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A Brief History Of Metaphor Computer Systems

Click here to view the famous Metaphor slide show.

Metaphor Workstation II
I have an inkling of what Mary Tyler Moore must have felt when she left a small northern Minnesota town to take her first big city job. In leaving Duluth as a fresh college graduate, I was quite sure that I knew just about everything that there was to know about computers. After two hours on the job at Metaphor, my view point had changed. I was no longer sure that I knew anything at all about computers. Everything that Metaphor was doing was new, revolutionary, and cutting edge.

The Eden Prairie, Minnesota, branch of Metaphor got its start as a division of McDonnell Douglas, who was providing an on-line timeshare system that included statistical and decision support tools. It was common in that day for large companies to lease excess computer capacity in that manner. This system was sold to a start up named Decision Support Systems. DSS ended up going head to head with Metaphor on several potential projects. As a result, Metaphor bought DSS to eliminate the competitor, and to gain access to a new market segment.

The focus of the Eden Prairie group was developing advanced applications and providing data support for the consumer package goods industry. The customer list was a who's-who of the fortune 500 including Pillsbury, General Mills, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee. We were one of the very few firms that did business with both Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola. This group (along with the training group) was the cash cow that kept Metaphor afloat during the time that IBM was reinventing Metaphor on a monthly basis.

When Metaphor closed, the Eden Prairie group reformed as Information Advantage, Inc. Information Advantage set out to build a decision support system that ran on mainstream hardware and PC-based workstations. Once the IA product was given a web interface, funding poured in, and IA went public during the Internet boom. IA was later bought out by Sterling Software, which was subsequently bought out by Computer Associates. CA put the IA software to bed to prevent it from competing with other CA software.

Normally, that would be the end of the story. People moved on, many joining startups, other forming their own companies. But, like something that could only happen in a Blues Brothers movie, we had a chance to put the band back together one last time. Ex-Cold Fusion founder Kevin Lynch had a vision for automating the truck load brokering business by putting it on the Internet. At the peak of the Internet boom, armed with a war chest of $38-million, Lynch launched At its peak, Nistevo employed about 150 people, about half of which were former IA folks, several of which dated back to the Metaphor days. So, what happened to Nistevo? They were bought out by Sterling Commerce, which is now part of AT&T.

The Metaphor system lives on to this day, some 25 years after the vision was first sketched on paper. It is currently being cared for and enhanced by a group of ex-IBM employees under the name Meta5. You can visit their web site here.
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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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