A fond farewell to Fore Systems

While everyone else is toasting the end of the Marconi era, I'll be raising a glass to Fore Systems, the little network company that showed everyone what a few smart Pittsburgh engineers can do.

Ericsson's recent acquisition of Marconi for roughly $2 billion strikes a bittersweet chord.

In various incarnations, the British firm of Marconi has been a telecom icon. The company, originally known as the General Electric Co., was founded in 1896 and went public in 1900. In 1968 it acquired the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co., founded in the late 19th century by Guglielmo Marconi, and which in 1901 achieved the first transatlantic transmission of wireless telegraphy. After many twists and turns, the combined company was renamed Marconi Corp. in 2003.

The sale to Ericsson is thus about more than a transfer of assets. It's also a changing of the guard. Ericsson has said publicly that it values the Marconi brand at least as much as its technology - which may signal a lack of enthusiasm for continued development of the product line. The sale also illustrates the growing momentum behind wireless technologies, which is neatly ironic: Marconi, founded as a wireless company, gained much of its strength as a provider of wired switches and is now acquired by another wireless player.

So the acquisition is emblematic at many levels. But for me, it signifies the bittersweet ending to another iconic tale: The story of the little network company from nowhere that succeeded - against all odds.

Does anybody remember Fore Systems? Back in the early 1990s, the company did what most pundits at the time were saying was impossible: built and sold working ATM switches. While standards were still hotly debated, and even ATM's very feasibility was still in doubt, Fore was busy installing the world's first ATM switches at a Westinghouse data center.

And the company came from virtually nowhere: It was started by four PhDs from Carnegie Mellon, at the time Pennsylvania's best-kept tech research secret, and headquartered in Pittsburgh, best known at the time for its closed steel mills.

I'll 'fess up: I've always had a soft spot for Pittsburgh, and particularly for Pittsburgh engineers (two of my college boyfriends fit that unlikely demographic). But there was something truly special about Fore's accomplishments. Back in an era when most start-ups showcased slideware and press releases, Fore built stuff that worked. Over the years, I've lab-tested its gear many times - it was always head-and-shoulders ahead of the competition (I probably still have some of the test methodologies in my fading notebooks).

When the company went public in 1994, making instant millionaires out of its founders, it was a well-earned triumph. And over the succeeding decade, as ATM flourished, then slowly began to give ground to IP and particularly MPLS, Fore stayed on top technically, continuing to innovate. Even its 1999 sale to Marconi for $4.5 billion was in some sense a validation, falling into the long tradition of innovative technical acquisitions (beginning with Marconi).

So while everyone else is toasting the end of the Marconi era, I'll be raising a glass to Fore Systems, the little network company that showed everyone what a few smart Pittsburgh engineers can do.

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