Franz Inc. - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Franz Inc.

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Company Perspectives

Franz Inc. has thrived by making it easy for Lisp users to play leading roles in the software industry, and continuously striving to introduce new functionality and features. Further, Franz Inc. understands that it is critical to grow the Lisp market--special academic pricing, educational tools and scholarship programs have all been implemented to ensure that the pool of Lisp users will continue to increase as new people discover this vibrant, dynamic language.

History of Franz Inc.

Based in Oakland, California, Franz Inc. is a leading vendor of products that software developers use "to build sophisticated, flexible and scalable applications quickly, easily and cost-effectively." The company's products--which are used by the likes of Lucent Technologies, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), SRI, and GTE Internetworking--are based on Common Lisp (CL), a general-purpose computer programming language. Franz markets Common Lisp products under the Allegro CL name, which software developers use in a number of different areas, including e-commerce, expert systems, electrical and mechanical computer-aided design (CAD), Internet knowledge-based systems, process control, and scheduling. In addition, the company offers a variety of consulting services, as well as basic, intermediate, and advanced training and certification in Lisp programming.

Origins of Franz: 1974-1983

The List Processing (Lisp) programming language was originally developed in 1958 by artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer John McCarthy, who established the first AI research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Simply stated, AI is the development of machines, or computer systems, that can think and learn. The Lisp language quickly became the standard for developing AI applications.

According to Franz, the company's origins can be traced back to a computer program called Macsyma, which was used to solve complex math problems. Developed at MIT during the early 1970s, Macsyma was first written in a variant of the Lisp language called MACLisp. Along with INTERLisp, MACLisp was one of the most popular Lisp dialects during the 1970s.

As Franz details on its web site, the Macsyma application was so enormous that it required a powerful computer on which to run--a specially configured DEC 10 manufactured by Digital Equipment Corp. The DEC 10 boasted what then was a massive and expensive 2.5 megabytes of memory.

Professor Richard Fateman, who received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1971 and taught the subject at MIT from 1971 to 1974, was one of the programmers who created Macsyma. Franz explains that after joining the computer science faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974, Fateman "continued to access the MIT system over the ARPAnet (the predecessor of today's Internet). In 1978, he learned of a new DEC computer, called the VAX-11/780, which could run Macsyma and many other programs more efficiently and at a much lower cost."

After garnering funds from the National Science Foundation to acquire the university's first VAX computer, Fateman recruited students to "build a version of Lisp that would form the substrate for the version of VAX Macsyma." Among these students were the individuals who would eventually found Franz: John Foderaro, Kevin Layer, and Keith Sklower.

Fateman's students dubbed the new Vax Lisp "Franz Lisp," after Hungarian composer, conductor, and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-86). The name was meant to convey that the implementation was a quick one, and to mirror the university's "pun-filled" atmosphere.

Formative Years: 1984-1999

According to Franz, Franz Lisp had been distributed for free to thousands of research labs and universities by the mid-1980s. Although the language had been well received by programmers, Fateman and his students were focused on research, not providing technical support. It was this very situation that gave birth to Franz Inc.

As the number of powerful computer workstations began to grow, UC Berkeley graduate student and Scientific Software Support Manager Fritz Kunze foresaw the need for an independent company to "port" and provide support for Franz Lisp. Porting is the process of adapting software for use on different computers or operating systems. The company explains, "Despite a proliferation of free, but unsupported Lisp systems, Kunze believed that important commercial applications would need significant customer support, a high quality product and active development."

With encouragement from Fateman, in 1984 Kunze and students Foderaro, Layer, and Sklower raised $500 and founded Franz Inc., using the seed money to incorporate their enterprise and buy an embosser and blank stock certificates. The firm established its headquarters in a spare bedroom at Kunze's house. Charley Cox and David Margolies were among Franz's first employees.

One major hurdle Franz faced was the $10,000 price tag of a new computer. This was overcome, however, by negotiating a deal with Sun Microsystems. In exchange for porting Franz Lisp to Sun's workstation, the company was able to secure a free workstation.

"Kunze and Foderaro were so nervous that Sun would back out of the deal that they drove down that same day to pick up the computer," the company explains. "Franz continued this practice with every contract negotiated, and soon they had numerous workstations to work with."

Prior to the mid-1980s, the Department of Defense (DoD) had been using different variations of Lisp for research initiatives in the areas of expert systems and artificial intelligence. Almost immediately after Franz was established, the DoD challenged the Lisp community to develop a unified programming language called Common Lisp. A new company called Lucid--which had support from the DoD, Stanford University, and venture capitalists--was formed to develop Common Lisp. Armed with some $25 million in funding, the new firm quickly emerged as an industry leader.

Once developed, Common Lisp differed considerably from the original version of Lisp. In the September 1991 issue of Communications of the ACM, Franz cofounder Kevin Layer, along with Franz employee Chris Richardson, described it as "a rich, sophisticated language providing functional, imperative, and object-oriented programming."

The entrance of Lucid was a major crisis for Franz. The company quickly found itself being excluded from much-needed contracts, and it saw support from the Lisp Standardization Committee dwindle. According to Franz, "It was clear that Franz Lisp would need major revisions to become an implementation in Common Lisp." In response, cofounder John Foderaro decided to spend one year working from his home, thereby minimizing distractions, and develop a new version of Common Lisp from the ground up.

