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Seattle area stakes claim as haven for growing software industry

The view from Michael Mango's office window helps explain why the Seattle area is rapidly emerging as a major center for the microcomputer industry. On a clear, January morning the rugged, snow-capped Olympic Mountains loom majestically in the west. Nearer at hand, a lush, pine-covered hillside attests the area's mild, if somewhat rainy, climate. And through the trees glimmers the cerulean blue of Lake Washington.

Mr. Mango, a Cleveland native who recently moved here to become marketing director for Accountants Microsystems, Inc. (AMI), gazes out of the window and says, ''There is a beauty and serenity here which is conducive to creative thinking. And a little creativity can make all the difference in a major software project.''

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Surprisingly, even what is often considered the area's greatest drawback - its long, gray, rainy winters - is viewed as an asset by those working here.

''The secret of Seattle is its climate. The weather is mild, so outdoor recreation is possible year around. But it's not so nice and sunny that it is hard to stay indoors working,'' comments Hal Glatzer, a successful computer-book author.

With its high quality of life, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and cultural vitality, Seattle is the type of place that attracts programmers, the often temperamental artists of the computer industry. Not surprisingly, the major emphasis here is software, rather than hardware. In established areas like San Francisco Bay and Boston, computermakers and software houses coexist. But in what local people are beginning to call ''Silicon Northwest,'' software development clearly predominates.

''We think we have become a national leader in software, and the future looks very bright,'' says Dick Schrock, director of Washington State's Department of Commerce, who is clearly delighted by the trend. According to last year's statistics, the state had some 360 companies working in electronics and computers. Sixty-five percent of these are located in the Greater Seattle area. The state's figures show 23 software companies, but ''this figure is outdated: Why we've had that many start up in just the last month,'' Mr. Schrock exclaims.

This growing emphasis on software could give the Pacific Northwest an edge over other areas trying to attract microcomputer companies. Although the industry has previously been dominated by hardware considerations, software availability is now the primary factor in the success or failure of a new computer. And because several software packages are bought for every computer sold, the growth potential of the software market is considered much greater than that for computer hardware.

This burgeoning high-tech activity is not taking place in Seattle proper. The city's growth is constrained by Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington on the east.

Also, Seattle's neighborhood groups have successfully fought attempts to rezone the city for higher-density housing.

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As a result, industrial growth has shifted east of Lake Washington, centering around Bellevue. A decade ago the city was a prosperous but sleepy bedroom community. Today, it has been transformed into a minimetropolis of mirror-faced high-rises.

''A few years ago, when you said you were from Bellevue, no one knew where it was. All they could think of was the asylum. Now the city is on the map and is accepted as the third center following San Francisco and Boston,'' says Cynthia Willoughby, product marketing manager of Microrim, a software start-up that offers a family of sophisticated filing, or database programs.

The company that has done the most to put Bellevue on the computer industry map is Microsoft. Founded in Albuqerque, N.M., by Bill Gates, a young programming genius, the company's first success was writing the version of the programming language BASIC used on the Apple computer. But Gates was raised in the Seattle area, so he soon moved the company to Bellevue. After the move, Microsoft scored a second major coup by furnishing IBM with the program that takes care of basic housekeeping (called the operating system) for the computer giant's Personal Computer. Riding the IBM PC's coattails to industry dominance, Microsoft has rapidly grown into a $50 million-a-year company employing 500 people.

Mr. Gates says his goal is to make his company into the ''IBM of software.'' If he succeeds, Greater Seattle would undoubtedly become the nation's software capital: It has all the right ingredients.

Beside its favorable climate, Seattle has a highly technical work force. Home of the giant aerospace company, Boeing, the state's demand for engineers ranks fourth or fifth in the nation. Boeing alone employs some 4,500 people in its computer division. This represents a pool of talent from which growing computer companies can draw.

More than talented people are needed to duplicate the success of California's Silicon Valley, however. Investment money is also essential.

''Entrepreneurship is a chicken-and-egg proposition. You need both money and entrepreneurs. We have the money and the number of entrepreneurs is growing. Soon it will begin to feed upon itself,'' says Michael A. Ellison of Cable Howse & Cozzadd, the area's largest venture capital company.

''In the past, this area has been a bit in a vacuum. But with the success of Microsoft and a few others, the momentum is buiding,'' Evans observes.

Whether these efforts will win Seattle third place in the intense competition to attract the microcomputer industry remains to be seen. But the people here have a number of reasons for believing that this is indeed happening.

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