James Dow was working in sales for Data General, selling microcomputers like the microNOVA, when he decided to take a shot at starting his own business. In the fall of 1980, he left Data General to start Microcom, with the idea to develop software to facilitate communications between microcomputers.
Dow realized that in contrast to terminal-to-mainframe data communications, users of microcomputers wanted to transfer files such as spreadsheets, and for this type of data transfer error-correction was necessary to ensure that the files remained intact. To achieve this, Microcom developed the Microcom Networking Protocols (MNP) which were protocols for file transfer over dial-up modem connections.
Initially, Microcom’s MNP software ran on microcomputer operating systems and enabled users to transfer files using standard dial-up modems from other vendors. It soon became clear, however, that supporting the growing number of personal computer vendors was not cost effective. Another problem was that the software slowed down performance of the user’s CPU. Microcom’s response was to start selling their own modems and to include MNP in the modem itself. This innovation enabled Microcom to grab significant market share before other modem makers such as Vadic and UDS joined the market for protocol modems. MNP became a de facto standard after Microcom began licensing the protocols in ’83.
In this interview, Dow describes his early motivation for becoming an entrepreneur and the crucial role that Microcom’s innovation played in paving the way for successful product distribution, growth and early market success. Microcom was started as a software company, but eventually found itself in the PC modem market, just as the market began to take off. The story of that market, however, would be dominated by Hayes, U.S. Robotics, and Telebit.
Keywords: Data General, Microcom, Microcom Networking Protocols, protocol modem, dial-up modem