As if this situation was not difficult enough, cash was in short supply. Franz weathered the storm by striking its first large deal with a company called Tektronix, which needed a version of Lisp for an artificial intelligence machine it was constructing. Franz beat out Lucid for the contract with competitive pricing and a two-phase deal that involved providing Tektronix with Franz Lisp first, and then Common Lisp when the company's new version was ready.

Franz Inc. launched Extended Common Lisp (ExCL), its version of Common Lisp, in late 1986. As the company explains, this product was eventually renamed Allegro CL in 1988, in keeping with the musical theme that inspired the name Franz several years before. It also was in 1988 that Franz unveiled Allegro CommonLISP 1.0., a Common Lisp implementation for Apple Macintosh programmers. Priced at $600, the new system was developed in tandem with Coral Software.

As the 1980s came to a close, Franz inked another major deal--this time with supercomputer manufacturer Cray Inc. Specifically, Franz ported Allegro CL to the Unicos operating system on the Cray X-MP supercomputer.

Heading into the 1990s, Franz was able to secure a number of smaller customers, but large computer companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun Microsystems continued to repackage Lucid's version of Common Lisp as their own. In addition, Digital Equipment Corp. emerged as a new source of competition with its product, DEC Common Lisp.

Positioned as the industry underdog, Franz competed by demonstrating how its version of Lisp was a better choice than Lucid's. In addition to working on computers with limited amounts of memory, Franz touted that Allegro CL was also faster. Unlike Lucid, Franz made its Common Lisp product hardware independent. On its web site, Franz explained that this strategy enabled the company "to provide direct sales and technical support to its customers, and allowed customers to choose their platform based on best price/performance versus being tied to a particular machine."

In late 1991 Franz worked in partnership with Burlington, Massachusetts-based Symbolics Inc. to develop Common Lisp Interface Manager (CLIM) 2.0, a next generation set of tools that developers could use to develop graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for applications created with the Lisp programming language. The companies placed CLIM 2.0 specifications in the public domain, and worked with other Lisp vendors to make the tool available for use on other versions of Lisp.

In mid-1992 Franz acquired the rights to Procyon Common Lisp, a Common Lisp product for the Windows operating system. That November, the company introduced the product, renamed Allegro CL\PC, at a price of $595. According to PC Week, a number of industry analysts were skeptical about Franz's prospects for cracking into the PC object-oriented programming software market, due to competition from other languages and well-funded competitors with established market footholds.

Despite analysts' skepticism, by the fall of 1993 Franz had unveiled Allegro CL\PC 2.0 at an object-oriented programming conference, which it expected to sell for $995. By early 1994 Allegro CL\PC was being used by the likes of Price Waterhouse. At the company's Price Waterhouse Technology Centre in Menlo Park, California, developers used Franz's development system to create Planet and Venus, two knowledge-based systems for financial auditors. In the March 1994 issue of AI Expert, Price Waterhouse Senior Research Scientist Walter Hamscher praised Allegro CL\PC for reducing development time.

An important development took place on the competitive front in 1994. That year, Franz arch-rival Lucid declared bankruptcy. According to Franz, Harlequin Inc., one of its principal competitors, acquired Lucid's technology and re-branded it as "Liquid Lisp." By the decade's end a Belgian company had acquired Harlequin, and its Lisp technology was spun off into a new enterprise named Xanalys. These changes to the competitive landscape strengthened Franz's position as an industry leader. In fact, heading into the early 2000s Franz was one of the few remaining Lisp companies.

Another important development that took place in the late 1990s was the 1998 release of Allegro CL 5.0, a new version that was capable of running on either the UNIX or Windows platform. Previously, the company marketed separate versions for each platform.

Taking Lisp Online: 2000 and Beyond

The new millennium saw Lisp being applied to Web-based applications in many ways, and Franz's Lisp products were no exception. The company unveiled an open source Web server product called AllegroServe in June 2000 that developers could use to build complex web sites with dynamically-generated HTML pages.

Lisp quickly became a development tool for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce. "Critical properties inherent in Lisp make it a great solution for the B2B e-commerce arena," a July 26, 2000 Business Wire release explained. "Lisp's internal list-based structure makes catalog-like applications easy to program, enabling the consolidation and standardization of multiple information sources. Furthermore, applications can be modified while they are running, eliminating revenue-losing downtime."

During the early 2000s, e-commerce companies such as Cadabra Inc. and Commerce One Inc. were using Allegro CL as part of their Web development efforts. In addition, ITA Software used Allegro CL to build software that the airline industry used to power the Orbitz travel web site. Franz continued to offer new Web-related technology heading into the mid-2000s, including its NFS Server for Windows in 2004.

Beyond Web applications, Franz saw its Lisp technology used in other exciting ways during the 2000s. For example, Allegro CL was used by NASA contractor Johnson Engineering to develop software for packing equipment into Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules, which the space shuttle used to transport cargo to the International Space Station.

In early 2006 Franz enjoyed a leadership position in the Lisp segment of the computer software industry. From humble roots the company had managed to weather turbulent times and secure a growing customer base. While continuing to serve the AI research community, Franz had played a key role in finding new markets for the Lisp programming language.

According to the company, the future seemed to be a promising one. On its web site, Franz explained: "The increased speed and memory capacity of today's computers, as well as improved software technology, have eliminated many of the concerns that developers had with Lisp in the past as well. Many developers are beginning to view it as the ideal technology for today's software development and delivery needs."

Principal Competitors

Autodesk Inc.; Digitool Inc.; Gold Hill Co.


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