'virus' Episodes

The History of Symantec


Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Todays episode is on the History of Symantec. This is really more part one of a part two series. Broadcom announced they were acquiring Symantec in August of 2019, the day before we recorded this episode. Who is this Symantec and what do they do - and why does Broadcom want to buy them for 10.7 Billion dollars? For starters, by themselves Symantec is a Fortune 500 company with over $4 billion dollars in annual revenues so $10.7 Billion is a steal for an enterprise software company. Except they’re just selling the Enterprise software division and keeping Norton in the family. With just shy of 12,000 employees, Symantec has twisted and turned and bought and sold companies for a long time. But how did they become a Fortune 500 company? It all started with Eisenhower. ARPA or the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which would later add the word Defense to their name, become DARPA and build a series of tubes call the interweb. While originally commissioned so Ike could counter Sputnik, ARPA continued working to fund projects in computers and in the 1970s, this kid out of the University of Texas named Gary Hendrix saw that they were funding natural language understanding projects. This went back to Turing and DARPA wanted to give some AI-complete a leap forward, trying to make computers as intelligent as people. This was obviously before Terminator told us that was a bad idea (pro-tip, it’s a good idea). Our intrepid hero Gary saw that sweet, sweet grant money and got his PhD from the UT Austin Computational Linguistics Lab. He wrote some papers on robotics and the Stanford Research Institute, or SRI for short. Yes, that’s the same SRI that invented the hosts.txt file and is responsible for keeping DNS for the first decade or so of the internet. So our pal Hendrix joins SRI and chases that grant money, leaving SRI in 1980 with about 15 other Stanford researchers to start a company they called Machine Intelligence Corporation. That went bust and so he started Symantec Corporation in 1982 got a grant from the National Science foundation to build natural language processing software; it turns out syntax and semantics make for a pretty good mashup. So the new company Symantec built out a database and some advanced natural language code, but by 1984 the PC revolution was on and that code had been built for a DEC PDP so could not be run on the emerging PCs in the industry. Symantec was then acquired by C&E Software short for the names of its founders, Dennis Coleman and Gordon Eubanks. The Symantec name stayed and Eubanks became the chairman of the board for the new company. C&E had been working on PC software called Q&A, which the new team finished and then added natural language processing to make using the tools easier to use. They called that “The Intelligent Assistant” and they now had a tool that would take them through the 80s. People swapped rolls, and due to a sharp focus on sales they did well. During the early days of the PC, dealers - or small computer stores that were popping up all over the country, were critical to selling hardware and software. Every Symantec employee would go on the road for six days a week, visiting 6 dealers a day. It was grueling but kept them growing and building. They became what we now call a “portfolio” company in 1985 when they introduced NoteIt, a natural language processing tool used to annotate docs in Lotus 1-2-3. Lotus was in the midst of eating the lunch of previous tools. They added another devision and made SQZ a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet tool. This is important, they were a 3 product company with divisions when in 1987 they got even more aggressive and purchased Breakthrough Software who made an early project management tool called TimeLine. And this is when they did something unique for a PC software company: they split each product into groups that leveraged a shared pool of resources. Each product had a GM that was responsible for the P&L. The GM ran the development, Quality Assurance, Tech Support, and Product Market - those teams reported directly to the GM, who reported to then CEO Eubanks. But there was a shared sales, finance, and operations team. This laid the framework for massive growth, increased sales, and took Symantec to their IPO in 1989. Symantec purchased what was at the time the most popular CRM app called ACT! In 1993 Meanwhile, Peter Norton had a great suite of tools for working with DOS. Things that, well, maybe should have been built into operating systems (and mostly now are). Norton could compress files, do file recovery, etc. The cash Symantec raised allowed them to acquire The Peter Norton Company in 1999 which would completely change the face of the company. This gave them development tools for PC and Mac as Norton had been building those. This lead to the introduction of Symantec Antivirus for the Macintosh and called the anti-virus for PC Norton Antivirus because people already trusted that name. Within two years, with the added sales and marketing air cover that the Symantec sales machine provided, the Norton group was responsible for 82% of Symantecs total revenues. So much so that Symantec dropped building Q&A because Microsoft was winning in their market. I remember this moment pretty poignantly. Sure, there were other apps for the Mac like Virex, and other apps for Windows, like McAfee. But the Norton tools were the gold standard. At least until they later got bloated. The next decade was fast, from the outside looking in, except when Symantec acquired Veritas in 2004. This made sense as Symantec had become a solid player in the security space and before the cloud, backup seemed somewhat related. I’d used Backup Exec for a long time and watched Veritas products go from awesome to, well, not as awesome. John Thompson was the CEO through that decade and Symantec grew rapidly - purchasing systems management solution Altiris in 2007 and got a Data Loss Prevention solution that year in Vontu. Application Performance Management, or APM wasn’t very security focused so that business until was picked up by Vector Capital in 2008. They also picked up MessageLabs and AppStream in 2008. Enrique Salem replaced Thompson and Symantec bought Versign’s CA business in 2010. If you remember from our encryption episode, that was already spun off of RSA. Certificates are security-focused. Email encryption tool PGP and GuardianEdge were also picked up in 2010 providing key management tools for all those, um, keys the CA was issuing. These tools were never integrated properly though. They also picked up Rulespace in 2010 to get what’s now their content filtering solution. Symantec acquired LiveOffice in 2012 to get enterprise vault and instant messaging security - continuing to solidify the line of security products. They also acquired Odyssey Software for SCCM plugins to get better at managing embedded, mobile, and rugged devices. Then came Nukona to get a MAM product, also in 2012. During this time, Steve Bennett was hired as CEO and fired in 2014. Then Michael Brown, although in the interim Veritas was demerged in 2014 and as their products started getting better they were sold to The Carlyle Group in 2016 for $8B. Then Greg Clark became CEO in 2016, when Symantec purchased Blue Coat. Greg Clark then orchestrated the LifeLock acquisition for $2.3B of that $8B. Thoma Bravo then bought CA business to merge with DigiCert in 2017. Then in 2019 Rick Hill became CEO. Does this seem like a lot of buying and selling? It is. But it also isn’t. If you look at what Symantec has done, they have a lot of things they can sell customers for various needs in the information security space. At times, they’ve felt like a holding company. But ever since the Norton acquisition, they’ve had very specific moves that continue to solidify them as one of the top security vendors in the space. Their sales teams don’t spend six days a week on the road and go to six customers a day, but they have a sales machine. And the’ve managed to leverage that to get inside what we call the buying tornado of many emergent technologies and then sell the company before the tornado ends. They still have Norton, of course. Even though practically every other product in the portfolio has come and gone over the years. What does all of this mean? The Broadcom acquisition of the enterprise security division maybe tells us that Symantec is about to leverage that $10+ billion dollars to buy more software companies. And sell more companies after a little integration and incubation, then getting out of it before the ocean gets too red, the tech too stale, or before Microsoft sherlocks them. Because that’s what they do. And they do it profitably every single time. We often think of how an acquiring company gets a new product - but next time you see a company buying another one, think about this: that company probably had multiple offers. What did the team at the company being acquired get out of this deal? And we’ll work on that in the next episode, when we explore the history of Broadcom. Thank you for sticking with us through this episode of the History of Computing Podcast and have a great day!

