Ever heard of an Apple?
Brian Eardley-Wilmot has been in New Zealand's computer business since there wasn't a New Zealand computer business. These days he runs Computer Forensics, a specialist security consultancy, but as he tells Jan Birkeland, he's done a few other things in his time.
So how did it all start?
In the mid-1970s we decided to get a feeling for the retail computer business so we bought a shop in Lorne Street called the Calculator Centre. We had a pretty good grip on the University of Auckland’s retail market. Towards 77 or 78, I noticed interest in Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard's high-end programmables was levelling off and I couldn’t understand why this was. So I went to the university and talked to some professors; they told me there were these new things called personal computers coming in.
I did some reading and decided that the three players were Tandy, Commodore and Apple. Tandy was already represented in New Zealand, however there was no formal relationship with Commodore or Apple or any distributor here. I wrote to both companies in the US and said I wanted to distribute their products. After about a month I got a letter from Apple, suggesting that I come over to the US to have a talk about it. I didn’t receive anything from Commodore. I flew over to see Apple in Culpertino, California, and I asked around the motel I stayed at and the cabs I drove, but no one had ever heard of a computer company called Apple.
I had an appointment to meet with the lady who was the international marketing manager, and she introduced me to Steve Jobs who gave me a presentation on the Apple II. I’m not a particularly technical person, and I was dreading technical questions from Steve Jobs, but they never came. At that stage it turns out Jobs was not very technical either. Close to 1979 I got a telex from Apple saying it would like me to represent the company in New Zealand, so I signed an exclusive deal. About a week later I got a letter from Commodore offering me the same thing. I wrote back saying I would think about it, to prevent them setting up here and creating competition for me.
How was the market back then?
The market at that time was extraordinary. The primary market for home computers was the education market mainly because there was precious little software around, prompting local individuals to write specific software, and who better to do this than teachers for their schools. I bought the Apple II without memory from Apple and imported memory from Hong Kong. We also designed and manufactured a board, in conjunction with another company that enabled the use of the program language Pascal, which was back then used in most of the schools.
What was the spending power of schools like back then?
Many schools couldn’t afford a multitude of Apples, so I got the idea that we could use a card reader in combination with the Apple II. This basically meant that kids could learn programming without actually having a computer.
How did you expand this business with retailers?
I created a mailing list of electronics shops that would be likely to resell Apple for me. I direct mailed all of them and offered them an Apple for 40% off the then retail price. I told them to buy it and try it, and if they were interested they could resell Apple for me. Between 40 and 50 shops around the country took up the opportunity. After two or three months I looked at sales and narrowed it down to about 20 to 25 people. There was little in the way of formal arrangements; resellers did not have the responsibility to sell the Apple computer chain as such.
The next big thing that came along was the Macintosh, and I remember going to the product launch in Hawaii. I remember walking into a dark hotel ballroom and hearing Steve Jobs announce the new Macintosh. We looked up and these incredible little boxes were suspended from the ceiling. I couldn’t believe it was a computer, it was so tiny. The graphics were absolutely staggering, and if I remember right they were selling for between $1,500 and $2,000. Once again I targeted the education market with the Macintoshes.
Shortly after that I sold the company to Consolidated Enterprises and retired for about six months. It was all very well being retired, but your mates are working and you’re not. I decided to get back into the business again so I set up a company to sell Apple software. While I was distributing Apple I met a fellow called Bill Gates in the US. Apple told me to go and see him because there was an opportunity he would start making some software for them in the future. I had a look around New Zealand and there was nothing much in the way of distributing Microsoft Software for IBM computers. I knew nothing about it at the time, but I took up brands such as Microsoft, Adobe and Corel and distributed it along with Apple software.
Around this time , Apple decided to get out of the corporate market that Microsoft had entered with its spreadsheet program Excel. Instead it decided, much to my surprise, to focus on desktop publishing. I couldn’t see how in the corporate world you would have more than two or three desktop publishing people, while every man and his dog would be using Excel. By 1989, the most popular spreadsheet in New Zealand was Excel. With the success we went from strength to strength and we essentially became Microsoft’s de facto country subsidiary.
How did Computer Forensics come about?
Around 1992 Microsoft came here in its own right, which caused a huge change for us. The whole paradigm of distribution changed for me at that time. I prefer to be a developer in the market rather than being one of many. Around 1994 we sold the company to Computerland. After that I did business mentoring up until 1999, when I decided to start a little company called Computer Forensics. I quickly realised that forensics and data recovery are very similar in getting the job done. The forensics part of the job is increasing now, but data recovery is still the main part of the business. We’re now expanding into Australia with it, and only time can tell where we go from here. I can’t see myself crossing boundaries and going into another business. The IT business is always cutting edge, there is always something around the corner.
What do you do in your own time?
We have a large property and a large dog which takes up much of my time. My wife and I are also frequent travellers. We enjoy our own company greatly and I’m not very athletically minded and have never really had a major interest in sports. Of all my hobbies, reading is the most important thing to me. Being interested in IT, I also love gadgets and technology and spend quite a lot of time and money on that. I try to keep up with the latest trends, and I am glad I have discovered Trade Me so I can shift some of my obsolete devices. The only thing I don’t own in that department is an iPod. I don’t like not being in control of my surroundings, and I feel pumping my ears full of loud music takes away the feeling of awareness.