The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 3: American giants and local users

by Pierre-Yves Hurel


Context : This paper is part of a dossier about “Computer” exhibition.  

  • In the first part (link), I detailed my methodological choices, presented the corpus of newpsaper sources and a chronology of the “Computer” exhibition.
  • In the second part (link), I have shown to what extent show was integrated into a context of regional rivalry
  • In this third part, I will list the companies attending “Computer” and introduce the clientele.
  • More articles will be published over the coming weeks

At Lausanne’s “Computer” trade show, international “giants” peacefully coexist with local actors. There were the as well large local companies (private or public) who come to showcase their projects linked to the computerisation of French-speaking Switzerland as also young developers who presented their own software. It is likely that the “Computer” exhibition (like other fairs) played an especially important networking role for the actors involved in the exhibition – a function explained in this article in “Le Temps” from 2001.

The international “giants” in attendance were naturally of particular importance: IBM, Apple, Atari and Hewlett Packard. They were the ones who brought an international and glamourous dimension to the local show in the Romandie, and they were also the ones who allowed Switzerland a glimpse on the major market trends. Their eventual “defection” of the show, due to competition with another fair, was therefore especially painfull perceived for example in this article in le Journal de Genève from March 22 1990, which noted:

“(…) a major disappointment in the end. IBM, Digital Equipment and Hewlett Packard, for many years among the most important exhibitors (…) at this Lausanne show, have withdrawn. This year, they have chosen to exhibit at a single venue in French-speaking Switzerland, at Burexpo in Geneva this autumn. To alternate between the two cities on Lake Geneva, eternal rivals…”.

Regional and national rivalries (Burexpo being organized by Büfa) were never far away. Furthermore, it is likely that the presence of these major companies at the “Computer” show was favored by their decision to establish their European headquarters in Geneva (e.g. HP and IBM).

Especially american brands were understood as barometers for global computer trends. To underline that the global computer market is experiencing difficulties, le Journal de Genève wrote that IBM experienced “a 6% decline” in March 1992.  Journalists from the Romandie kept a close eye on Apple’s innovations (April 1994), and took the opportunity to report that 1,000 units of the Power Macintoshs were sold in Switzerland during its first six weeks on the market. Even more interesting, from a historical point of view, is this insight that emerges from the corpus: for a long time, IBM and Apple represented two different ways of imagining computing (the seriousness of the office on the one hand, ergonomics, and creativity on the other). But as early as 1989, we can notice that the market began to harmonize, and that these differences no longer existed: “From IBM to Apple, long thought to be radically opposed, all computer manufacturers are now part of the same chain, where everything works with everything, despite differences in design” wrote Denise Jeanmonod in 1989 in le Journal de Genéve (April 12, 1989).  1985 it was the arrival of Japanese and above all European manufacturers, under the aegis of Italian neighbor Olivetti, that was noticed (May 31, 1985). 

Users in French-speaking Switzerland

The initial aim of the show was to approach IT as a tool that impacts the activities of various professions and economic sectors. For those IT is a “shift” to be “negotiated” to remain competitive and rationalize their production. The computer is a tool that potentially changes life, industry, and the economy. In retrospective Marielle Stamm put it thus (link): for company directors, executives, the new “computer scientists” and then gradually all of society, computing was first and foremost about “writing and calculating more easily”. When the journalist looks back on her time at the Journal de Genève, she explains that it was:

“read by those in charge of the economy. I described for them the problems encountered by companies in developing their IT applications. Banks, administrations, hospitals, large companies like Veillon. These were the issues at the time.”

Computers were understood as

“little machines that were supposed to be able to do everything to relieve the workload in large and medium-sized companies. And progressively, in smaller companies.”

