It has been already noticed that Bull products have been permanently directed
towards a part of the IBM market. Responsible of competition analysis have attentively
scrutinized IBM announcements in terms of functional innovation and prices, sometimes
ignoring bigger threat from other competitors.
In this page, the most manufacturers moves that had impressed Bull product planners will be listed and briefly analyzed.
To attempt to put Bull history in the perspective of the whole industry, a time-line of events that had marked the "Information Technology industry" has been developed. Bull's main milestones are confronted to those of the industry.
As Paris located Bull's strategy was primarily concerned with the non-North American market, until the mid-1960s, their main competitors were the American companies seriously installed in the European market (essentially IBM) and the European competitors (mainly British and Germans).
Until the 1980s, the geographic segmentation of the EDP market was dominant and each country had its own set of competitors. This phenomenon was due to national preferences (France, USA, UK, USSR, Brasil), to technical peculiarities (e.g. the currency subdivisions in the United Kingdom), policy of agents when no direct subsidiary existed...
During all life, Bull had an omnipresent competitor, it was IBM and Bull's strategy was always influenced by the IBM moves. The CII-HB merger was triggered by the emergence of the competition from government backed CII, because that company was progressively taking over the government controlled market in France. General Electric and Honeywell also were permanently watching at IBM and were somewhat neglecting other competitors. It was only in 1974 that Honeywell recognized the minicomputers market.
Bull has also developed a strategy of alliances that neutralized a part of the potential competition (Remington Rand, Olivetti, RCA, and recently NEC and even IBM).
Compagnie des Machines Bull was developed as a
competitor to IBM prior WWII, when it started to market punched card equipment
derived from Frederik Rosen Bull patents. As IBM, Bull used an electromechanical
technology that gave a superiority over Powers.
Bull had some areas of clear advantages over IBM : it introduced much earlier an alphanumeric printer and showed a superiority on punching faster than IBM.
The existence of different card formats and the renting policy of both competitors made switching to the competition quite unlikely: only a few large customers could afford to share their business between several manufacturers.
Bull maintained its advantage by introducing an electronic calculator the Gamma 3, against IBM electromechanical 604 or very expensive electronic successors. Adding a drum to the Gamma 3, Bull was able in the late 1950s to enter very successively the market of electronic computer with the Gamma ET.
The IBM 650 was designed by IBM targeting a different market from the tabulating equipments. However, that machine was a sizable competitor for Bull Gamma ET and conquered a large part of the scientific market in Bull's markets.
Bull was ignoring scientific the market of IBM 704 (later the 7090/4). It was more sensible to the introduction of IBM tape computers as the IBM 705 followed by the 7070 in front of which Bull developed the Gamma 60.
The IBM 1401 was introduced by IBM, following a
complaint of IBM European operations recognizing the superiority of Bull's Gamma
3 over IBM products. After several years of discussions over the specs of the
products, what lab should be responsible..., IBM announced the product in 1959.
The initial announcement of the card 1401 in 1959 was probably underestimated by Bull, but the announcement of a tape 1401 on a Bull company stuck with the development problems of the Gamma 60 swept brutally the business computers market. That discovery in 1960 was the chief reason of Bull's financial collapsing of 1963.
The 1401 and its printer precipitated the obsolescence of the tabulators. Bull owned a growing park of those systems that it was not able to rent again. The write-off of that park did materialize only in 1963 because it was kept in inventory until that time. Bull announce a price cut through an entry model of Series 150 (TAS), that was far from being enough.
Bull's engineering reaction was to put emphasis on Series 300, that offered competitive printers and card handling devices but was far from having the advantages of a true computer. There was an internal study of a "machine intermédiaire", but all plans were shelved when Georges Vieillard struck a deal with the American RCA for importing the RCA 301 (under Gamma 30 name)
IBM introduction of other business computers on top (1410) or under (1440) the IBM 1401 were just additional nails on Compagnie des Machines Bull's agony.
