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Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Metaphor Computer Systems

Peter Nolan writes about Metaphor Computer Systems from the listserv at datawarehousing.com. If you have information about this company or its products you can add that to a wiki page at MetaphorComputingSystems. Endorsements for simple systems like this should be an inspiration to developers. I'm not sure if Meta5 is all or a subset of the original product.

If I said M3 it was a typo...Metaphor Computer Systems (M4) was founded in the early 80s (might have been 1982) and released a product called Data Interpretation System (DIS) in 1984 if my memory serves correctly. Ralph Kimball was one of the co-founders.

I'm not sure there are many places where 'the history of Metaphor' is documented. I wish there was, it was quite a company. In 1997 I got the opportunity to personally say thanks to Ralph for his part in M4 because it changed the direction I was heading in.

In 1991 I had one of those 'ah-ha' moments when I saw DIS demonstrated to a customer of mine. As I watched it took about 5 minutes to realise that what I was seeing was the way end user computing was 'meant to be'. I was completely 'sold' on DIS as 'the way' data analysis/analytical applications would be built in the future. So was the customer. They bought the product.

In another one of those industry 'if-onlys'. If only IBM knew what they had it could have been the office desktop we all use today. (IBM bought Metaphor in 1988. So in 1988 IBM owned an 'office desktop' far superior to MS Office which would not exist for a few years yet. Instead of pushing DIS they pushed Office Vision, which died.)

The list of features in DIS was endless. The folks at M4 broke so much new ground. They had some 400+ customers by 1993 and their customers were household names.

I wish there were some demos or screen shots still around to explain to people what it could do.

The most important thing about DIS was that the IT staff were no longer required to develop analytical applications. The biggest benefit of this was that the business users did not need to 'externalise' or 'communicate' their requirements to anyone. Working on the DIS desktop they could try out their ideas and if they turned out to be good they could be 'packaged' into an analytical app. Yes, I am talking 1986 here. And, as per my previous comment, the 'intellectual capital' of the analyst to who created the application was captured with the application to a very significant extent because any other business analyst could read it. They barely needed any training to be able to read even a quite complex application.

One time an actuary customer of mine borrowed the manuals and from scratch, with no training and no help from anyone else, wrote a 30 year death experience analysis application in 3 weeks. It was that easy and that good to use DIS.

DIS was 'so cool' you didn't even need a keyboard. We used to put out keyboards on top of the screens and they would stay there for weeks on end. Try writing an analytical app today without a keyboard!!!!

Unfortunately, at the time IBM bought Metaphor the future of the world was PS/2, OS/2, MicroChannel, 8514A graphics adapters and Token Ring (at least according to IBM). When moving the software from proprietary to IBM hardware, IBM specified ONLY IBM hardware. There were a lot of other reasons why Metaphor experienced trouble operating inside IBM. (They were not the only ones, who remembers 'Rolm' telephones today?)

DIS was all 32 bit and it was the first fully 32 bit app that was released on OS/2, but OS/2 was 'doomed' and by the time windows 95 came out the opportunity to get DIS out into the marketplace had pretty much gone away and MS Office had a stranglehold on the windows 3.1 desktop.

Eventually the product was stabilised and then finally withdrawn from marketing. I think that was around 1997/8.

But there are many of us out there who look at what we could do then and what we can do today and wonder how it can be that there is so much that is still so hard to do now that was so easy then. Call me nostaligic!!! ;-)


MacKnife said...

I cut my SQL teeth on Metaphor and I loved it. It was a fantastic system and could probably still the knock the socks off a lot of other RDBMS and DIS systems today. I agree with you , it's a damn shame IBM didn't know what they had, in fact it's a damn shame IBM ever got their hands on it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Macknife is 100% correct about the M4 DIS system. I joined them in 1984, then consulted to IBM during their "discovery" period. Spent many hours trying to move the behemoth in the right direction at their Waterbury, CT facility. DIS was a dream, but the CEO was determined to be a media star and all focus was lost. Still today, the M4 system is virtually unbeatable for data interpretation. I gave Bill Gates a demo of DIS at an IBM seminar in Orlando. All that happened was that his eyes became very large. Soon after IBM let DIS die for aforementioned reason. Many Fortune 100 companies were hurt by their lack of development. Sad, but true. Wish I had the source code....

Craig D. said...

I was working at IBM on an internship in 1992. I can still remember a pivotal moment: hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time while sitting in front of a machine running Metaphor DIS.

Sixteen years later I still haven't seen anything that comes close to the ease of use of Metaphor DIS.

Is there nothing like it out there? Is there no way it can be resurrected?

Peter Nolan said...

Craig D...this is Peter Nolan, original author it that post...LOL! Funny to see my words 10 years later...in case you come back DIS lives on as meta5 www.meta5.com. So yes, you can still buy it...it is STILL better than anything else out there...sigh...but it looks a bit dated now....I worked on a sale recently to a telco and it was all just 'too hard' over the current ways of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anon!! R U Dave Smericzk(?) from Pittsburg? Or Mary Nelson? I, too remember those days at Waterbury.... contact me at stolleid@aim.com

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