While this was to remain a fundamental trend throughout the show’s existence, it was particularly true from 1978 to the end of the 1990s. As the years went by, the “impacted professions” were enumerated, and even addressed, to encourage them to attend the show;

  • In 1978, the program of seminars and conferences that usually accompanied the show included an event on “Computers in public administrations and services”, as well as an “Infotel” seminar presented by the Groupement Romand pour l’Informatique and the Lausanne Hotel School. The administrative and the hotel sectors were mostly preoccupied with how to manage data and information systems (see, for example, this 1976 article in 01 Informatique about the purchase of a PDP 11/40 by the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne).
  • Also in 1978, the journalistic profession itself reflected the impact that computerization would have on its practices, announcing that “push-button journalism is coming soon”, following the demonstration of a transportable computer weighing “only” 8.5 kgs. Although not named, this is in fact the Scrib – developed in Lausanne.
  • In 1980, the convergence of data and text processing (notably via the micro-computer) promised to replace secretaries, but also to bring about a silent revolution: “Until now, text processing and data processing by computer have been considered as two separate elements of the highly complex field of information processing within companies. However, the ever-increasing emergence of microcomputers is helping to bring the two disciplines closer together. We are therefore entitled to ask whether we are not on the threshold of a new, silent revolution, due to the application of information technology”.
  • “Marielle Stamm reported on April 10, 1980: “Almost unique in a computer exhibition, the banks will be presenting their joint, automated services so as not to be outdone by the PTT.
  • In the same article, we learn that “insurance companies will complete this picture by promoting specific insurance designed to cover IT risks.” A few years later, this sector would organize itself under the aegis of “Clusis” (the Swiss IT security club).
  • In 1982, we read of a car that responds to voice commands – and could therefore be useful to the disabled. The same article later points out  that the system “can be transformed into a simple billing system, still responding to the human voice”.
  • In 1986, Denise Jeanmonod told computer specialists that, in her opinion, they were not the ones who would be most interested in the show: “Whether you are a garage mechanic, an architect, a farmer, an advertising broker or the manager of a small industry, you’ll find it a little more interesting, perhaps, than the true computer scientist.”
  • 1986 was also the year of the “computer-assisted design“: from teaching and engineering to construction, machine operation and drafting. Also mentioned: machine translations.
  • In 1987, Denise Jeanmonod  explained her readers that this “Computer” was aimed in particular at public administration, business management, the banking sector, advertising, the professions and small industries looking for a “computer solution”. The author later adds some secondary target groups: “And then there’s the beverage distributors, heating contractors, jewelers, graphic arts, etc.”.
  • That same year, “digital publishing was in the spotlight” at Computer, as A. Bertaudon explains.
  • In 1988, computers not only made it easier to write and calculate, they also made it easier to shout at Swiss stock markets, as we learn in this article detailing the computerization of certain stock market processes.
  • In the same year, Denise Jeanmonod reported on the presence “for the first time of systems dedicated for the automation in retail“.
  • The real star of 1988 of “Computer” and a Symposium on Industrial Robotics seemed however to be a robot. The readers also learned this year of the existence of Swiss robotics, with some twenty local exhibitors in this sector alone.
  • In 1990, the listed sectors were joined by agriculture, health, hygiene, chemicals, watchmaking, catering and tourism.
  • In 1991, a full page was devoted to the construction and architecture sector.
  • It is worth noting here that the PTT‘s presence at “Computer” seems to represent a major image challenge, as a one-page press release from 1991 can attest.
  • In 1992, an entire hall was dedicated to safety issues.
  • Among the smaller players in French-speaking Switzerland, who played however a key role in the link between foreign giants and the local scene, were resellers and importers. For example, MPC, “the largest PC reseller in French-speaking Switzerland” in 1992. But also “Computer Shop” – a specialist store in Geneva, with a rich history and still in business in 2023 (see its website).
  • Finally, in 1993, local waste sorting was equipped with new IT tools.

The higher education sector was also represented, with the regular mention of EPFL, UNIL, HEIG, the Vaud Cantonal School of Arts and other schools. The latter gave a “demonstration of the activities of the Ecole cantonale vaudoise d’Art, in the field of art education using computers” in 1989.  UNIL, for example, took advantage of the show to highlight the creation of a programming course at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in 1984, in what was probably an advert. From 1980 onwards, the EPFL regularly presented the importance of computers for engineering and teaching. This was sometimes an opportunity to highlight the work of various professors (Daniel Thalmann on computer-generated images in 1990, Professor Burckhardt on virtual reality and robotics in 1994, and Jean-Daniel Nicoud – to whom we will return later).

