An Evolution From Software to Biology
Doug Walker is ready to evolve his business career from
software to biology. In December Walker sold WRQ, the company whose
first initial stands for his last name, to an investment group for an
undisclosed amount. Walker announced his retirement from WRQ at the
same time, ending a career of more than two decades creating business
computer software for systems starting with the 3000.
When Walker along with Mike Richer and Marty
Quinn, the other two WRQ initials joined forces with
co-founder George Hubman, minicomputer access required hardware
terminals. The advent of the personal computer had the potential to
expand that access. A company which could create software to emulate
a minicomputers terminal might succeed in capturing hundreds of
thousands of sales, as companies traded in their terminals for the
more versatile PCs. The purple boxes carrying a manual and floppy
disks for PC2622, named after the HP 3000 terminal the product
emulated, became a fixture in HP 3000 shops by the mid-1980s.
Walker developed that first commercially viable
terminal emulator for the HP 3000, the first product that let the
company then-called Walker, Richer & Quinn get a foot in the door
to 3000 customers adopting PCs. More than 20 years later the company
which was sold in December counts millions of users of its software,
is approaching $100 million in sales, and sits on thousands of 3000
users desktops. Walker is replacing himself with a CEO bred
from WRQs inner circle, Shaun Wolfe, before departing the HP
In his lifes next act Walker wants to integrate
the lessons of software with the problems of biology. Hes
always had outside interests that played counterpoint to his computer
career, including serving on the boards of outdoor gear retailer REI
(Walker is an avid rock climber at age 54) and environmental
preservation agency The Nature Conservancy. We wanted to ask what the
HP 3000 world taught him before he departed, as well as recall how
the company overcame startup challenges with HP. We spoke just before
Christmas, when he was less than two weeks from beginning the
evolution of his technology career.
How did you get started working with the HP 3000?
The first project where I worked on the HP 3000 was right
after starting WRQ. George Hubman and Marty Quinn had worked for HP,
but I had not. We had a contract to create communication software for
data aggregation for a company kind of doing work like AC Nielsen.
Microcomputer devices were surveying what people watched on TVs. I
had to enable the HP 3000 to communicate with those devices.
The second project was like doing a terminal emulator on the
HP 3000, having a 3000 call up another device and capture an entire
session. We came up with a product out of that project that George
called Thief but we didnt succeed in selling any copies
This was all just programming in SPL on the HP 3000. We
started working on PC2622 in 1982. That involved Quinn getting an IBM
PC and us attempting to write a terminal emulator in C, C being not
so dissimilar to [the HP 3000 language] SPL. But we learned you
couldnt write the driver-level stuff in a terminal emulator in
C at that time. Most of those early PCs didnt have hard disks;
they were floppy-driven. One of the problems with programming in C
was that the object files were too big for floppy drives.
If we wrote the whole program in C, it was going to be too
big to submit on the average-sized floppy: 128K at the time. We
reprogrammed it in assembly language and didnt ship it to any
customers until 1983 with pretty slim documentation. It was a
big challenge to write it all in assembly language. But we had to be
one of the earliest terminal emulators for the HP 3000.
What were the challenges of getting an HP terminal
emulator accepted in the market of the early 1980s?
Version 1.1 of the product had an HP 3000 file transfer
program. The problem was how to get the file transfer program onto
the 3000 side. We needed to be able to upload the file transfer
program from the PC. We solved it by using the logic in the HP
terminals for reading a tape. You could do a binary transfer of
blocks of data using FCOPY, so wed convince the terminal to
upload our file to the HP 3000 from a tape.
Now you have FTP, but in those days we had to figure out how
to bootstrap the file transfer operation to get the program on the
3000. Because it certainly wasnt the case that HP was going to
distribute it for us.
Why did HP refuse to do that?
HP didnt really have a terminal emulator, and they
werent too sure of their attitude about us jumping in and
offering one. HP had their own PC back then, the HP 150, and the 150
had a file transfer program. So HP could distribute the HP 3000
portion of that program themselves.
So HPs 150 put you in direct competition with its
terminal emulation business?
They took a not-necessarily friendly view of us doing this.
They even offered to buy the company in 1985.
Could they have offered a price that wouldve made
WRQ say yes at that point?
Yes, but they werent anywhere near it. We said it would
cost millions of dollars, but they wouldnt even think in terms
of six zeroes.
When did things change between WRQ and HP?
A lot of the HP field people were real helpful to us. They
wanted to see a product that helped solve customer problems. HP
Cupertino was not so friendly. Then we stuck a deal with the HP
Portable being introduced out of Corvallis, to do a terminal emulator
in ROM on that machine. Things were very friendly with HP Corvallis.
HP then took a more objection-oriented approach to us. In the 1990s
they kind of threw in the towel, and they asked us to support the PC
end of their NS/VT protocol in our emulator.
Ever since then, HPs been very friendly. Of course, the
3000 is a little bit on the outs with HP these days.
That 3000 business at HP has seen its challenges over the
years. Whats the greatest challenge that youve braved
while running WRQ?
We feared that HP would try to put us out of business.
Weve had other risks, but that was a pretty considerable one at
How did you figure theyd do that?