A forgotten announcement troubled Bull's
strategy responsibles in 1960. IBM announced in Europe and in Europe only a new
line of card equipment, reducing the format of cards and decreasing
significantly the entry price of business card equipment. Part of that strategy
re-emerged later with the 360/20 multifunction peripheral and the new card
format of System 3. In any case, it was obvious that Bull card strategy was all
but defeated if that line would have succeeded.
So, it was with a needed relief that Bull learnt in 1961 of the abandon of Series 3000 by IBM. This abandon represented an opportunity to offer TAS equipments to deceived IBM customers.
IBM S/360, S/370, 43xx, 30xx, S/390
In Spring 1964, came the big IBM strategic
announcement of Series/360. Bull was aware of rumors on this line of computers
ad was sharing some informations with RCA that was planning to react with its
Spectra line of systems.
Bull was impressed with the size of the announcement that not only covered five new compatible computers, but also new lines of peripherals of all kind.
IBM's technology was considered -with some justification- as relatively ancient and well within the capability of RCA and the then supposed capability of General Electric then the Bull's new partner. While Corbeil's IBM French plant was building the "micromodules", Bull initially underestimated the manufacturing cost advantages that IBM got in the S/360.
At the time of the announcement, Bull was just concluding its sale to General Electric. GE was then offering the GE-200 the competitive edge of which remained only its time-sharing facility, the GE-400 that was cost expensive, but whose advantages was just experimented software and was pitched against the main workhorse of the IBM line -models 40 and 50-, and the GE-600 still in development and directed against IBM higher models. All GE models trailed behind IBM in technology and shop costs. The Italian designed GE-100 was in a slightly better position in front of models 30 and , later, model 20, but they were to upgrade paths established for the GE-100.
Bull appreciated correctly the importance of emulators in S/360. It had already microprogramming experiences and was planning to follow the same road as IBM in its future machines. General Electric was almost exclusively considering a competition in offering better performances as it was still in a late 1950s world.
The delays in the software implementation of OS/360, the hectic changes in the upper models, the introduction of DOS were divine surprises to GE planners. It coincided with a healthy development of the market and GE problems were more internal than due to the competition until 1968.
The introduction of S/370 occurred just after
the take-over of GE assets by Honeywell when he new group was in the process of
the development of the "New Product Line" that was introduces as Level
62 and 64. The S/370 used IC technology as well as semi-conductor memory and
H-6000 and NPL had no hope of getting a technological advantage over IBM. The
operating systems DOS/VS and OS/MVS achieved a mature state at least for batch
processing. In spite of the more dynamic and aggressive sales network of
Honeywell, IBM gained in the 1970s a definitive supremacy in the field of
business applications computing.
Honeywell was relatively late in admitting its failure to stay competitive. IBM's unbundling strategy was initially favorable for Honeywell: it encourages a trend to buy systems instead of leasing them. The cash flow increase due to sales masked the future loss of recurrent revenues. Maintenance showed a book profit. The hardware price decrease established by IBM was lower than expected. The introduction of Series 60 with a double strategy of emulating the park (H-200 and GE-100) and continuing existing lines (GE-600 and Bull-GE 55) and a certain advantage in transaction processing efficiency over IBM kept Honeywell (and CII-HB) optimistic until the late 1970s.
The introduction of 4331/4341 and 3090 were a
stronger shock to the competition: prices were significantly reduced. Bull was
in the process of converging the Level 64 and the CII product lines, and was
reconverting its plants to new technologies. The reaction to 43xx was to follow
suit on the IBM's price cuts and a non-expected flow of orders followed putting
the plants in a rare undercapacity situation.
Honeywell high end products were no more competitive with 3090s and a decision to import NEC licensed technology was eventually decided.
IBM System 3
IBM System 3 was an attempt by IBM Rochester to
extract business from the left punched card workshops. Being like a modern 1401,
it offered a new card format (96 columns) and its software was based on RPG
(Report Program generator). The announcement prompted Honeywell to acquire OEM
96 columns card devices in case IBM move would have succeeded. Those devices
were attached to Level 62 that had competitive software, even if L62 had no
price advantage on IBM System 3.
In fact, the punched cards world was past and System 3 never plaid a significant role in the market.
