The Beginning

This is how I remember it.

Mac-centric companies were springing up overnight, vanishing without a trace, merging, acquiring, and renaming themselves and each other at a frenetic pace. SuperMac Technology acquired E-Machines (the original one, not the cheap PC Maker of the late 90's) in 1993 before itself being acquired by Radius in '94. (That acquisition, as one customer put it, was "like Yugo acquiring Lexus.") From its HQ in Sunnyvale, CA, Radius next acquired Pipeline Digital (which was two guys in Hawaii who knew video and really knew how to code) and VideoFusion to strengthen its name in video production.

Despite the diversification and artifical growth, Radius was left fumbling for purpose and profit. It eventually spun apart in all directions. The PressView displays went to Mitsubishi, the Pivot displays went to PDL (Portrait Display Labs), and the ProofPositive printers and Splash raster image processors found a new home across the freeway and put a "Splash Technology" sign out front. They've since been acquired by EFI (Electronics for Imaging), who's based just another twenty minutes up the peninsula. The Radius name and logo were eventually sold to KDS (Korea Display Systems), which still markets Radius displays as of this writing. And in 1996, the Mac clone division, following a contentious debate on whether digital video or complete systems represented the future of Radius, was broken off and thrown about three miles east, into the hands of Umax Technologies, which named its catch "Umax Computer Corporation." Radius then changed its name to Digital Origin to reflect its complete focus on digital video, and was acquired by Media 100 not long after. That business unit was later bought by Discreet, and no longer exists today. (There will be a quiz later.)

UCC main offices, Santa Clara, CA

Umax Computer Corporation set up shop on two floors of a L-shaped building in Santa Clara, directly across the street from an amusement park. It was the heart of high-tech development in Silicon Valley. Within a few blocks of the site, one could find Siemens, Bay Networks, SiliconMagic, Network Associates, S3, Sun Microsystems, MacAfee, Intel, Claris, Transmeta, and others. Additional UCC offices occupied space in the larger Umax Technologies building in Fremont, just across the wetlands to the east. The Fremont site would host initial UCC manufacturing efforts, with volume production eventually being taken on at Umax sites in Taiwan.

Thrown in with the Systems group deal was the SuperMac name and logo design, which Radius had acquired along with that company. Umax stretched the 'S' vertically and changed the typeface to something a bit easier on the eye (ITC Officina Sans, for font enthusiasts). Apple protested the name at first -- "Mac" was theirs, they insisted. Umax couldn't use that name in that form. It was politely suggested to Apple that this protest came a bit late. If they didn't have a problem with the name "SuperMac" a decade earlier, nor as SuperMac helped Apple build to its powerful lead in high-end graphics and digital video workstations, they really shouldn't be complaining about it now. After all, conspiracy theories aside, Apple wanted its nascent clone industry to be fruitful and multiply, didn't it? The protest was dropped.

Peter Mehring, GMBruce Berkoff, Dir. PM/MCPhil Pompa, VP MarketingVincent Tai, Acting President

Four faces of UCC: Peter Mehring, General Manager; Bruce Berkoff, Director of Product Marketing & Marketing Communications; Phil Pompa, VP of Marketing & Strategic Planning; and Vincent Tai, Acting President.

Peter Mehring served as leader of the group as General Manager, while Vincent Tai, President of scanner and PC division Umax Technologies, acted as president. The Dilbert comic strip theorizes that a company's leader is always the tallest white guy with the best hair. Mehring fit that description, but his leadership went beyond Dilbert's definition. Respected and liked by probably everyone who met him, he had exactly the right combination of engineering expertise, management skills, friendliness, and political saavy to lead this acquisition/start-up. Mehring moved quickly to turn the small but ambitious little acquisition/start-up into what it would become.


Early StormSurge 150 datasheet; click for full-size.

Whether the S900 started life as Radius' third, fourth, fifth, or sixth Mac system effort is a matter of perspective (and memory). The Radius Rocket, hailing from the early 90's, was a NuBus-based 68040-based accelerator with its own RAM and SCSI interface. It could operate either as a straight accelerator or a system-within-a-system, and was quite a bit more complicated than it looked. It was also close enough to being a full computer to make Apple uncomfortable. Stick a serial, ADB, and monitor port on there, and it would be an unlicensed Quadra clone. Radius had to promise not to go in that direction.