If youre trying to connect up to somebodys
computer systems, and they dont want you to, they could do
things to stop you. Initially, when TCP started taking off, HP would
not give us the specifications for the NS/VT protocol. Not being able
to do a LAN-based protocol when HP had that key element was pretty
scary. We did reverse-engineer it, but if we hadnt, that would
have been a pretty big threat.
What does the HP 3000 community count upon that seems
Its still amazing to me how strong the HP community is,
especially in the face of the kinds of challenges that are upon it
these days. The 3000 was a super-reliable, very workable machine
and its hard to kill something like that. The
architecture was so basically appealing that it attracted a strong
cadre of people that really were and still are enamored with this
The 3000 came out in the era of the minicomputer. The basic
workability and the strengths of those HP and Digital designs were
pretty appealing. Its pretty hard to see those 3000 and Digital
architectures go away. Im not even sure in what timeframe they
will go away.
Well, HP is retiring from the 3000 market. Why are you
retiring from WRQ now?
It had not been my plan to retire now. We had not been
thinking about this transition. It was an opportunity that came up.
It seemed like a good opportunity both for myself and for the
company. I had to make a transition at some point.
There might have been a better point later, but the company
is having a really terrific year. I think if youre going to
step away, its a lot more fun to do it when youre having
a great year. If WRQ was having difficulties, I would feel
irresponsible to step away.
Because of our performance this year, WRQ may pay one of its
biggest bonuses to employees weve ever paid. Because weve
had good years, weve grown up a good management team within
WRQ, the best weve ever had. That certainly starts with Shaun
Wolfe, who will be CEO after I leave. That goes through our whole
How will you remain active in the computing
I have a lot of conversations going on, and Id like to
remain active in technology. Technology had a tough time in 2000, and
its been kind of a tough run for the start up companies. I
think things are looking up, and there are a lot of new technologies
that Im interested in.
Im especially interested in the interplay between
computing and biotech. Weve cracked the genome and people are
talking about a lot of sci-fi stuff with respect to biotech, but
its really a compute-bound problem.
So you believe solutions will flow from an increase in
Horsepower and software. Using computing more effectively in
biotech is going to be the gating factor for these advances people
are talking about in biotech.
Sounds like youre leaning toward staying in the
software business. How do you believe investing in software and
owning hardware differs?
The investment required to get the intellectual property, the
IP that software represents, is more profound than we think. Let me
give a biology example. You can think of biological systems as
computer programs, because they have a code in DNA, like technology
in a software program. Those systems have taken a long time to
devise. I know a MacArthur Fellow in the University of Washington
biology department whos reverse engineering the software
driving a flys eye. The computer imaging systems were
using today have better hardware than the fly does. But the software
is not as sophisticated. The fly is simpler than a lot of animals.
But the software driving the flys eye is better than what we
have. Its taken a long time to develop that IP for a fly. They
may seem simple, but they have been around for awhile.
Speaking of evolution, what legacy do you hope HPs
remaining market can retain from the HP 3000s history and
The HP 3000 was such a high quality system in peoples
IT infrastructure that it resonated. Because the 3000 evolved off of
its original processor, it was the software that was the enduring
system. That reiterates that quality was the important thing. The
software object that the 3000 represented was what was truly of
value. If we cant have the 3000 again from HP, we want things
that bring forth that value. Thats the quality that Ive
learned myself from the 3000.
What did the HP marketplace teach you and your
A commitment to quality, a reliability that far exceeds what
youd normally find in the software marketplace. We were
originally attracted to the HP 3000 because it had that quality.
Quality takes time yet you seem to have enough time
to build such products and still have a life outside of work.
Whats your advice about balancing work and personal
Its a delicate balance. You can become too involved in
outside things, and Ive certainly walked that line. But
its important to have those outside activities, because it
broadens the way you think about things. For me, serving on
REIs board or the Nature Conservancy has given me both contacts
that were useful from a business standpoint, and ideas that have been
useful to me about the problems those organizations face.
I joined the REI board in 1996. When I joined they
didnt have e-mail or a Web page. I certainly put emphasis on
REI in a big way with the Web, where they do a quarter of their
business. REI trying to integrate Web front ends with a back end was
educational for WRQ. It was relevant for our strategic thinking
I still bike to work. I still try to mountaineer every
weekend. Ive picked up on my rock climbing, doing more of it.
Whats been the most significant HP invention during
your WRQ career?
HPs had a lot of success with printers. HP hasnt
wanted to think of themselves as a printer company, but in terms of
their biggest impact on the industry, quite a few of us have an HP
What role do you see for specialized computer environments
in the years to come? Must it all become Windows and
Single integrated monolithic systems are not the way of the
future. The only way is to have differentiation, but it has to be
based on some very common interfaces. In that sense, there is a role
for things like MPE or VMS. Lots of forms of life have
differentiation, but they all seem to have a cell structure. A common
programming system, like DNA. You can have differentiation so long as
you have integration.
You seem to have a biology example ready for lots of these
Biological programming has been going on a few million years
longer than software programming. Im just impressed by how much
there is to learn there.