Volume 29 - Number 9 - Thursday, January 30, 1997

Software sale nets millions

by Eric Smith

Technology developed at McGill was sold this month to Ontario's Hummingbird Communications Ltd. for $8.5 million. A large chunk of the sale price--$5.5 million--comes to the University.

The software now marketed as HostExplorer has been through many incarnations since 1984 when Pierre Goyette, then a McGill undergraduate, first developed a PC communications program as a class project.
Software developer Pierre Goyette and Director of Computing and Telecommunications Alan Greenberg.


The terminals people used to connect with mainframe computers were then being phased out in favour of personal computers. While personal computers brought many more capabilities to users, they didn't have the one advantage enjoyed by terminals: the ability to connect to mainframe systems. Goyette's project was to write a program that would allow the new personal computers to behave like terminals and connect to mainframes.

After graduation, Goyette began working at McGill maintaining the University's network while continuing to develop his communications software. Under its next incarnation, dubbed PCWS, the software allowed campus PCs to communicate with McGill's other proprietary technology, the MUSIC operating system.

By 1988, the program had grown to 100,000 lines of assembler code and it became unwieldy to continue to update the existing software. So Goyette decided it was time to start over. "I wanted to design something that would work over networks and be independent of operating systems," he said.

Goyette developed Net3270, a program that let personal computers across campus connect to McGill's mainframes over the University's network system. To this day, most campus users who connect to the libraries' MUSE system from a remote computer are using this software.

With Net3270, McGill also had a marketable product that began to attract significant interest, initially at other academic institutions. But it was when Goyette introduced the next flavour of his software that this interest began to grow exponentially and spread from universities to the corporate world.

Just as McGill had kept up with the PC revolution in the 1980s by providing personal computers with mainframe connectivity, the software now had to keep pace with this decade's computer revolution, the growth of the Internet.

So Net3270 learned to 'speak' TCP/IP, the 'language' of the Internet, and was reborn once again as TCP3270. According to Alan Greenberg, director of computing and telecommunications, "As soon as we demonstrated the software, we were inundated with requests to distribute it."

Among the clients who adopted McGill's solution for network terminal emulation were GM Canada, JC Penney and the state of Oregon.

Goyette estimates there are currently 600,000 installations of TCP3270 worldwide. Add to that another million installations as part of a software package distributed by Novell, and the software, now known as HostExplorer, has already achieved significant market share as the world's top-selling emulator product.

So it's no surprise that North York-based Hummingbird approached the University about acquiring the software. For Goyette the software now needs "big business marketing" that a company like Hummingbird can provide.

Before its sale to Hummingbird the software was co-owned by the University and Goyette's company, PolarSoft. PolarSoft was formed in 1995 as the result of an agreement between McGill and Goyette. According to Greenberg, "It was felt that Pierre had put a significant amount of his own time into the software, primarily on his own initiative and that he had some intellectual property rights."

McGill will keep approximately $5.5 million of the Hummingbird purchase, with the remaining $3 million going to PolarSoft. Prior to the sale, the software had generated considerable revenue for McGill. Sales last year grossed $2 million, and since the software is installed across the campus, McGill has been able to save what it would have cost to use software developed elsewhere.

With its purchase of the software, Hummingbird has hired Goyette as well as Ron Grimes and Steve Marentette, both working on marketing and sales of HostExplorer through McGill Systems Inc. While Grimes and Marentette will be working out of the North York office, Hummingbird will set Goyette up in an office here in Montreal. Graduating student Martin Lacasse and technical writer Amanda Radford will be following Goyette to his new job.

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