Radius did not, however, promise not to go in an even more ambitious direction: loading up a rackmount case with dozens of Rockets as a sort of render farm, to be controlled by a genuine Apple Quadra and with utterly obscene processing power. The "Skylab" project burned through utterly obscene amounts of money before it was killed.

Radius finally got to bring a real Mac system to market in early 1995 as one of the world's first official Mac clones, the Radius System 100 (which was the production-version of Radius' DV Workstation). A PowerPC 601-based mini-tower touted as a professional digital video workstation, the System 100 was limited by the same poor NuBus performance that marred all early PowerPC machines. Radius followed up with the 81/110, a marginal improvement over its predecessor.

The Radius 81/120.

The next and last Radius system, a victim of bad timing named the 81/120, came in a desktop orientation that somewhat resembled the later SuperMac J700 and saw release only as a RIP host sold through Splash Technology.


UCC was about as much fun as possible from the day it launched. New employees were imparted the official company creed upon entrance to the second floor -- "You can bring your dog to work" -- and one of the conference rooms was dubbed "The Enchanted Tiki Room" and decked out in full Hawaiian splendor. (The ex-Radius crew always knew how to party, with or without dogs.) Lunch hours were devoted to stress-testing the internal network with mass Marathon gameplay. Stan Robbins and Rick Rice (Manufacturing Logistics & Engineering, if I recall correctly) were nearly unstoppable... until Curtis Kimm (QA Manager) and David Theroff (IT Director) built a series of secret, hidden rooms into the Marathon arena map, loaded with weapons, and waged gratuitous explosions on the rest of us. (In our defense, even with an arsenal at his disposal, Curtis still got his posterior whipped.)

The first SuperMac computer to hit the market was the S900. It had actually been born at Radius by the Systems group as their first 604/PCI-based machine. Known in development as the StormSurge 150, it came in two basic flavors, only one of which really matters. The "S900D" was a "Deconfigured" system, essentially a working shell of an S900 which value-added resellers would purchase to customize and resell to their own clients. (There's really no reason to waste memory cells on the S900D, which was more a Marketing name than an actual model designation. Take any S900, configure it as bare-bones as possible, and call it an S900D.) The S900 that typically sold through retail was the "S900L," a fully "Licensed" system, and it was the basis for all S900 offerings from the S900/150 to the S900 DP/250 RAID.

S900 sketch

The S900 (pick a letter) was an immediate critical and commercial success. Six PCI slots, up to 1+ GB of RAM, numerous internal drive bays, multiple audio jacks, a secondary processor slot for very easy upgrades to a dual-processor configuration, and the most stylish case in the Mac world. It was a no-brainer that UCC's first product would be an expensive box designed for serious power. The development team had just come from Radius, where the best revenue was in high-end digital video and color pre-press products -- so naturally, the high-end was on everyone's mind. The market data to justify such a machine had been in Radius' hands for years, and Apple, despite having served the mainstream fairly well, hadn't built a dream system for the power users of the day since the Quadra 950.

One element of the S900 that got deservedly mixed reviews was the swing-out door which masked the drive bays from view. It looked great when closed. But closed, the CD-ROM drive, Zip drive, and any other such devices were inaccessible. Ideally, the CD-ROM drive tray would push the door open. Ideally. Unfortunately, as CD-ROM drive loading mechanisms aged, they didn't always have the strength to overcome the door's locking pin. Ejected Zip and Floppy disks would simply hit the inside of the door with a sickly thunk and do nothing. And even if the CD-ROM tray could open it, it might get stuck on the inner door brace while attempting to retract. This led many S900 owners to simply remove the door, often breaking one or both of its hinge pins in the process. There was a constant stream of requests into UCC for replacement doors, doors that opened more easily, doors that would let the CD-ROM tray retract without a fight, and so on. Eventually, a limited number of replacement doors were made which had a catch pin to hold the door open, but the other problems were not addressed -- and existing customers (as well as internal employees) could not easily obtain one of the new doors. All things considered, however, the door's problems were annoying but very minor inconveniences in such a well-designed system.

The S900 had gotten UCC off to a strong start, but there were other markets than high-end graphics to capitalize. Almost immediately, it was time to diversify.

Continue to The Middle...


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© Kennedy Brandt, 2009.