Whether it’s picking up an Oscar or getting pizza to the door faster, Canadian tech firms have raised the standard for excellence
Canadian companies have always occupied a space on the leading edge of the technology wave. Some projects were visionary; some not so much. Some had a lasting influence on how we do business today; some had a distinctly ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ flavour, disappearing with nary a ripple. Some were triumphs; some catastrophes. But we’ve never been afraid to innovate.Computing Canada has tracked innovation in information technology throughout its 30-year history. Here, from the archives, is a by no means comprehensive look at just a few leading edge projects in our colourful IT history.
WHERE CREDIT’s DUE. Over the last half of the 1970s, B.C.’s 170 credit unions — already making a challenge to the supremacy of the big banks — undertook a project to link 260 branches in a province-wide, online, real-time computer network, moving from its centrally batch-processed system.
INFORMATION ANYWHERE. The federal Department of Communications demonstrated its Videotex system in the summer of 1978, making Canada “a world leader in two-way television technology,” according to then-Minister Jeanne Sauvé. Viewers would be able to use phone and cable to retrieve information stored in databases and displayed on TVs or terminals. Proposed services included electronic newspapers, mail, shopping and alarm systems.
CATTLE CALL. In the late ’70s, the federal Department of Agriculture developed the Record of Performance (ROP) for livestock farmers. The program entailed the collection of statistical data on hundreds of thousands of animals from 9,000 herds across Canada to produce information to better production efficiency, quality and genetic selection.
WHAT’S ‘ELECTRONIC MAIL’? In the ’70s, at least three Canadian companies were proposing and operating systems to send documents electronically. FacScan billed itself as the world’s first national electronic mail system, offering two-hour delivery for less than a dollar a document in major cities. Teleglobe Canada’s Globefax service allowed transmission of documents to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Berne, Switzerland; the company would soon partner with Canada Post on the Intelpost satellite mail service between the Toronto post office on Front Street and the London Stock Exchange. And CNCP was readying Infotex, which connected word processors, for a 1981 launch.
YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT. Airline Wardair field-tested Bell Canada’s new automatic call distribution system at its 62-agent eastern Canada reservations operation in 1980. The system distributed large volumes of calls among available agents and generated half-hourly management reports.
BANK ON INNOVATION. This entire space could be filled by recognizing pioneering efforts of Canadian financial institutions — like BMO’s 1980 effort to offer major clients real-time access to the bank’s national online system, allowing them to check balances, transfer funds and update transactions from their own offices.
ON TRACK. Also in 1980, Canadian Pacific Railway opened up its Car Location Fleet Inquiry system to customers so they could get up-to-the-minute tracking reports on their freight.
WILL THAT BE CASH OR CHARGE OR . . . Family Savings and Credit Union and grocery store chain The Food Terminal offered Canada’s first point-of-sale electronic funds transfer system in 1985. The credit union estimated EFT cost only one-third as much as processing a purchase by traditional cheque, but it would take years before POS electronic transactions would take off.
THE FOURTH ESTATE. Canadian newspapers began to make online inroads in 1986. Infomart began to offer online versions of four newspapers: The Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and the Financial Times of Canada, with the Windsor Star going online later that year. Meanwhile, the Hamilton Spectator presaged Craig’s List by nearly 20 years, experimenting with free online classified ads.
GRASSIN’ TO THE COPS. Ottawa police began using Canada’s first computerized crime analysis and mapping program in 1987. The Geographic Resource Allocation Software System (GRASS, which is British slang for “squeal to the cops”) broke down geographic areas and gave crime information about individual neighbourhoods.
TAKING STOCK. In 1985, brokerage Nesbitt Thomson looked to give its brokers at-their-fingertips access to customer holdings and account management information. The retail information system (RIS) was updated overnight with back-office data so brokers would have the information necessary to manage customer accounts. NT had to begin building the system from scratch in 1987 after the vendor selected for the project became bankrupt.
CASHLESS SOCIETY. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Canada’s financial institutions began trialing debit card purchases. Nine financial institutions, under the umbrella of the Interac Association of Canada, ran pilot projects in Calgary, Ottawa, London, Ont., and St. Catharines, Ont. The Calgary project saw 130 terminals installed in stores in the Sunridge Mall area of the city. Now they’re ubiquitous, and it’s hard to imagine shopping without them.
ON THE BORDER. Canada is credited with developing the first geographic information system (GIS) back in the late 1960s. In 1992, the federal government introduced analysis by GIS software as evidence in an international court case to resolve a Franco-Canadian dispute over the Maritime boundary between Newfoundland and France’s islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
I’M HUNGRY NOW. Pizza Pizza pioneered the single telephone number delivery ordering system in the 1980s. By 1992, the chain had expanded to 200 franchises, all taking orders from a single number and offering 30-minutes-or-free delivery. The chain upgraded its back end and converted its 1,500 programs to a RISC-based platform, achieving throughput of 30,000 pph (pizzas per hour).
BRAND NEW CADILLAC. In 1994, property management company Cadillac Fairview filed for bankruptcy. Two years later, it emerged with a new, decentralized management approach supported by a rebuilt technology base. Cadillac Fairview was one of the first companies to take the wholehearted plunge into virtual private networks, eschewing more expensive leased dedicated lines.
TIRE CHAINS. Wal-Mart’s entry to the Canadian retail market in 1994 caused hysteria among homegrown retailers. Canadian Tire took up the competitive challenge, creating a logistics department and a 1.2-million-square-foot automated warehouse with barcode tracking to drive costs down and increase availability. Probably more important, CTC enlisted the help of its suppliers to ensure the right product was available when the customer wanted it.
FASHION STATEMENT. Fashion maverick Peter Nygard’s company spent $10 million in the 1980s on an ambitious plan to automate the business. It failed. So Nygard spent $30 million on a new company-wide IT project in the mid-1990s. This one saved the Winnipeg-based retailer $10 million in inventory costs and better forecasting in the first full year of operation alone. By anybody’s metric, that’s success.
IT JOINS THE CIRCUS. Montréal’s Cirque de Soleil has always offered a ground-breaking show. It has also needed technology to keep it on the road. With five travelling shows going through weeklong tear-downs every six weeks — with nothing resembling a functional network during those periods — the circus experimented with wireless technologies and mission-critical storage networks to make sure the show would go on.
SUPER MARKET. The SAQ — Quebec’s liquor control board — launched an online B2B exchange for supplying product to its stores. Despite slow uptake at first, the SAQ stuck to its guns, insisting that vendors who wanted to sell product in its stores would use the marketplace. Early resistance and the collapse of the e-marketplace phenomenon notwithstanding, by 2003 it was buying all of its beverages through a pair of portals.
PAYING THE BILLS. At the turn of the millennium, Canada had two companies vying to be the national clearing house for consumers to pay bills online: Canada Post-sponsored Epost and E-route, brainchild of the big banks. In 2004, E-route was folded into Epost, creating “the most comprehensive consolidated document presentment and payment service in the world,” according to the company. But the company still represents only 100 billers, compared to the 180 they had forecast to have in the fold by the end of 2001.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO . . . Toronto-based graphics technology firm Alias garnered an unusual accolade for a tech firm. The company received an Academy Award for technical achievement at the 2003 Oscars for its technology’s contribution to more than 100 films, including the blockbuster Lord of the Rings.