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Control Data graduates from Plato into the computer big-time

The Minneapolis-based Control Data Corporation has introduced a lineup of large computers which it calls the most momentous offering in its 27-year history.

Six new machines, designated the Cyber 180 series and ranging from mini- to super-computers, are aggressively priced (starting at $250,000 and running up to computer companies.

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In the past Control Data has concentrated on supplying scientific and engineering computers and has experienced stagnant earnings as a result. The new products, the result of a 10-year, $350 million development effort, have a number of unique characteristics.

All six of the Cyber 180 models are software compatible: The same program that runs on the lowest-cost version will also run on the top-of-the-line machine, only 58 times as fast.

The company sees networking as the wave of the future, says Martin J. McHale, vice-president of systems operations. Its communications system, called CDCNET, allows customers to link Control Data computers with computers made by a number of other manufacturers, including several personal computers.

Because widespread networking raises serious questions of security, CDC has hard-wired an extensive security system into the new machines. The Cyber 180's memory is physically divided into as many as 16 sections which can only be accessed by users with the proper authorization. Most other computer security systems, by contrast, reside entirely in the software.

At present, sales and leasing of computer systems represent less than one-fourth of the company's total revenues. Its cash cow in recent years has been the sale of peripheral equipment such as computer disk drives; peripheral sales, however, have dropped in the past two years. Another major source of income has been conventional time-sharing and engineering services, running on mainframe computers and delivered via telephone lines to remote terminals. But demand for these services has slowed as more people have turned to microcomputers.

As a result, Control Data's net earnings have been stagnant for the last two years, hitting a high of $171 million in 1981, dropping to $155 million in 1982, then partly recovering to $162 million last year.

For the last 15 years the crusty, humanitarian founder, William C. Norris, has pegged the company's future to a sophisticated, computer-based teaching system called Plato. After nearly two decades and several hundred million dollars in investment, the Plato system, which now has over 12,000 hours of educational material, crossed into the black for the first time in the fourth quarter of last year.

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Many of Mr. Norris's problems with Plato came from being too far ahead of his time. When it was begun, the costs of the interactive system with high-resolution graphics which he envisioned was simply too expensive. Then, about the time prices had dropped enough to make the system begin to look attractive, along came microcomputers, which undercut the system. Apple computers have been selling for about half the cost of a Plato terminal.

Control Data has been adapting to this new environment, however. It has modified the system so that much of Plato's material can be accessed over a telephone line by the owner of an IBM Personal Computer. CDC is also releasing portions of Plato courseware on diskette for Apple and IBM.

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