Computers as a means of communication  

A significant trend, albeit smaller in quantitative terms in our corpus, is to look at the computer primarily from the point of view of information and communication techniques. Three key dates stand out in this respect: At the first edition of the show, in 1978, the PTT “presented their new electronic payment system”, according to J.M. Vaucher. We learn that the new “special EDW communication system for data and telex” was first developed in Zurich in 1978, “closely followed” by Geneva in 1979. “Further terminals are planned for Berne and Basel. Although it had already been tested in 1979, Videotex arrived at the show in 1980. The reader learns that it is “a system that the PTT is testing in Switzerland, offering any subscriber the possibility of accessing data banks via their television receiver”. In 1986, Alain Nicollier admits that between Videotex1 and Minitel (its French equivalent), “your heart may sway”. Even so, he will still be present at the show until at least 1995. The third key date was the arrival of the Internet at the show: in 1996, Pierre-Henri Badel tells the reader that, “Computer […] is riding the Internet wave. “An area was set aside specifically for this purpose, arranged like a classroom. The organizers could count on the presence of the ‘Club Internet de Lausanne’ to inform visitors. In addition, 40% of the usual stands are equipped with Internet access.

From the early 1990s onwards, the impact of IT on business is less central to the discourse in journals from the Romandie. And with good reason: the shock had been partially absorbed, and the novelty was no more a novelty. The industry shifted from an initial acquisition market (synonymous with rapid growth) to a replacement market (which in fact seems to correspond to what others have called the “maturity crisis” (cf. Le Monde Diplomatique).  Thus, “Computer 93” was an opportunity (via a press release from the organizers?), to announce that 45% of Swiss companies were computerized in 1992 according to a study, and that 40% of hardware purchases were now replacement purchases. We learn in passing that 80% of computerized firms now exclusively used PCs, to the detriment of the old “minicomputers”, but  that PC penetration was very uneven depending on the sector concerned.

In conclusion: the IT market and “Computer” – its unique showcase in French-speaking Switzerland – still were supposed to have a bright future ahead of them. The show stood for the whole sector… in all its positive aspects. Although IBM suffered a 6% decline in 1992, Emil Jucker, “the soul of the show”,  reassured his readers: “We’ve gone from growth to quality.”

In 1997, the market continued to evolve, this time entering “an era of standardization in which it is increasingly difficult to differentiate one machine from another“. We note an increase in the role played by mass retailers, leaving less room for specialists. The same article quotes a study by Robert Weiss (who still seems to be active on www.robertweiss.ch): 633,000 computers were sold in Switzerland in 1996, representing an increase of 3.9%. But it was also the first time since 1992 that the market has grown by less than 10%. There are also 1.4 million computers in use out of a working population of 2 million in Switzerland.

In 2001, Patrick Lehner, the show’s new director, explained the shift away from an equipment-oriented industry: “I think household equipment rates are starting to peak. The replacement market is struggling to take off. Only fanatics like me have several machines at home. That is why IT companies started offering services”.  There were already concerns that there were potentially too many technological exhibitions. In 2002, however, there was an attempt to reassure the public by explaining that the decline in exhibition space was partly due to the end of the “gigantism of the 90s“.

In 2004, “Computer” closed for good with a press release (which can now be found on the web archive). “COMPUTER-expo gives way to Business Software & Services” – which seems to herald a new regular event, this time outside the scope of our study. This became a global phenomenon, as in the same year “Orbit and Internet Expo merged in the face of plummeting attendance“. Jacques Webern, “head of Computer-Meeting” at the time, explains that “everything is now on the Internet” – It suddenly seemed hard to justify the need for the exhibition. This would confirm our hypothesis that the purpose of the show was to act as an information channel at a time when, although the specialized press already existed and the daily press reported on major movements, information was still scarce.

The development of IT in French-speaking Switzerland

Alongside the international heavy weights and local businesses at “Computer” you will find interested individuals from French-speaking Switzerland involved in both hardware (especially in the ’80s) and software (in the following decade). Historically, it is interesting to note that hobbyists were also among the pioneers in the region. For example, a Microclub press release (1980) describes microprocessor “fans”. Their stand featured “various achievements by its members, including a microprocessor-controlled amateur radio link and a graphic composition system.” However, this is the only occurrence of the club in our selection of articles. Occurrences of the club outside the corpus can be found in a 1979 article by Marielle Stamm for 01 Informatique, as well as an unsigned article in the Gazette de Lausanne in 1986. The article states that the club is “the oldest” in French-speaking Switzerland, having been founded in 1976 – and that there are strong links between the club, EPFL and Jean-Daniel Nicoud – the club was housed on EPFL premises for at least part of its existence. In 2023, the club still appears to be active.

