Software solutions for a mobile world

  Apart from several jobs as a student, including turning Stop and Go signs round on a motorway construction site, I have worked in I.T. (or 'Computers' as it was known then) all my working life.

My first introduction to Computers was a trip to a computer centre in the 6th form. The only reason I went was the promise of a 'free lunch'. As we all know now, there is no such thing. This was at the National Coal Board. We were told on the tour, that they were recruiting computer operators, so I applied for a job. After an interview in front of a 5 man panel, I was offered a job.

  It was working shifts - we did a 5 10 hour days, 4 days off, 4 10 hour nights, 4 days off shift pattern. The machine was an ICL 1902A with 32K(!!) of Memory, 6 tape drives, a card reader (that could read 2000  punch cards a minute!!), paper tape reader, line printer, and 2 5mb(!!) disc drives. The disc drives were used for loading programs and for sorting smaller files. There were 5 operators on a day shift, 4 on a night shift to run the systems. The programmers were allowed 1 compilation per day!!

  The Coal Board had 6 (7??) computer centres - and being a nationalised industry, there were three ICL centres, and the rest were IBM centres - nothing like standardisation. Most of the staff were ex-colliery clerks. When their pits were closed they had a choice of redundancy or working in the computer centre. 

  I was lucky that I had a great 'shift leader' and an enthusiastic 'senior operator' whose enthusiasm was infectious. He later got a job as a 'shift leader' in another company, and I was offered a job as his second in command. He left shortly afterward for a glamorous job working for CERN in Switzerland, and I was promoted to shift leader. 

  I then moved to be a shift leader at Woolworths who had several machines, and it was a more responsible job. I hated it!! I lasted 4 weeks, which included a week's holiday, a bank holiday, and a day in London for an interview to go 'contracting'. I always left this job off my CV.

  I was a contract operator for a couple of years until the tax laws changed which made contracting less attractive. Whilst at the Coal Board, I did a 'night school' course in COBOL. The industry progression at that time seemed to be Computer Operator --> Computer Programmer --> Systems Analyst. 

  I saw an advert for a trainee programmer's job at a local software house managed to get an interview, and got offered a job. Opportunities for trainees were few and far between, so I was extremely lucky to get the opportunity. The software house had builders' merchant package, and did bespoke development whenever they could. The machines were Ventek in the UK and Datapoint in the rest of the world. The development language was a high-level language called  Databus, which I had to learn.

  It was around this time that Hewlett-Packard introduced their first successful commercial computer, the HP3000 Series II (Series 1 were a bit of a flop). We won a contract for a sales and warehousing system, based on an HP3000. As the most inexperienced programmer, it made sense to give me the Order Entry program, the heart of the system - not. I did quite a bit of HP3000 work, and some HP1000 work which was Fortran - not the greatest language for commercial systems. 

  The software house decided to move offices, which increased my travel time from 10 minutes to an hour - so once again I turned to contracting. 

  I worked for various big companies on contract including a couple of software houses, and Shell, all on the HP3000. A friend who ran an agency found me a contract fairly near home. It was a small team - I was the fifth member of Computer Services at 'head office'. After around 6 months I was offered a permanent job of Technical Support Manager. We had several remote HP3000 systems around the country, each with a member of Computer services on site. We planned, had some offices constructed on site, and centralised the operations. From memory we had 5 systems, and several hundred users on-line. Computer services grew and grew to around 30+ staff. 

  At the same time as our organisation grew, so did Hewlett-Packards' commercial systems. They introduced the 900 Precision Architecture systems, and we were right on the bleeding edge. We had the first 950 system to be installed in the UK. After testing, we moved our first company onto the new system. The system crashed 8 times the first day it went live - it would have been more, but we ran out of time. We persevered and bought more of the machines. Once the operating system was sorted, they were a brilliant machine. 

  With so many users on the system, I got into performance analysis and ways to improve performance. We implemented a third party indexing system called Omnidex which made the hierarchical Image database more relational. We also made use of a performance enhancing database tool called Suprtool from Robelle.

  It was around this time that Client/Server computing and terms like ODBC started making an appearance. We looked at Informix, which was a great solution, but was £3000 per seat almost 30 years ago! Microsoft had just released VB3 and Walker Rich Quinn gave us a beta version of a product that allowed us to get a PC talking to an HP3000 over a network. Cognos had just released a Client server front-end for their 4GL that ran under Windows. Both worked, but neither were brilliant to be fair. I read an article by a guy called Joe Sagan writing about calling Berkeley Sockets from COBOL!! I was blown away. Together with Paul Cawdry, a great developer who worked for me, I wrote a Socket Server for the HP3000, and we wrote a client and a server to do sales enquiries. It had pictures, sales graphs and sales figures, and all it cost us was 2 copies of VB3 (on 3 floppies IIRC) - my eyes had been opened. 

