| Late in June Architosh.com editor, Anthony Frausto-Robledo, had the pleasure of talking to Robert Coulling who is the Managing Director of Microspot Limited, the United Kingdom-based Macintosh developer of MacDraft, MacPlot and 3D World, to name a few of the leading apps this longtime Mac developer has produced over the years. |
During their transatlantic conversation Robert and Anthony discussed a number of interesting facets of his company, its long history, its products, its future and Apple Computer. Regardless of whether you use Microspot products or not, if you are an Apple CAD/3D user this interview sheds some interesting light on topics dear to many of usincluding Mac OS X as a technical design platform and its current readiness for the market.
- Early Years and Apple II
- Macintosh Development and MacPlot
- MacDraft and Mac OS X
- 3D World and Other OS X Plans
- Mac OS X Plotter Driver Development
- On Being a Mac OS X Developer
- Looking Into the Future
AFR We start today by talking to Robert Coulling who is the managing director of Microspot Limited in the United Kingdom. Robert, are you in charge of software development?
RC I handle most of the functions here but I do have a fellow director Roger Holmes. He is who directs the programming, technically, but he is not the guy who directs the development direction. That's done by me from the marketing perspective.
AFR What is your background with the company?
RC Well actually, I am not sure if you know, but the company was founded in 1964. I joined in 1966 and at that time it was an electronic equipment company. I took control of the company before 1980.
In 1980 we became Apple Dealers in England. I was an electronic engineer and my father's company needed a computer accounts. I was asked to help them choose. I looked at Commodore, Tandy and Apple. I liked the Apple best and decided to become a dealer.
The first software project was for my cousin who had several CNC milling machines. He was going to buy a teletype machine to feed the programs into the CNC Milling machines using punch tapes. I told him not to do that and instead we used an Apple II to write and edit the programs, save them onto floppies and then send the programs in by cable through the RS232 link. We sold many copies of this off line programming system with Bridgeport machines. It was at this time that Roger Holmes joined the Company to head up development.
AFR I see.
RC We also got involved with 3D kitchen design. We wrote a system under contract for what is now Planet International. We started that on the Apple 2, moved it onto Apple 3, and then Lisa then Macintosh. We sold more Lisas in U.K. than any other dealer with this system.
AFR So how did Mac software development start?
RC When we saw the Macintosh and we saw the early versions of MacDraw we thought if engineers were going to use this product then they would need to print large drawings and they will need a program. We had been printing from the kitchen design program and the off line editing program using pen plotters for some time. This gave the kitchen customers a nice presentation of what they were going to buy and showed the milling machine programmers the tool path without tying up the milling machine so with that knowledge we decided to have a go at writing an application for plotting which we called MacPlot.
AFR So MacPlot was your first Macintosh product.
RC Yes. We wrote the application so that you drew your drawings in MacDraw or MacDraft, then you copied your picture to the clipboard and opened MacPlot, you pasted the drawing in, then it plotted it out on a pen plotter We started with the small HP 7475 and we worked up to A0 size plotters.
In November 1984 when there was not much Mac software around Apple called and invited us to go and show MacPlot at Comdex. After this they commissioned us to write the same product as a proper printer driver...which we did. This product was pretty successful. It was bundled with MacDraw, MacProject and later ClarisCAD. Apple also allowed us to sell the driver ourselves and this is the product line that has provided the main revenue for us over the years.
One day when Roger and I were in Versatec's offices in Santa Clara we found out that the large electrostatics had a parallel interface. We immediately saw an opportunity there and started to write for the large electrostatic printers with a DMA interface card which Roger designed. We were then able to print raster pictures with this hardware and software solution. And when we saw the large ink-jet printers we saw another great opportunity so, and we started writing MacPlot Raster for large format raster output. We are selling this product now as Microspot GraphicPak and UltraGraphicPak.
AFR When did MacDraft begin?
RC I met Paul King who founded IDD in January 1985 before they released their product . I could see the potential with them partnering with us with the plotter driver. They were extremely successful and at one time we developed a plotter driver for them which they sold to their customers. We used to have an office in San Jose so I used to visit Paul very often at their offices in Concord.
Anyway, in about 1995 I was thinking "well not much is happening with MacDraft" and one day I called Paul and said "hey Paul what is happening with MacDraft?" He said that he was "really retired". "I just go into the office twice a week, do a bit of tech support, and ship out orders and that's all I'm doing with it". So I asked him if he wanted to sell it. And in May of 1996 we bought it from him.
Since then we have really got to know the product and made varies improvements. We just released MacDraft 5 and we have got it almost ready for MacOS X.
We thought that it was a good compliment to our other products since we had already bought PhotoFix a photo editing program and we were developing 3D World our own 3D design program.. So now we had a 2D products and a 3D product. Our idea then was to try to move into applications rather than to rely completely on drivers. With drivers you are very reliant on Apple's operating systems and we had been through quite a trauma with QuickDraw GX, writing drivers for that only to find out that the whole thing was scrapped.
AFR What type of individual is using MacDraft? Are they engineers, architects?
RC We have engineers, architects, technical illustrators, hobbyists, all types of people who need to produce accurate drawings.
AFR So it sounds like it is a multidisciplinary CAD package. What is your user breakdown?
RC I think that really where we score is not perhaps with architects themselves but with people like contractors...
AFR Trades people?
RC Yes, people who have to do drawing but who don't want to go for the high-end packages that would cost a lot of money and would take a long time to learn, but they need to do proper scaled drawings.
And I think those are the types of people that make up a sizable proportion of our users.
AFR I see. Do you do much exhibiting at building/contractor shows?
RC No, In fact we haven't done much at all. Most of our show activity was always done at Macworld and we still do a little bit, but we used to go to Macworld in both San Francisco and Boston every year and have a 20x20 booth. Since Apple's down turn we decided to scale that down. Now we still go to the San Francisco show but we have a very small presence there.
This year is the year we want to start promoting MacDraft again and sell to more new users. Now that we have Microspot PC Draft at almost same standard as MacDraft and we, partly at your suggestion, incorporated the OpenDWG libraries, we feel this compatibility with Autocad will give us a new lease on life because people will be able to take complicated drawings and load them into MacDraft or PC Draft. Some large architectural practices may want smaller applications for some of the operatives who only have to open drawings or print them or make small edits.
AFR That sounds good, because that is a real issue with some large firms.
RC We think the cross-platform side of this will be important too, because Autocad only really covers the PC side and now we can open Autocad files on Mac or PC and be able to exchange those files between the two platforms very easily. There is no translation required. You just open a file on either a Mac or PC.
AFR So will you be developing a new version of PC Draft as well?
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