Silicon bites the dust

When a certain product helps you meet the future Prime Minister of a country, it is not surprising that you remember the product fondly. That is why I turned a bit nostalgic when I read that Silicon Graphics’s assets have all been bought by Rackable for just $25million dollars. Afterall, Silicon Graphics Iris workstation took me to many places in India and no wonder that I feel like writing about it now. So excuse my self indulgence and read on.

It was in late 1980s when OMC computers and Wipro wanted to be the guys who sold Sun workstations in India. HCL was selling Appollo workstations. I had just joined OMC Computers and people told me that we lost out Sun to Wipro. It was good deal for Wipro because they sold a lot of Sun workstations. In order to compete in the workstation market, OMC tied up with Silicon Graphics, then one of the leading graphic workstations in the market. As we found out the hard way, given its price and positioning, it was a major challenge to sell it in India and in many cases Wipro beat us with the Sun workstations, which is what many enterprises wanted. I am not complaining since I got a lot of good experience trying to sell and support the Silicon Graphics workstations. For one, I got to meet lot of interesting people starting from academicians, film producers and all the way upto the future Prime Minister. Along the way, I had lot of interesting experiences as well.

It was clear to us after our efforts to fight Sun, that we cannot position Silicon Graphics workstations as general purpose workstations. (Wish the guys who made the deal knew it earlier.) So our strategy became more product or solution oriented. One of the segments we attacked for molecular biology since Center for Molecular Biology (CCMB) was located in Hyderabad, our headquarters. And next to it was RR labs (now IICHT). So we met lot of professors here and gave them demo on a certain product, whose name I cannot recall, to all of them. This was to enable some sort of 3D modelling of the proteins. It was then that I bought a book on Bio Chemistry and learnt that there were some 20 odd Amino acids and that all proteins were formed out a certain pattern of these amino acids. Looks like the scientists know the sequence of amino acids in the proteins but do not know about the actual physical structure of the protein. This software was supposed to help them solve this problem. Encouraged by the good words the profs had for this software, we decided to an all India roadshow and asked the company which had this product to send us an expert. They agreed and sent us the ‘expert’, who was actually a student and was doing a summer internship with them and was on a vacation to India!!  She was now called in to face a lot of academicians, who have been working in this field for ages. The encounter had the girl almost in tears. So I had to step in and control the situation. Like how we do always, I took many of the discussions ‘offline’, promised that we will send them more details later and did all the things we do when we don’t know an answer and don’t want to admit it. I remember my manager commending me later about how I was able to save the situation but it was not a situation I want to get in often. Lessons were learnt  in this encounter and  when we went to the next venue, were were prepared and things went off smoothly.

Along with the Molecular Biology software, we were also trying to sell some 3D modelling and animation software. I think it was called Alias. My colleague, Surya and I decided that we should try and sell this software to Annapoorna Studios, which was the biggest studio those days in Hyderabad. We ended up meeting Akkineni Venkat, the brother of the famous Telugu film hero, Akkineni Nagarjuna. He had visited our premises along with Ramprasad, the proprietor of Walden Book Store, and we gave them a demo on 3D modelling and showed some tricks like turning positive into negative etc. What we didn’t understand at that time was that whatever we had was not enough and to get a good graphics based stuff for films required lot more that just a Silicon Graphics machine and some software. We never made any deals with Annapoorna studios but the encounter did provide me with some memorable moments. One such moment was when Akkineni Venkat, who was watching a demo, stepped out to make a call. He called Nagarjuna’s house and apparently it was Nagarjuna’s wife and the beautiful actress Amala, who was on the line. I still recall Surya pulling my hand excitedly and saying, “He is talking to Amala!! He is talking to Amala!!”.

Then came the very brief encounter with this person. We were told by our manager that we need to put up the Silicon Graphics workstation for a demo on a Sunday. Obviously we were pissed. First, it was on a Sunday. Second, it was not a computer exhibition. It was an exhibition of all the companies to whom State Bank of India had provided funding. OMC Computers happened to be one of them. SBI wanted to show the good work it was doing to the then Finance Minister, who went by the name of Manmohan Singh. There we were, on a Sunday, waiting for the FM to arrive. He came in and started doing the rounds. What was impressive was that he took his time at each stall and spoke to people to get their direct feedback. He came to out stall and I was holding fort there. Those were the times of high export duties and Silicon Graphics was a costly system due to these duties. The FM was in our stall and we showed a small demo. After having a look he asked, “How much does this system cost?”. I replied, “Depends on your policies, sir.” This brought a small smile on his lips. He moved on after asking if people thought the cost was too high. What was striking was his utter simplicity and a real urge to understand the problems. No wonder he is considered to be one of our best Finance Minister ever.

Silicon Graphics took me to various corners of India. I experienced the searing heat of Jamshedpur, the freezing cold of Delhi, the sweating in Calcutta, the pleasantness of Bangalore. It is very sad to see Silicon Graphics bite the dust. I have not worked on it since I quit OMC Computers in 1995 but still, it seems like I lost a good friend.