20 Years Ago (Part 4): Indy’s “Catch-22″

[20 Years Ago: Part 3]

By the summer of 1994, just a few months after landing what I asserted was “the best job in Silicon Valley,” I was already thinking of moving on. How was that possible?

Silicon Graphics was still the hottest company in the Valley – and getting hotter. Our much-ballyhooed interactive television partnership with Time Warner was getting close to launch (and stilled seemed like a good idea at the time). We were hard at work on the Nintendo 64, the world’s first 3D game console. Video server partnerships had just been announced with AT&T and Japan’s NTT. And our market cap now topped that of rivals Sun and DEC.

But things were not so rosy for Indy.

In some ways, we were still recovering from an imperfect launch the prior year. The big plan for Indy was to dramatically increase sales volumes by hitting a much lower price point. Instead of the $10,000 price tag of its predecessor1, the Indigo, Indy’s strategic mandate was to break the $5,000 barrier. And Indy did just that, tiptoeing across that magical line with an entry-level configuration priced at $4,995. There was just one problem – that config, with only 16 MB of RAM, wouldn’t boot.

Yes, all around the world, customers excitedly opened their beautiful blue boxes labeled “Serious Fun,” smiled at the bright blue “pizza box” inside (and its accompanying juggling balls), and eagerly set up their system, complete with the trailblazing digital “IndyCam.” But when they powered up their sweet new workstation, its paltry 16 MB of RAM (critical to hitting the price and margin targets) was not enough memory to load the all-brand-new-and-maybe-not-quite-finished 5.1 version of the operating system. So it would just hang. Outrage ensued.

Of course, soon additional memory was shipped for free to irate customers. And the base configuration got bumped to 32 MB of RAM. By the time I joined, that “imperfect launch” was behind us, but Indy now faced a much larger and harder problem to solve — actually achieving the very ambitious volume goals set alongside its pricing strategy.

Indy’s volume problem was really a classic “Catch-22″. From a hardware perspective, Indy was truly a multimedia monster: 64-bit RISC CPU, video-capable 100 MHz system bus, integrated video camera, and enough inputs and outputs that the headline from one ad was “Any port in a brainstorm”. 

Any port in a brainstorm

And multimedia authoring was a super-hot market, driven by the explosive growth in sales of interactive CD-ROMs (such as “Mad Dog McCree,” a Western shootout simulation game which gave rise to my industry nickname) and the popularity of Macromedia’s flagship authoring tool, Director. Imagine the breakout sales that could be driven from a marriage of Indy’s multimedia hardware and Macromedia’s multimedia software! Alas, Director was a Mac application; it was not available on IRIX (our flavor of Unix). And all efforts to persuade Macromedia to port to IRIX were to no avail. Why? Not enough volume.

Lack of volume also meant tepid support from Adobe. There was a version of Photoshop running on IRIX, but it was a generic port via some tool called “Latitude”. It didn’t take advantage of our sweet GUI, nor was it very fast.

I very much wanted to find a way out of Indy’s volume Catch-22. But finding a new “killer app” willing to play nice with us seemed like a big job. I knew I couldn’t do that and handle all of the day-to-day tasks of the Indy product manager.

As luck would have it, I got the perfect opportunity to act on my desire for a new role. In August2, Jim White, the well-regarded marketing leader for the mid-range workstation division (maker of the company’s Indigo2 “cash cow”), was named director of marketing for our division, filling a position that had been vacant for a few months. Jim’s charter was to re-invigorate the efforts to make Indy a high-volume platform.

After Jim was introduced to the team and gave a great pep talk, he came up to each of us individually for a quick chat. I think he asked me something like, was I “liking the role of product manager?”. His positive energy and unblinking you-can-trust-me eye contact inspired me to do what many at Silicon Graphics would consider career suicide. I told him there might be a better role for me than product manager.

“And what is it you want to do?” Jim asked.

“Marketing with a capital ‘m,’” I said. “I think our breakout growth opportunity will come from a new market, and I’d like to focus on looking for it.”

“Okay, let’s work to back-fill you ASAP,” he said. “Go find us a new market.”

To be continued

_________________________

1Press release announcing Indigo

2I confess I’m not sure what month this happened; August is my best guess.

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6 thoughts on “20 Years Ago (Part 4): Indy’s “Catch-22″

  1. ttommy says:

    John, I am really enjoying these episodes(posts).

  2. mturner says:

    John you’re giving me flashbacks!

  3. Mahalo John, from 1992-1997 SGI Silicon Surf, Cosmo Create, Cosmo Worlds, Performance Co Pilot, SGI Developer Program, S.A.V.E. Program, all the amazing people at SGI who ignited so many of our dreams into reality. I remember my first video conference with Don Brutzman he was using an Indy at Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey and I was visiting at SGI Mountain View headquarters using Leslie Doyle’s Indy. Don spoke on quote; “An underwater virtual world can comprehensively model all salient functional characteristics of the real world in real time. This virtual world is designed from the perspective of the robot, enabling realistic AUV evaluation and testing in the laboratory. Three-dimensional real-time computer graphics are our window into that virtual world.”.

  4. […] [20 Years Ago, Part 6. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.] […]

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