  After an acrimonious departure from my employers, who secretly hatched a plan to move the computing centre to London and get rid of most of the staff - I set up on my own - and again turned to contracting. 

  I got a call from a guy who I used to work with, as I was a reference for the original WRQ software. He offered me a couple of weeks work to look at a problem, and I stayed 4 years. We designed a full client-server system based on Sockets to drive a breakdown recovery system. We used VB4, COBOL and Automap. We even had a system that talked to the UNIX box to automatically route and answer phone calls and display who the call was from. They ran systems for several different companies so had to answer the call with the right greeting.

  The HP3000 was a 'green screen' system, and again I thought - I can do better than that. In my 'spare' time I wrote GUI3000 which was a full client/server system for the HP3000. It implemented a full windows interface to the HP3000, allowing data base access, saving files to PDF - the lot! It looked very much like Windows Explorer on the front end, but talked to the HP-3000/Unix back end. It was like putting lipstick on a bulldog.

  GUI3000 was picked up and sold by a company in the USA (who eventually ripped me off). GUI3000 had some great reviews, and was sold to some very big companies, especially in the USA. It was sold in the UK by Gainsborough, again selling to some very large companies. It was around this time that the Compaq iPaq Pocket PC appeared - no Apple - you weren't the first to use the small 'i'. My wife bought me one as a Christmas present, and I found out it ran embedded VB. I wrote a version of GUI3000 for the Pocket PC. It worked great in the emulator, but performance on the Pocket PC was dreadful. I found out it was the Winsock.dll that was used on Pocket PC. I delved into Embedded Visual C and wrote a replacement for Winsock which sold a few hundred copies. 

  Because of this experience, I was invited to speak at several HP conferences in Europe - my first introduction to speaking to groups of people.

  All the time this was going on, I was also doing consultancy work for several companies, and doing a lot of travelling.  Diane and our two sons were very understanding, and fullly supported me in all I was doing.

  I have a photograph of the commercial director of HP at the time, holding a Pocket PC running my software saying 'This is the future'. HP were discussing buying the software, but 3 months later they killed the HP3000! 

  I started answering questions on eVB sites like DevBuzz run by Derek Mitchell, where I 'met' Chris Tacke and Peter Foot amongst many others. It was around this time, I got an email from Mike Fosmire at Microsoft, asking if I would like to become a Microsoft MVP for Pocket PC. After looking up what a Microsoft MVP was, I jumped at the chance. The first time I went to a MVP Summit in Seattle I was star-struck - and realised how many brilliant developers there were working in the mobile space, and how little I knew in comparison.

  I began to specialise in mobile devices, writing software for several companies, using Pocket PC, or Windows Mobile as it had morphed into. Together with Andy Wigley, the aforementioned Peter Foot and Andrej Radinger, we formed a company called APPAMundi to market our skills. We were building a business around Windows Mobile, when much to everyone's surprise Windows Phone was launched. In it's first iteration it was built on Windows Mobile, but the 2nd generation was all new. As APPAMundi, we worked very closely with Microsoft - we wrote an app for the official launch, and we did a Windows Phone roadshow around the UK, evangelising Windows Phone to developers. Windows Phone was discontinued by Microsoft in 2017. I then had a 950XL, a phone with 64gb of memory. The original HP PA machine mentioned earlier, was also called 950, and also had 64gb of memory - although my phone didn't cost the quarter of a million pounds that the HP 950 did! Like many others, I still think Windows Phone has the best interface.

  Around this time, along with Rick Garner and Chris Hardy, we formed a Windows Phone User Group in Manchester, which later morphed into DotNetNorth

  After the demise of Windows Phone, we dissolved APPAMundi and went our own ways - and I went back to working on mobile devices. I wrote a couple of delivery systems, an RFID system, and did some work for a logistics company. 

  I decided to retire from the daily grind, and just keep my hand in by writing bits of software and doing bits of work. I did quite a bit of Xamarin work, some UNO Platform and Windows development. I also wrote some Visual Studio add-ins. Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call asking me if I was available to do some HP3000 work! Part of the work was to get an HP3000 to use web services to get information, using JSON. Since the HP3000 was of the opinion that JSON appeared with the argonauts on TV every Christmas - it was an interesting challenge. 

  So, things have more or less gone full circle - I am using Sockets to get a machine that died in 2006, interfacing to C# code running on a VM and calling out to modern API's. And IT ALL WORKS! Going back to COBOL debugging after living in Visual Studio for 20 years, with it's brilliant debugging features, intellisense and everything that we now take for granted, is a challenge. 

  I have seen computers evolve from filling a room, and taking 5 people to keep it running, to having an iPhone on my desk, with 256gb of memory, that can do things we never dreamed of and now take for granted. I feel privileged to work in a great industry, and to have met and worked with some wonderful people, some mentioned above, most not. If I had to choose a career again, I would do the same thing  - unless I won the lottery.

Thanks for reading my ramblings - it felt good to write things down!



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