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ArticlesMost Important Companies

September 1995 / 20th Anniversary / Most Important Companies

Which of the 5000 computer companies got us where we are today? Here are the top 20.

Adobe Systems

As if inventing and commercializing PostScript weren't enough, Adobe also developed most of the tools of the desktop publishing revolution: Photoshop, Illustrator, and, of course, scalable fonts; and it acquired Aldus PageMaker, the program that practically defined desktop page layout. Adobe's influence in document production has grown from the desktop to the prepress shop. It has also reached into other creative domains: Its Premiere video-editing suite could be the training studio for the Martin Scorseses of digital cinema. John Warnock and Charles Geschke have been steering the company through the foggy nightscape of electronic documents. Whether or not Acrobat will become the int erchangeable document standard, as PostScript did for printing, it has made a permanent mark on desktop publishing and computer graphics.

Apple Computer

This might be something to argue about, but you could make a good case that Apple has had more influence on personal computing than any other company. Who personifies the industry, the culture of personal computing, more than Woz the electronics whiz and Jobs the dynamo salesman--the engineer and the entrepreneur--hopping with ideas, quitting their day jobs, working in a garage, and selling a VW microbus to finance the company?

The affordable Apple II turned thousands of people on to computing. Then came the Mac, for years the computer that Intel-based PCs wanted to be when they grew up, with its graphical interface, built-in networking, and plug-and-play design. As it's done for nearly 20 years--something very few clone makers can say--Apple continues to influence the state of personal computing.


Its attempts to build personal computers have never been anything to call home about. (Can you remember the PC 6300? Did you ever even hear of it?) But AT&T; has contributed three things of monumental importance to computing: Unix, the phone system, and the cumulative genius of the researchers at Bell Labs. Even those tedious "You Will" ads can't overshadow these significant accomplishments.


CAD on a personal computer? You've got to be kidding. But John Walker and his 12 programming disciples weren't. When they started Autodesk in 1982, their objective was a PC software package that would provide 80 percent of the functionality of a mainframe CAD system at 20 percent of the price. Later that year, they shipped AutoCAD. It couldn't do everything a mainframe program could, but it was good for the kinds of things most designers do. Plus, it was affordable--you no longer had to be Boeing to have a CAD system. Today, with a million copies sold and ve rsions across all major platforms, AutoCAD is the uncontested champ of desktop CAD. Other companies have built better, easier-to-use, less expensive CAD programs--but every one of them has one thing in common: the AutoCAD file format. More than anything, that says Autodesk defined PC CAD.

Borland International

In 1983, a year of major announcements--the XT, NetWare, Windows--one of the biggest splashes, a Pascal compiler for $49.95, was made by this obscure company. Turbo Pascal wasn't just cheap. It was fast, and it was good. With one successful ad in BYTE, Turbo Pascal launched Borland into the stratosphere of micro software companies. More important, it made Pascal programming affordable. Borland killed the notion that languages and programming tools had to be expensive to be good. In 1987, with Quattro Pro, they did the same for spreadsheets, substantially undercutting the price of Lotus 1-2-3. Maybe Borland should have concentrated on programming tools--like its recent Delphi --instead of getting caught up in price wars and Lotus lawsuits. Regardless, Borland tools have been adopted by a generation of developers, and the company's impact on software prices has been good for users.

Commodore International

Commodore's role as a personal computing pioneer is sadly overshadowed by its business failures. But along with Apple and Tandy, it was one of the 1977 Trinity: the three companies who brought out ready-to-run PCs. The Commodore PET had a built-in monitor, a tape drive, and a bargain price of $795. Then came the VIC-20, the industry's first million seller. No wonder; it was a color computer that cost less than $300. The string of hits continued with the Commodore 64. Not only was it possibly the biggest seller of all time, it was the first with a synthesizer chip. Then, in 1985, came the world's first multimedia PC: the Amiga, a classic example of a product ahead of its time. Besides design innovations, Commodore's other big contribution can be summari zed by the slogan of its founder, Jack Tramiel: "Computers for the masses, not the classes."