Creeping Towards Viruses


Computer viruses today pose a very real threat. However, it turns out that their origins are actually very non-threatening. Today, we are going to look at some of the first viruses. We will see how they developed from technical writing, to pulp sci-fi, to traveling code.

I talk about The Scarred Man by Gregory Benford in this episode, you can read the full short story here: http://www.gregorybenford.com/extra/the-scarred-man-returns/

Like the show? Then why not head over and support me on Patreon. Perks include early access to future episodes, and stickers: https://www.patreon.com/adventofcomputing

Important dates in this episode:

1949: John Von Neumann Writes 'Theory and Organization of Complex Automata'
1969: 'The Scarred Man' Written by Gregory Benford, Coined Term 'Virus'
1971: Creeper Virus Unleashed

Return of Viruses: The Spread


It's time to round out spook month with a return to one of last year's topics: the computer virus. Malicious code traveling over networks is actually a relatively new phenomenon, early viruses were much different. In this episode we examine ANIMAL and Elk Cloner, two early viruses that were meant as practical jokes and spread by hapless computer users. Along the way we will see cases of parallel evolution, name calling, and find out if there is any one origin to the word "virus".

Like the show? Then why not head over and support me on Patreon. Perks include early access to future episodes, and bonus content: https://www.patreon.com/adventofcomputing

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020