As a member of Honeywell's corporate planning unit year ago, I became involved in a below-the-radar task force evaluating the computer business and seeing, as one executive privately told us, "if those young whiz kids out in California had anything to offer."
I was in my early 30s, the most junior and by far the least-experienced of our team. More than a decade earlier, in 1970, Honeywell had acquired General Electric's computer customer base to form Honeywell Information Systems, representing about $2 billion in annual revenue to our then-Minneapolis-based company. It was not the hardware but the computer services businesses -- sold to Honeywell's mainframe and office systems customers -- that was the most profitable part of the computer business.
Honeywell had become one of Minnesota's pioneering computer companies, joining Engineering Research Associates, Sperry-Univac, Control Data, Unisys, Cray Research, IBM-Rochester and others. These companies and their computer products were second to none in retaining skilled technical people, developing innovative solutions and serving rapidly expanding domestic and global markets.
After several months of research, our task force told the Honeywell top brass that, while there was undeniably a market for the small personal computers being developed, this business with the Silicon Valley buzz would likely not be a good fit for Honeywell.
Walter Isaacson's block-buster book "Steve Jobs" told me much about the reasons why our assessment had been so absolutely wrong.
In the 1980s, most businesspeople from outside of California, and many within, could not take seriously the emerging technology movement led by a generation that embraced the alternative hippie lifestyle personified by the young Steve Jobs and, less so, his introverted engineering genius partner Steve Wozniak.
At the age of 13, Jobs had brashly called the Palo Alto home of Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, and asked about the design availability of a frequency counter. Jobs not only got the counter he needed, he eventually landed a summer job at HP, where he connected with Wozniak.
Jobs, 21, and Wozniak, 26, launched Apple Computer in 1977. The strong-willed Jobs had dropped out of college, experimented with drugs and traveled much of the world by then. Jobs acknowledged that he needed partner Wozniak's innovative engineering skills to really make it happen.
It was not long before the two and some friends, working part time from the Jobs family garage, developed a wholly new computer using a single circuit board.
A self-inspired student of the arts, humanities and Zen Buddhism, Jobs' mission was to use his products to empower individuals to serve humankind. "The journey is the reward," he often told others, emphasizing products over profits.
Driven by a designer's eye and a perfectionist's intensity, Jobs had a vision of hardware integrated by self-contained software, smooth design and creative, nontraditional marketing to corporations, schools and individuals.
In 2007, after 30 years, Jobs had the word "Computer" officially removed from Apple's name, as its traditional focus on personal computers had dramatically shifted toward the popular consumer electronics that Apple had largely invented including the iPod, iPhone, iPad and the Macbook.
When jobs died in October of pancreatic cancer at age 56, Apple was ranked as the world's most valuable company. Since then the company's market value continued to grow, topping $507 billion last week.
And what became of Honeywell? Better late than never, in 1986, Honeywell's personal computer finally emerged as the company teamed with Compagnie des Machines Bull of France and NEC Corp. of Japan to form Honeywell Bull. Honeywell's ownership, however, was gradually decreased until, in 1991, the company was no longer in the computer business. Honeywell's digital computer knowledge, however, was then applied to its traditional and profitable fields of automation controls, integrating sensors and activators.
In 1999, Honeywell Inc. was acquired by the larger AlliedSignal. The Honeywell name, however, was adopted because of its superior brand recognition. With a current workforce of approximately 130,000 -- 58,000 employed in the United States, including major operations remaining in the Twin Cities -- Honeywell International is now headquartered in Morristown, N.J.