What Did We Do Before Smartphones?

What Did We Do Before Smartphones?

Twin Cities technology consultants look back on 20 years of seismic change.

Perusing the 20 years of business coverage in Twin Cities Business, it’s impossible to overlook the changes that technology has wrought on companies and how they work. The past two decades have produced extreme technological changes in a short period, and CEOs, managers, and IT directors have worked hard to absorb all the shocks. As part of the magazine’s 20th anniversary celebration, we asked some local techies, whose companies—like TCB—got started in the early ’90s, to reflect on what 20 years of technological upheaval has meant to them and their customers.


0913_smartphones_p01.jpg0913_smartphones_p01a.jpgTom Salonek * Founder and CEO * Intertech * Eagan * Founded 1991

THEN AND NOW: When the business started, my initial offering was consulting, which was quickly followed by training. Today, both are still our core service offerings but, as with all things technology, the tools and languages are radically different.

At the start, it was just me, working out of a spare bedroom, with a handful of local clients. Today, we’re closing in on 100 employees, own a 13,000-square-foot building, and have clients as far away as Seoul and as high-tech as NASA.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: No doubt, it’s the intersection of mobile devices, the cloud, and the Internet. It allows us to be connected and productive—anywhere, any time. 

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: The Coleco handheld football video game

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: I spend more time out of the office than in the office. My iPhone and apps—from the basics like email to apps like Evernote—make me productive regardless of where I’m located.

THE NEXT BIG THING: “Consumerization” is already underway—consumers decide what’s good technology and that decides what gets used at work, not a top-down use of technology mandated by a CIO. Examples today are Twitter, Evernote, and DropBox.

For our industry, languages and tools will continue to evolve and become more fractured and specialized.


Joe Hines * CEO * Voice & Data Networks, Inc. * Edina * Founded 1995

THEN AND NOW: VDN was founded at a time when AT&T had no dealer program; a company could only purchase an enterprise phone system directly from AT&T. VDN sold used telephones and circuit packs. Today, VDN is a value-added reseller for Avaya (previously enterprise telephony from AT&T) and nearly 30 other communications-related technologies. Voice is no longer a stand-alone focus. Audio, video collaboration, messaging, presence, mobility, contact center, and networking all combine into a single communication platform.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: It is not VoIP, not the PC, not the tablet, not email. I would even claim that it is not the Internet (although it’s a close second). It is the cellular telephone. No other technology has ever been more prolific. Even in undeveloped countries, you will find cellular usage before even housing in some cases. That device now isn’t just the most prolific, it combines many of the other technologies.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: Dial-up modems, walkie-talkies, and CB radios

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: Again, this is the smartphone.

THE NEXT BIG THING: I believe that the consumer market will emerge with far superior communication tools and integration than the enterprise. This will force the enterprise to build security around data and correspondence on a per-incident basis. Previously, enterprise technology could handle security on a platform (e.g., all cell phones) or boundary (e.g., firewall) or owned asset (e.g., laptops, tablets, cell phones) basis. This is likely to be a long-lasting and nagging issue for the enterprise.

0913_smartphones_p03.jpg0913_smartphones_p03a.jpgDoug Harvey * President * Baker IT, Inc. * Minneapolis * Founded 1993

THEN AND NOW: Initially, we primarily provided staff augmentation of mainframe programmers. The Y2K remediation effort was really picking up steam, and companies were panicking, worried that planes would fall from the skies or worse, their bank accounts would disappear.

Now we offer project-based solutions and we are an implementation partner for Be Informed, a rules-based technology that eliminates traditional programming by combining the requirements definition, coding, and testing into a single graphical interface. We continue to provide staff augmentation, however now we offer project managers, business analysts, programmers, QA, reliability, and validation engineers.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: In terms of impacting the average person on the street, without a doubt the capabilities of mobile devices have had the greatest impact. The availability and plethora of information and multiple modes of communication are mind-boggling.

