I recently spoke with the co-founder of U.S. Robotics, Casey Cowell, to explore company, the early-day Internet, along with his present entrepreneurial and civic pursuits.
Casey Cowell: It is a long story. Public switch telephone networks got basically updated, end to end, to packet switching, which meant you could move faster and connect disparate users more readily. At exactly the exact same time, due mostly to Digital Equipment Corporation, time-sharing was adopted widely, particularly at companies and universities.
With time-sharing, they installed modems in the computer centre and you may use a thing called a modem — for modulator demodulator — and you may connect to computer terminals from a distant website and call within that mainframe, or mini-computer in the event of DEC, over the public switch telephone network.
From the mid-70s, that was actually beginning to take off. There was also the early infancy of this small-computer and home-computer market. Ken Olsen, the founder and C.E.O. of DEC, made the famous quote,”Why would anyone ever need a computer in their residence?” That tells you type of the state of things around the mid-70s.
We set out to create a computer keyboard that had a built-in acoustic coupler. It might use alligator clips to connect to a tv antenna. You would turn to station three or four and you would find a 16 by 48 column screen.
We began with $200 cash and plenty of energy. We got the computer keyboard to work but we could not manage to produce it. So we went to market with the modem. That began to take off, and the first 10 years people were actually buying computer terminals and using them to connect to big and midsize distant computers.
In 1981 IBM introduced the PC. That really legitimized the tiny personal computer market and saw it begin to be recognized as a business tool.
PEC: Are you currently a student at the University of Chicago then?
Cowell: I graduated in 1975 and went to grad school at the University of Rochester for a year in a PhD program. I left this to return to Chicago and start a company with folks I knew from school. We got by on sheer energy. Everybody just worked continuously.
We just drove anywhere, pounded on doors, asked questions and that I would need to say that the town of Chicago was our manufacturer space. We snuck into, at night, the grad student store in the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. They had a system tool centre there which we learned how to use and create things. We learned how to create the modems from reading Don Lancaster’s”TV Typewriter Cookbook.”
PEC: What was your business model?
Cowell: Our business model was a tragedy. We had no idea what we were doing at the beginning.
We made ourselves. Our parts cost on just the raw materials in our very first product was, I believe, $72. We promoted it for $105 and the closest competitor was well over $700. We would’ve gotten murdered, but we were not able to bring it to market, so we reorganized.
PEC: You had two chief products, the Robotics Sportster modem, and the Palm Trio, a firm that U.S. Robotics acquired. Was that in the 1990s?
Cowell: Yes, ’94 or ’95. What was great about all our products is we, unlike all our opponents, figured out how to construct the engine or the data pump ourselves utilizing off-the-shelf, digital signal processors.
It was easy to find leverage or economies of scale since we used the exact same engine in a completely broad and ever-expanding collection of merchandise which served on both ends of the phone call.
I believe we actually did help to grow the market. The Sportster and our products on the response side allowed the Internet to happen in the time when people wanted to go quicker and it was really beginning to take off. We were not the cause of it, but we helped push it together and tons of other companies did, also. This was a very exciting time.
PEC: Fast forward to 2016. What are you interests?
Cowell: I am a personal investor in a broad assortment of organizations in several industries, and some certainly in technology. I live and work in Traverse City, Michigan. I have always liked smaller towns. I have been in this region for quite a long time, since 1991.
The Traverse City area, for me, is fabulous as it’s smaller and there is a whole lot of really bright people here.
PEC: You head a group of Traverse City tech entrepreneurs that encourage other companies to relocate or launch in the region. What’s the attraction of going from, say, Chicago or New York to Traverse City? Why should a company or a worker do that?
Cowell: The reason is to live in a smaller community, to be plugged in. It’s less expensive and it is more rewarding, at least for me. In a smaller community it’s possible to get outdoors and also concentrate on what you would like to concentrate on, particularly with families, more readily.
It’s possible, with the internet participate virtually in any kind of activity or business.
Being in a community which can be supportive is terrific. You can realize that in lots of small communities since bright men and women who produce value, in many cases, decide that they’d rather live in a small area as opposed to a big city. That is what Traverse City is all about.