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In case you hadn't heard, on Thursday Symbolics laid off 160
employees, including 50% of its sales staff. I haven't heard all the
details but I have found out about two hackers laid off that we think
highly of: Richard Lamson (probably the best person outside of the
development staff) and Eric Weaver (out of the graphics division).
I'm sure someone out there will want to snap them up.
I'm not surprised at the layoffs. My opinion is that Symbolics must have
thought their market was bigger than it turned out to be (at least at the
price for which they sold their equipment). They expanded too much and
had too many expenses. This kept their equipment expensive and their
profits down once their high-end market was fairly saturated.
I think that Symbolics has the best product out there. As expensive as
it is, it is worth it for those of us who can only afford the best. There
are problems to be sure, but overall we are happy we have their machines.
Symbolics is not selling as many machines now as they would like.
When they first came out with the 3600, it was clearly the best lisp
engine available. Their original lisp and environment was quite close
to what had been developed at MIT. They have continued to develop an
excellent environment -- one to which all other lisp systems are
compared. Over the past several years, Symbolics hardware has not
become faster (but it has become cheaper). Other manufacturers have
had time to develop better hardware and are claiming raw lisp speeds
that compete with the 3600-class machines, often at better prices.
(By raw lisp speed, I mean what can be measured by benchmarks. They
don't compare development speed.) Anyone who thinks that Symbolics
has been sitting on its hands is crazy. They will come out with
faster (and hopefully relatively cheap) hardware and will leapfrog
ahead of their competitors once again. At that point Symbolics once
again will enjoy a lot of sales.
In the meantime, Symbolics will probably continue to have some tough
times. I wouldn't be surprised at a second round of layoffs. I hope
the company will realize the importance of keeping its current
customers happy so they will be interested in a new generation of
machines. I don't know the market-share figures but I do know that
code and system conversion between manufacturers is difficult. If
Symbolics loses customers because of pricing or maintenance
difficulties, it will be hard to attract them back.