IBM System 38, AS/400
Rochester IBM's lab, in addition to System 3, started to develop System 32 and later System 34 that targeted the market conquered by the GE-55 and its successors. All those machines were transitional and did not impact the market as 1401, 360 and System 38 did.
System 38 was positioned in front of Honeywell's DPS-4 in terms of price. It had a revolutionary architecture and looked as a formidable competition to Bull's small and medium systems. Its interactive operation and its native support of relational data bases represented a clean departure from the systems inherited from the 1960s.
Bull and Honeywell attempted to evolve their
GCOS 4 and GCOS 7 by emphasizing their data base systems and announcing in
particular the relational product ORACLE in GCOS7.
Initial debugging problems and relatively poor performances of the processor gave some relief to the competition. Actually, System 38 did not conquer the server market before its evolution into the AS/400 system and later the mutation of its processor in a RISC system.
The attitude of IBM vis-à-vis Bull evolved with time.
Bull's entry in the punched market in the 1930s faced not only
IBM's but also Powers' competition. However, Powe's technology was respectable in terms of
mechanics but largely inferior to that of IBM and of Bull. Te acquisition of Powers by
Remington (and BTM in the UK) did not change the situation in the 1940. So, Remington and
Bull concluded an agreement where the American company acted as a distributor for the
French in the United States for punched card electromechanical equipments. That agreement
stayed until 1960.
However in the mid 1955, Remington business was acquired by Sperry Rand and joined the pioneer companies of Eckert Mauchly (ENIAC) and IRA to become the Univac division of Sperry Rand. Univac became even before IBM the leader of the computer industry. The cooperation between Bull and the Pennsylvania and Minnesota sites of Univac were very scarce and did not materialize in any computer products. Bull developed its Gamma computers separately.
Univac's situation deteriorated in the late 1950s, IBM was regaining the market share it conceded to the Univac I. Univac had no time to penetrate the European market.
In 1965, at the time of the take-over of Bull by GE, Univac made two inroads in the French market with. It secured a profitable business of taking over the French Navy military market (NTDS clones) and it succeeded to replace the Gamma 60 of the French Railways. Soon after, it secured the computing center of the French Defense (CCSA) and the airline reservation system of air France. Such penetration occurred at a time of difficulties of the GE-600 and before the French Plan Calcul reserved most of the new government computers to CII. Univac benefited also of the slow ramp-up of the top IBM models.
Those systems were upgraded by newer models of the 1100 series but the invasion of Univac stopped in the 1970s.
Burroughs in Europe did not enjoy the same success as Univac.
Although they had a distribution network and even a plant in France, they limited
essentially themselves to their cash register market and were quite late to make attempts
to penetrate the small computer market.
Their large computers were known by universities and large users, but they were neglected by Bull planners. Their absorption of Univac in the 1980s , forming Unisys, cause more problems than synergy.
RCA was a prestigious electronics company in the late 1950s and
their first computers, backed by their Cherry Hill laboratories, look at least as good as
IBM. However, RCA was not ready to compete worldwide in the service business (leasing and
maintain) that IBM had defined.
So RCA became a Bull's partner, as well as Siemens' and ICL's by providing to them RCA 301 and several peripherals.
When IBM developed the S/360 line, RCA decided to develop a similar product line (partially compatible). Bull was informed of the future Spectra product line that surpassed S/360 technology by using integrated circuits and that seemed to be optimized for Bull's medium-size business market. However, finance considerations lead to the buy-out of Compagnie des Machines Bull by General Electric and RCA links were severed in 1964.
The Spectra 70 was marketed in Europe by Siemens until
RCA's retreat from business in 1971. Software from the RCA machines was maintained by
Siemens as BS/1000 operating system. When Univac took over RCA, it did not privilege the
ex-RCA Series 90 line and did not market it aggressively in Europe.
In the early 1970s Siemens had concluded an alliance with CII abandoning to CII the French market. The Unidata coalition had planned to develop jointly the 77 series (X product line), a remote derivative of the RCA product line, but when CII was absorbed by Honeywell-Bull in 1975, CII-HB decided to abandon the X-series.
