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Commercialising the Lilith - Transfer of Know-how



The Lilith workstation and its operating system Medos were not only a platform on which several succeeding research projects were based. The workstation was also in daily use for regular administrative work at the Institute for Computer Science. Wirth's secretary, for example, had one in her office with which she wrote her correspondence. "A whole bunch of highly interactive Utilities" allowed a broad application of the device. "Thereby, the Lilith workstation became the most commonly used computer at the Institute (30 items in use)."

After the Lilith - during its daily use at the ETH - proved to be a reliable und helpful tool, the thought was close at hand to produce larger series and to set up a commercial product. The Lilith with its high resolution screen and the mouse as a new input device was well ahead of the then common 80x24 text character terminals. An economic success was the only thing that could come out of such a business.

It was someone from outside the ETH which took over the marketing and founded a company in 1982. Heinz Waldburger was head of the data processing division of Nestlé and was looking for a computer system, which could be connected with other systems of its kind and which would also offer capabilities as a multimedia device. He thought that the Lilith was ideally fulfilling these requirements. The company founded thereupon with the name DISER (Data Image Sound Processor and Emitter Receiver System) was meant to produce and offer different Lilith models, the so-called MC1 and MC2 (Modula Computer).

The layout of the factory was so amply done that it allowed the production of about then machines per day. However, it was not defined how these computers should be disposed of. The assumption prevailed that the modernity of the Lilith architecture would automatically generate a demand. Thus, marketing and sales received less attention; it was not clear for example, how belonged to the target group for the Lilith at all. Moreover, the financing of DISER was unstable as risk capital for a Swiss computer company was hardly available. As a result, the expected demand for DISER workstations did not appear, and the attempt to commercialise the ETH-computer had to be given up in 1983 already. Up to that point a total of 120 computers of this kind had been sold.

The commercial failure of the Lilith is often being used as an example of the alleged bad relationship between the ETH and the industry. But is it indeed the job of a university to invent and develop products for the industry which can be commercialised without much or any additional effort at all? The success of the Lilith can be found on quite a different level. Many of the people who took part in this project were lateron involved in leading positions in the development of commercial systems and compilers. The know-how gained at the ETH, then, was not transfered so much by concrete products of research projects, but rather reached the industry in the form of the knowledge of its graduates.

(Sources: Interviews with Niklaus Wirth and Jürg Gutknecht; Landwehr, 2001.)

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© 2005 ETH Zurich | May 26, 2005 | !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!