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A HISTORY OF COMPUTER COMMUNICATIONS: 1968 -1988

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Michael Pliner

Paul Baran

Michael “Mike” Pliner received a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Case Western Reserve University and an M.S. and B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Case Institute of Technology. He worked for Ford Aerospace and the National Security Agency (NSA) before founding Sytek in 1979.

Pliner co-founded Sytek to service the nascent field of local area networking. That same month, Robert Metcalfe co-founded 3Com and Ralph Ungermann and Charlie Bass founded Ungermann-Bass. Pliner recalls early discussions with Bass & Metcalfe in the months leading up to and after founding their businesses. Pliner and Metcalfe had discussed working together as had Ungermann, Bass & Metcalfe, but the three parties eventually decided to go their own ways. Pliner’s company, Sytek, succeeded in capturing the early market for broadband networks with clients like the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC) and Brown University, where the large campus-wide terminal-to-host networks were better suited to broadband’s more affordable cabling setup.

In this interview, Pliner discusses the challenges, missteps and successes of Sytek’s strategy in local area networking. Like his fellow LAN industry entrepreneurs, which would also include Bridge Communications founders, Judy Estrin and Bill Carrico, the fates of each company were closely tied to the fates of their clients and the technology in which they chose to invest. For Sytek, their strategic partnership with IBM appeared to be a winning strategy; sales of hardware and software for IBM’s PC LAN provided close to half of their revenue in 1985. The following year, however, IBM management made the decision to constrain their broadband PC LAN to the workgroup computing market, opting to go with Token Ring technology for the market for larger enterprise, campus and municipal networks. This effectively killed sales of Sytek’s IBM products; broadband was too expensive for small, workgroup networking. Sytek was purchased by the Hughes Aircraft Company in 1989.

Keywords: Sytek; 3Com; Ungermann-Bass, Inc. (UB); Broadband; IBM; PC LAN; Bridge Communications; token bus; Hughes Aircraft Company

Michael Pliner Interviewed by James Pelkey 4/8/92