General Electric (before 1964)
GE was not significantly active in Europe before 1963. Thomson was a distributor for process control computers. Ge started to build a sales team in Europe during the process of negotiation with Bull. They, in fact, hired the heads of Compagnie international sales networks at the end of 1963 and secured a few orders (contracts still to finalize) for GE-400 and one GE-600 in Sweden.
GE kept its European time-sharing operation after they sold the business to Honeywell in 1970. They stay an important Level 66 customers for a while.
Honeywell (before 1970)
Honeywell was, before 1970, a mid-size competitor. Their 1401 oriented strategy position them in the IBM customer niche and they brought a significant number of H-200 systems in their venture with Bull-General Electric. But their high end offer (H-8200) was not atractive to most of Bull's prospects and customers.
In 1964, the divorce of Bull and RCA (after Bull's absorbtion by GE, lead several Gamma 30 users inclined to prefer Siemens' continuation of the RCA line and Siemens succeded to build a sizeable base at Bull's expense. Newspapers edition business, in particular, switched to Siemens and to its RCA Spectra originated new line.
In the early 1970s, French computers assets of Siemens were transfered to CII as part as Unidata accords. CII and Siemens started to develop a new common line of computers based on Siemens' architecture and partially Siemens' software.All those plans failed after the take-over of CII by Honeywell-Bull in 1975.
Bull-Allemagne that has been agressive in the 1960s and early 1970s saw its park decreasing later and was not a major competitor to Siemens.
ICL was a formidable competitor to Bull in UK where it held 50% of the market. ICL was a product of the merge between English Electric and ICT , itself a product of the merge between BTM and Power Samas.
BTM was created as a distributor for Hollerith
(IBM) products in the UK. When it divorced from IBM in 1949, ouside its own
products, BTM became a distributor for some Bull's card equipments. Those
relations faded in the late 1950s.
English Electric after regrouped many pioneers of the British Industry became a distributor for the RCA 301, approximately at the same time as Bull was also adopting that product against the IBM success of 1401. That prohibited De La Rue-Bull , the Bull's official distributor in the UK, to compete seriously on computers in the early 1960s.
When English Electric and ICT merged, ICL inherited from the RCA Spectra line marketed as System 4. However, the competition between ICT 1900 line and English Electric did not stop at the time of the merger. General Electric Information Systems (UK) , that had integrated the assets of De La Rue Bull was able to acquire a sizeable part of the British Market with GE-400 and GE-600. However, the central government market remained unaccessible, GEIS was limited to local government and utilities.
In the early 1970s, ICL was in disarray unable to compete with IBM but the System/3 with ICL 2903. ICL was preparing to lauch a New Range that was introduced top-down from the mid 1970s. 29xx systems had the same ambitions as the NPL in Honeywell-Bull. They went in the same trauma, but because they started to compete initially at a higher level, their software delays had more impact that those in HB, that started to cannibalize their old computer base. The ICL New Range was also suffering from the hesitations on external alliances with Burroughs, Univac, Unidata (Siemens/CII), Nixdorf, Amdahl...
Eventually, ICL concluded an agreement of distribution of Fujitsu products and was absorbed by Fujitsu.
Hewlett-Packard competition with Bull did not occur before the mid-1960s when H-P, specially in France, started to pitch H-P 3000 against DPS-4 and low-end DPS-7. Those systems were priced exclusively against IBM and H-P minicomputers offer was significantly cheaper than Bull's small main frames offer.
The creation of DEC and the first sales in Europe did not create
any worry inside Bull's competition analysts until the late 1970s. They were addressing a
market abandoned by Bull, their marketing strategy was completely different from
those of Bull and IBM. Actually the flow of engineers leaving Billerica for Maynard
and the superiority of VAX on the DPS-6 were the events that triggered attention to DEC.
Suddenly, the DPS-7 had not only to compete against the other internal products and
IBM, but also it was competing also against a computer born in a different environment.
Happily for Bull, DEC formidable position that it enjoys in the early 1980s deteriorated a few years later. Internal struggles between VAX and 36-bits, between VMS and Unices lead Digital to an earlier end than Bull's.