IN TERMS OF BEHIND-THE-SCENES TECHNOLOGY: The increasing use of open-source software (think of the impact of WordPress on bloggers), the mushrooming of cheap storage and portable memory (your phone now has more computing power than most circa-1993 desktops), broadband. And let’s also remember the web browser is 20 years old this year as well.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: It’s almost cliché to say it, but we hardly ever use the fax machine anymore. We used to regularly send and receive resumés and proposals to our clients by fax. Even now, as rare as faxing is, we use an online service that notifies us by email.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: The upsurge in the use of vendor managed services and resource procurement systems by our clients has had a tremendous impact on the entire staffing industry.When I first started, I would sit down with a hiring manager and discuss the unwritten details of their job openings. This contact gave us greater insight into the subtleties of the job, the work environment, and the manager’s style, and helped us in finding candidates who were not just technically capable of performing the duties, but who brought added value to the entire team or project. Without this direct contact, we’ve had to find alternative ways of gleaning that unwritten knowledge. As for tools I can’t live without, sometimes I’d like to do without the cell phone.

THE NEXT BIG THING: From a personal user standpoint, I expect device-absent interfacing to be pretty big, (think mouse control without the mouse, typing without a keyboard). For behind-the-scenes technology, I expect Be Informed to change the way businesses implement systems. Imagine eliminating the manual translation of business rules into programming code. Programmers, code reviews, testing, and associated validation are all eliminated. It’s been successful in large government operations in Europe and is just now hitting the United States.


Keith Erickson * President and CEO * Saturn Systems, Inc. * Duluth * Founded 1993

THEN AND NOW: When the company was founded, we offered custom software development in the areas of device control systems and digital signal processing. We had a single major client, a Department of Defense contractor, where we developed large-scale software packages that controlled complex hardware systems using graphical user interfaces. Saturn Systems continues to work in the area of device control software; however, the majority of our business is now related to developing and maintaining enterprise business systems and applications. We have also added software quality assurance testing services.


  • Access to information. Access to information has grown by several orders of magnitude. The speed at which the most obscure information can be accessed is shocking.
  • E-commerce. Online purchasing, ease of product feature and price comparison, and consumer and professional product reviews have all combined to greatly disrupt traditional commerce and marketing practices.
  • Smartphones. Instant mobile communications coupled with the limitless opportunities for highly specialized apps have created many new business opportunities. From a sales perspective, I can complete entire deals just using my phone, from anywhere.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: Thankfully, the floppy drive has disappeared. Dial-up modems have disappeared, again thankfully. CRT monitors have been replaced by LCD monitors, and to think of going back is inconceivable.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: High-bandwidth Internet, dual monitors, and I could not do my job well without my smartphone.

THE NEXT BIG THING: 3-D printing will accelerate the innovation cycle by providing fast, low-cost prototyping and light manufacturing for the entrepreneurial set. Voice and facial recognition will be more widespread. Robotics will continue to advance into unexpected areas of business and everyday life.


Phil Fortmeyer * Owner * Clear North Technologies * Plymouth * Founded 1993

THEN AND NOW: The very first services back in 1993 were printer contracts—an early version of managed print as you see today—using contractors and part-time employees until our cash flow supported hiring full-time employees. The SMB market was being ignored and looked like the most lucrative to get a foothold in the market. We expanded into general networking and hardware/software. Remember Novell NetWare and NDS?

  Our services today are much more broad—and the market much more complex. Manufacturer relationships went from a handful in the early days to upward of 25 today, each with technical requirements and revenue objectives. The technology has progressed such that we can offer enterprise-grade products and services to the SMB market. We launched our virtualization and storage practice in 2003. We offer a variety of managed IT services under our brand Clear North 360 for a fixed monthly fee in areas such as private cloud, backup, and security.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: Virtualization has provided the ability to rethink how systems and data are structured. Virtualization has accelerated the ability to design performance and resiliency into application delivery like never before.  Virtualization fostered the requirement for high-bandwidth. Virtualization of the desktop has reduced help-desk calls and improved response. Virtualization has spawned the whole cloud computing model, or utility computing where clients pay by the specific resources needed only for the time period needed. This has created the delivery models of platform as a service, infrastructure as a service, and software as a service.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: Actually many of the things are still out there; they have just morphed or matured into something else. Palm Pilots are now smartphones, boot disks are now USB sticks, dot-matrix printers are now high-quality color laser printers, and a desktop that was upward of $3,000 can now be purchased for under $500 with many times the performance.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: No question, the smartphone. The smartphone provides the tools to do your job virtually anywhere—fortunately or unfortunately, even on vacation. 

