Mon Nov 12 16:45:09 NZDT 2007
Herewith another addition to our long running thread on the Poly
computer. Some of you may have seen a version of this article last year
in the Dominion Post (have searched for it in various databases but
haven't turned up the date yet). I'm posting it here so it is easily
available online. Posted with the permission of the author, Perce
Harpham (ex-Managing Director of Progeni).
I hope to get info on some of the software that was written for the Poly
entered into the Early NZ Software Database. If you have missed my
emails on this project, please take a look at
http://nztronix.org.nz/main.php and, of course, add any titles about
which you know something!
The Dominion Post story on the Poly1 computer (April 24) dealt with its
inception in the Wellington Polytechnic in the early 1980s, the early
development of the world-beating ideas, Muldoon Government involvement
and eventual destruction of a model for New Zealand industrial
development. The article focused on Dr Neil Scott's part and his
perception of events. I would like to add to the story from a slightly
different perspective. I was the Managing Director of Progeni and
involved in many of the decisions.
The Poly computer project was a wonderful example of the way that "New
Zealand Inc" should work. Around the world at the time few schools had
computers and yet there was an obvious need to teach about computers and
also to use computers for teaching other subjects. Neil Scott and Paul
Bryant conceived the idea that there should be a computer specially
designed for teaching. They made a prototype to show what they were
talking about. Such a machine would be wonderful for New Zealand
education and could command a world market. They rapidly had huge
support to get the Poly1 into production. Progeni was a part of this.
At that time Progeni was described as the country's leading software
company. It was established in 1968 as the country's first software
company with the specific aim of developing software here and marketing
it overseas. Progeni went on to have branches in all the main cities of
Australia and New Zealand, Los Angeles, Chicago and Beijing. One high
profile project for which it is remembered is the Wanganui Computer
Centre for law enforcement. There were many others such as our part in
the Boeing computer developments for the Orion surveillance aircraft.
I do not wish to diminish Neil Scott's contribution to the Poly project
but, in my view, there were many others who were equally important to
the overall project. Chief amongst these was Neil's Polytechnic
associate, Paul Bryant. Then there was Kevin Hearle from the Education
Department and Murray Smith from Development Finance Corporation (DFC)
who marshalled their organisations' resources. Also Ian Roxburgh, Robert
Platts and Alec Utting from my own company who took the project from an
undocumented prototype to a rigorously designed, reliable and documented
production stage with operating and support software to go with it. In
addition there were some 60 teachers who gave up their Christmas
holidays to develop course material. And some 30 New Zealand companies
which manufactured or supplied parts for the computers.
With the Poly it appeared that NZ for the first time was doing what the
USA did with such projects. A need had been identified for which no
satisfactory solution existed. Instead of seeking to let the contract
for a solution to some overseas major supplier a government agency was
to coordinate a solution using local resources as much as possible. In
the USA, for example, NASA was set up to manage the space projects and
to subcontract the development of parts of it to US companies. Here the
Development Finance Corporation (DFC) was given the task of managing the
Poly project to commercial success and to subcontract parts of it in NZ.
Because we had long advocated such a Government approach to NZ industry
Progeni came aboard to provide the technical professionalism and a
financial commitment of over $250,000. We did this on the basis of
assurances that, if the Education Department was satisfied with the
development (and they were), then Government would buy 1000 computers a
year for five years, that the Department would develop course material
and a company that we then owned jointly with DFC would produce the Poly
and sell it, with its courses, world wide.
The UK based Acorn was still eighteen months in the future. This was
developed with millions of pounds of UK Government money to serve
exactly the same needs as the Poly. Its success showed what should have
happened. The Acorn was different from the Poly and would have been a
good competitor. But, had our Government kept its promise, New Zealand
would have had a huge break on the field and, I believe, might now have
10,000 or more working in the computer education field producing
hardware, software and courses. Yet, when the lengthy evaluations of the
first two classrooms of machines showed that all the expectations of
them had been met, Government reneged on the deal and decided to do
nothing about computers in schools. No money was budgeted for them and
schools then struggled individually to buy a great diversity of machines
without any central direction or courseware provision. Millions were
then wasted in the morass and confusion that developed.
What went wrong? I still don't know. Warren Cooper, as a cabinet
minister, told me that he and his colleagues "could see no reason why
Government should spend money so that teachers could do even less work".
At that time even more people than at present genuinely believed that
world leading technology could not be produced in New Zealand. Many
people with vested interests, such as shareholdings in the local Apple
agency, and the major overseas computer companies lobbied intensively in
this vein. But it does not justify the Government decision.
Following that decision, although many schools still bought them on
their merits, the death knell for the Poly in New Zealand was the Apple
offer of quarter price machines for New Zealand schools. It was the
first such offer made outside the USA. I think, but again do not know,
that such "education offers" were sustainable because of tax benefits
Apple could get in the US. Someone made a dumping complaint to Customs
and this complaint was upheld but Apple were allowed to continue without
effective penalties. In its fashion this give-away was an enormous
compliment to the Poly by acknowledging that it was a threat to Apple
which was then in its ascendancy. We knew that there was still an
Progeni then took over the joint company from DFC and proceeded to
market the Poly in Australia. One success was winning a contract with
the Australian Army from 42 bidders. (Three years later we managed to
sell some to the NZ Army). We also took it to China and got considerable
interest. The technology had continued its normal rapid development. We
redeveloped the Poly1 to become the PolyC (C for China).
For this we incorporated a separate graphics processor so that we could
process Chinese characters just as well as English characters. It was
another "world first".
We also developed "Smart Tape" - software to allow ordinary VHS video
tape players to be accurately controlled to show video clips on the
computer screen with overlays of text and graphics. Great for teaching.
This is now easy using CDs but it was also a world first. Again our
software product "Forge" was amongst the first authoring systems so that
teachers did not have to learn to be programmers.
The long slow process of marketing in China was heading for large scale
success. We had great support from the Embassy, Trade officials and
David Lange. Then our bank, the Bank of New Zealand, got into trouble.
There is a story here that has never been told. There has never been an
enquiry into why the Bank failed and what lessons should be learned. Or
what part Faye Richwhite and the "Wine Box" issues played in it. In NZ
there is no equivalent of the US "Chapter 11" to protect companies
against the actions of banks and other creditors.
The bank tried to retrieve money from its business customers and put
perfectly good companies into receivership. Progeni was amongst them in
1989, after 21 years of success. A week after the receivers were
appointed the Vice President of the Agricultural Bank of China was
visiting to sign a letter of understanding to use the Poly's
exclusively as the bank's educational machines. The Vice President liked
to describe the bank as " a small bank with 1.4 million employees and
40,000 branches". The receivers agreed to avoid any publicity until
after his visit. The agreement was duly signed but we were later unable
to deliver the orders they placed because the receivers destroyed
We were also unable to deal with the Chinese Petroleum Research
Institute and the Petroleum Research Institute when they told us they
had got money for PolyCs into their budgets.
I cannot understand why New Zealand Governments still do not (as other
countries do) use Government needs and purchasing power to develop New
Zealand industry. I agree with Dr Scott that the Poly could have been,
should have been, and very nearly was, a model for our country's high
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