Compaq Computer

Houston, Texas, February 1982: Three men sit in the House of Pies kicking around a product idea. A year later, their newfound company would ship the Compaq Portable. (They shipped 53,000 of them that year.) The computer in the famous sewing machine case could run all the software developed for the IBM PC. It became the benchmark of PC compatibility. Because of its dedication to solid engineering, Compaq also became the benchmark of quality. Even True Blue shops learned to trust the brand. Compaq made it OK to buy a clone. Other clones sold for less, but if you bought a Compaq, you knew you didn't have to hold your breath and cross your fingers every time you fired up Lotus 1-2-3. Plus, you could carry the thing home. (Does that mean we should blame Compaq for the extension of the workday?) Did those three guys in the pie shop know how big their PC clone idea would become?


Much of what we expect on an on-line service, we expect because we saw it on CompuServe: forums, vendor support, free software, newswires, and E-mail to everywhere; business and personal services; reliable global communication; and most recently, access to the Internet. CompuServe turned the switch on-line in 1979 and now claims more than 2.5 million users. For a good portion of the PC public, CompuServe is what it thinks of when it thinks of going on-line.

Digital Equipment Corp.

If DEC founder Ken Olsen had had his way, the company probably wouldn't be on this list. After all, this is the man who said, essentially, that the destiny of home computers was in the closet. Despite Olsen's antiquarian contrarian attitude, Digital made some significant contributions to personal computing--especially networking in academic environments. Once it acknowledged the personal computer as a business machine, it proceeded wholeheartedly to produce superb n etworking equipment; today, it's a leading hub vendor. Digital also helped advance Ethernet and FDDI, and it developed the spanning tree bridging algorithm that many large companies used to build their enterprise networks before multiprotocol routers began to adopt other algorithms.


Why does everyone make fun of IBM's failures? It's the butt of more jokes than Rodney Dangerfield's wife. But in 1981, the computing giant brought out the IBM PC. IBM might as well have called it the DFS, for de facto standard. If that doesn't earn the company a place in history, then consider these inventions: the Winchester disk drive, the floppy disk drive, and the laser printer. In some ways, you might also put Microsoft on IBM's list of inventions.


All those millions of x86 chips; the dominant computing architecture; the Pentium franchise. Any questions?

Lotus Development

People thought i t was crazy when upstart Lotus announced it was bringing out a spreadsheet program. VisiCalc was king. But Lotus had a good idea--combining worksheet, calculation engine, and graphics functions into one product. And Lotus had the brilliance to go after the next big thing instead of fighting for the current big thing. That next big thing was the IBM PC. Lotus developed its spreadsheet program for IBM's machine, not the Apple II. Smart move. For the next decade, Lotus owned the spreadsheet market. Even though competitors have taken away a big share, those competing products all look suspiciously like Lotus 1-2-3. Whether or not Lotus can dominate with its innovative Notes software remains to be seen (IBM surely thinks so), but its investment in this groupware technology shows traces of the foresight that inspired the creation of Lotus 1-2-3.


Once upon a time, these two guys wrote a version of BASIC for microcomputers. Then they acquired this OS, which they renamed MS-DOS. Then they made this once-in-a-lifetime deal with IBM. Then they sold millions of copies of Windows. Then they ruled the world. The End.


Galvin Manufacturing Corp. helped make car radios ubiquitous in the 1930s. Forty years later, under the name it used to brand those mobile radios--Motorola--the company helped make semiconductors ubiquitous. Its 6800 chip inspired the inexpensive 6502 (developed by ex-Motorola engineers who had defected to MOS Technology) that Steve Wozniak picked to be the brain of his new computer. Later, Motorola's influence was more direct: Apple could afford the 68000 series for the Macintosh.