Another is remote access. Tools like LogMeIn provide the ability to do virtually anything remotely. This has improved response time, increased coverage windows, and driven down the cost of support.

THE NEXT BIG THING: The continued consumerization of IT, which will force IT to deliver value or be replaced, drive down the price and complexity of cloud services, and increase the adoption of the cloud. “Big data” analysis will continue to get easier for the private sector to leverage as a competitive advantage without the NSA being involved. 3D printing is already having an impact which will only accelerate.



Bob Purdy * CEO * SafeNet Consulting, Inc. * Minnetonka * Founded 1994

THEN AND NOW: We started SafeNet with one small mortgage client and two consultants/founders (myself and Marty Miller). Our primary business was IT development and network support.

Today, we have moved into management consulting with an emphasis in health care, infrastructure and cloud, business intelligence, and software development focused on the Microsoft tools using Agile as a methodology. 

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: Probably the rapid evolution of the Internet and all the downstream changes reflected in software and platform-as-a-service solutions. More recently, the explosion of mobile technology and the proliferation of apps that make everything from cameras, maps, medical diagnostics, and communication options obsolete.

In health care, robotics help us to be more precise in surgery, implantable devices save lives, remote diagnosis helps improve outcomes, and big-data analytics help us understand what treatments are most effective.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: AOL (America Online). We thought that AOL was the Internet back in 1993. That was our source of company email and communication for our dispersed work force.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: I can’t imagine a life without a smartphone!  The freedom to receive and send information without having to be in an office in front of a desktop computer helps us to respond to our clients and employees in real time.

THE NEXT BIG THING: The ability to strategically analyze big data will make and break many businesses in the future. The amount of data accumulated about everything grows exponentially each day, and our ability to understand this data and act on it will be vital!


Patrick Finn * President * Now Micro * St. Paul * Founded 1993

THEN AND NOW: When we first started Now Micro, we didn’t offer any services or support. We began simply as a broker of computer components and parts for small manufacturers and resellers. Today, we offer professional services around Microsoft, VMware, and others. We sell manufactured solutions to a variety of manufacturers, and we provide technology goods and services to public sector and corporate accounts.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: The most disruptive and revolutionary business technology has been the Internet. It has given people the means to find goods and services across the globe with the click of a button. When we began our company, the only way for customers to procure the components we sold was if they had a relationship with a manufacturer. It was very difficult to find vendors willing to sell many of the components we supplied early on. The Internet made it possible to find goods and services and forced companies like Now Micro to offer value-added services and support that have continued to make us relevant and necessary in the marketplace.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: The one piece of technology that we thought was cutting edge in 1993 was the fax machine. We used it for marketing, ordering, and communication. Although it has not completely disappeared, there are much better means of communication today besides the fax machine.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: Email and cellular phones. The only downside with both is that you’re expected to be connected and able to respond at any time. Some days I miss the old pink “While you were out” message pads!

THE NEXT BIG THING: I think we will continue to see a transition to more and more cloud-based solutions and a greater proliferation of tablet-based computing. We continue to see purpose-built computing devices moving into everyday life, from appliances to automobiles and the like. 


