renowned computer scientist Daniel Hillis gives a definition for the "measure of information" which says something very interesting about Forth. His definition is: <The amount of information in a pattern of bits is equal to the length of the smallest computer program capable of generating those bits.> Forth is the one language that comes closest to doing this, but this is a "scientific" definition, so what does that say about Forth? --- Back to Index