Other companies also came up with software to connect personal computers, but Novell was smart enough to design an open network OS with hooks. It was willing to work with other parties to enhance the system. While partners were developing extra goodies, Novell focused on the core OS. It got out of the hardware business and concentrated on its sure thing: connectivity software. The result is NetWare's position as the king of NOSes (network OSes), the means by which millions of PCs are connected.


When Shugart Associates brought out its 5-MB 5-1/4-inch hard drive in 1980, the company started something as big as the drive's capacity seemed to be: the idea that personal computer users could have their own massive storage device, right there, at a reasonable price. Five megabytes--how could you ever fill that much space? Four years earlier, Shugart had introduced another breakthrough: the 5-1/4-inch minifloppy for $390. The company also originated the concept that became SCSI; in 1979, it proposed a general-purpose expansion bus called Shugart Associates System Interface, which eventually became an ANSI standard known as SCSI-1.

Alan Shugart went on to head Seagate, today one of the leading makers of hard disks. Seagate has continued the Shugart tradition of i nnovations in storage technology. By the end of this year, you'll be able to buy a 1-GB drive for $300. This kind of low-cost, high-capacity storage is the legacy of Shugart and his engineering team at Shugart Associates.

Sun Microsystems

Sun set out in 1982 with an objective that the big guys scoffed at: to build powerful, affordable, personal workstations for scientists and engineers. And it was going to build them from off-the-shelf parts and use a powerful OS with available source code--Berkeley Unix. Early on, Sun realized the importance of built-in networking. And its SPARC architecture is one of the most successful RISC designs in history. Although it has seen competition from high-end PCs, Sun has responded by steadily pushing down the costs of its workstations. It must be doing something right. Today, Sun controls at least a third of the workstation market, and its systems are finding lots of work as Internet servers.


Tandy was one of th e three companies to ship a ready-to-run personal computer in 1977 (along with Apple and Commodore). The TRS-80 came with a monitor and Microsoft BASIC, so you could start programming right away. Tandy's large retail network helped establish personal computers as products you could buy anywhere. All you had to do was walk into one of the 3000 Radio Shack stores with $600 in hand. Although some of the company's executives couldn't see it, true believers at Tandy knew that computers were most powerful when in the hands of individuals. The TRS-80 was one of the seeds that grew into the PC industry. The little wonder known as the Model 100 could be safely described as one of the first laptops. By building low-cost machines, and with help from its enthusiastic, gospel-spreading users, Tandy helped popularize microcomputing.


OK, so it doesn't score well on the Vision-O-Meter. Four years after Michael Shrayer invented Electric Pencil, the first word processor for micros, and a year after Seymour Rubinstein came out with WordStar for the PC, WordPerfect (then called Satellite Software) was working on a word processor for Data General machines. When the company woke up to the personal computing phenomenon, it apparently didn't sleep again for years--too busy bringing out new versions for multiple platforms and grabbing market share in a crowded market. WordPerfect grew to be the world's dominant word processor, with an impressive user base estimated at 5 million.

Xerox PARC

This place ought to be called Brainiac City. Xerox's PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) has been home to some of the most brilliant scientists and idea generators in computing. Many products we take for granted today started out as concepts in the mind of a PARC scientist-- e.g., the graphical interface, networking, the book-size computer, bit-mapped displays, and visually oriented programming languages. Today, PARC continues exploring new ways of using and operating computers as well as experimenting with very-high-resolution screens, environments that imitate physical space, and user interfaces radically different from the PARC-bred point-and-click approach.

Microsoft Rendered in Big Blue

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An artist's representation of Microsoft Headquarters (it couldn't be real--it's not raining).

Lotus: Born of an Intellectual Stew

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Harvard University, MIT, and the Tasty: All contributing people and knowledge to Lotus.

Disney North

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Silicon Valley's number one Amusement Park: Three Flags Over Cupertino.

Where Was That Again??

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Armonk? Whoever heard of headquartering a company in Armonk? For that matter, whoever heard of Armonk?

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Flexible C++
Matthew Wilson
My approach to software engineering is far more pragmatic than it is theoretical--and no language better exemplifies this than C++.


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