Igor Epshteyn * CEO and President * Coherent Solutions, Inc. * Minneapolis * Founded 1995

THEN AND NOW: Our core offering is the same as when we started: commercial-grade software development. But in today’s competitive, global climate our focus has sharpened. Primarily, we develop IT products for external use at technology companies. Coherent Solutions has always done application work, but the dominant technologies that exist today were brand-new (web) and nonexistent (mobile) in 1995. We also use global project teams rather than providing on-site services. Technologies like Skype and Google Apps have made it possible to talk and exchange information in real time across oceans. In general, the cost of software has decreased substantially since 1995, while the quality has gone up. Global delivery teams, maturation of processes, and the wide availability of excellent open source and commercial components for quickly building apps have made this possible.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: Broadband Internet is the foundation for consumer and business technologies that are integral to virtually every major business process today. That’s amazing! It is difficult to remember that we didn’t have email, instant messaging, or instant access to information via the web just 20 years ago. More recent, but already entrenched, technologies that come from a widely available Internet include mobile communication and cloud-based data solutions.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: Analog phones, portable cassette players, 14.4kbps modems, and, I thought, dot-matrix printers. I couldn’t believe it when I saw a working dot-matrix printer the other day!

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: Like President Obama said in 2008, you would have to pry my smartphone out of my hands. (For him it was a BlackBerry—how retro!) It provides personal flexibility without sacrificing the ability to remain connected to work or family. Tablets have brought even more flexibility, and the ability to answer any question in seconds via Internet search also comes to mind.

THE NEXT BIG THING: The Internet of things is coming—sensors in everything and the ability to integrate them via the Internet into self-adaptive systems. But at the same time, we are drowning in a sea of information, and I believe that any technology that guides us toward relevant answers when and where we need them has a bright future. This could take the form of autonomous agents that analyze streams of information and extract what’s important at the moment. For instance, a virtual personal assistant could tell you when to leave for an appointment or notify other meeting participants that you are stuck in traffic. Or perhaps there will be platforms that allow large numbers of independent actors (e.g., automobiles on a highway) to collaborate. So if there is an accident on the highway, all navigation systems work together to send traffic to different routes, thus avoiding a bottleneck.


Daniel Melling * President * Solution Builders, Inc. * Bloomington * Founded 1995

THEN AND NOW: In 1995, we primarily offered computer hardware support including servers, desktops, and networking. We also consulted on general IT.

Today, our services are largely the same, but now they are called managed services. And there is more of an emphasis on what we call VCIO services—virtual CIO. We offer hosted infrastructure, infrastructure as a service, hosted desktops, off-site backups, systems monitoring, hosted email, and network security services. We still have many of our clients from the 1990s, but they have grown and we have grown. In addition, we can service clients all over the country and do, with remote support.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: I would have to say email and its various related off-shoots. Twenty years ago, email was not the dominant corporate communication standard that it is today. Of course, the Internet has changed business but it has largely enabled many disruptive applications by giving them a standard communication network.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: The analog modem.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: Email, shared calendaring, and smartphones.

The next big thing: Cloud services will continue to mature and legacy LAN applications will continue to migrate to browser-based applications. The desk phone will disappear. And our industry will become more focused on consulting services, and successful providers will focus more on customer service and high-level strategy and less on technology.


Greg Frankenfield * CEO and Founder * Magenic * St. Louis Park * Founded 1995

THEN AND NOW: In 1995, we offered only custom programming in Microsoft languages. In 2013, we still offer custom programming but we also have project management and quality assurance services, user interface and user experience services, along with mobile application development in native iOS for Apple and native Android for its mobile platforms. We have created end-to-end software development capabilities that include multi-tiered services from on-site to offshore to serve the demands of our customers.

MOST REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY OF THE LAST 20 YEARS: The development of the Internet and associated technologies has dramatically changed the business environment. Also, the advent of Y2K and the subsequent rise of offshore competition has changed the business landcape. Lastly, the explosion of social media and mobile computing, the two largest trends now, have changed the society we work in.

1993 TECH YOU USED THAT’S OBSOLETE: Desktop telephones, mainframe emulation hardware and software, and dial-up modems.

2013 TECH THAT MOST AFFECTS YOUR WORK: Smartphones and tablets and always-connected wireless technologies, both telephone and wi-fi.

THE NEXT BIG THING: Innovation in our industry is now being driven by consumers, not by business. The next big business technology development will likely follow after the next big consumer development. I do foresee the pace of change continuing to accelerate and disrupt.