For Denise Jeanmonod, in Romandie: “(…) IT in the Romandie is a beautiful aquarium where anything is possible, even producing a microcomputer as powerful as Apple’s Macintosh, but where nothing is mass-produced. It’s not just a question of the small size of the market. We like to keep things small and confidential (…) Professor Jean-Daniel Nicoud is clear on this point: ‘Even if it’s small, Smaky represents a research group and a potential for creativity, so it’s an experiment that industry will benefit from sooner or later'” (22/04/1986) (22/04/1986). But the computer made in Vaud has also “suffered from the long-standing rivalry between the two main cities on Lake Geneva, Geneva and Lausanne”2.

An article by Denise Jeanmonod on April 22, 1986, tells us that, in addition to Smaky, “we also manufacture the components ourselves”. This is true of Gespac, in Plan-les-Ouates near Geneva, which manufactures “basic modules: CPUs, memory cards, controllers, interfaces, etc.”. We also learn that the company “naturally has its own original computer, called Gescomp”.

Gescomp 720 data sheet, L’Ordinateur Individuel Hors Série N°29 (1981), page 123 (Source image)

“Another up-and-coming company is Valtronic.” To top it all off, both companies have an American subsidiary. “These companies were founded in the Vallée de Joux. The same valley, nicknamed “La Silicon Vallée de Joux”, also produces the “Vaud mouse”, designed by Jean-Daniel Nicoud and manufactured “by both Dépraz in the Vallée de Joux and Logitech in Apples near Morges”. Here again, “the only problem (…) is mass production” to compete with American prices. Logitech’s huge success however seems to show that such a problem was not insoluble. An another mouse, wireless this time, was showcased by Dépraz Mouse during C”omputer 86″.

The local electronics industry from the Romandie, being present “for the first time” at the “Computer” exhibition in 1985, was already well established in 1986, and exhibited its product together in 1987 under the label “PME2”  (PME meaning “Petite et Moyenne Entreprise”). This time, 17 companies “try to show that in French-speaking Switzerland there is also an industry for electronic components, microprocessor systems and automation components”. In the same article, we learn that this sector employed 300 people “including 50 engineers” (the other 250 people were not characterized, but we can assume that they were mainly assembly-line workers and administrative staff).

On April 23, 1987, Laurent Borel informed his readers that the Swiss Foundation for Teletheses (FST) had just achieved “a real tour de force” by marketing a universal infrared remote control to help disabled people – all the while beating “many competing laboratories around the world”. Two years earlier, FST had developed “Hector”, a talking computer for the same target audience.

The electronics industry in French-speaking Switzerland being in the spotlight of the press during the 1980s, then seemed to disappear from the columns of the newspapers studied. A few investigations outside the corpus, however, seem to contradict the hypothesis of a real disappearance of the sector: there is an article on the moving history of Gespac in 1998, the success of Logitec is well known, Valtronic had specialized in the medical field, …

Software made in Romandie

In the 1990s, the trend was shifting from hard- to software, and it is no doubt for this reason that the local actors then highlighted belonged to this field. One of the reasons for this was the establishment of the “Prix Crédit Suisse du logiciel, originally created for Logic, the now-defunct exhibition of micro-computing in Montreux“, which from 1990 onwards was awarded “at the Palais de Beaulieu”. In 1990, “the winners were Jean-Christophe Hadorn (senior prize for Hyperbrid, a technical management program for municipalities) and Jean-Claude Schopfer (junior prize for “Aventura I”, a game software program)”. “Aventura” thus becomes, quite surprising, the first local video game mentioned in our corpus. Unfortunately, it was to remain almost the only one. In subsequent years, until the last edition of the Crédit Suisse prize in 1993, the software nominated was more of a utilitarian nature. In 1992, “the jury rewarded a young Vevey company, Case Design, headed by Stéphane Buser and Stéphane Scheidegger, creators of Odyssée, and the Geneva-based company Extran, headed by Martin Bächtold, for its ‘Teletranslator Network’ software”. The former is a “new generation computer language” and the latter is a machine translation software. The following year, it was FreeTrieve, “an electronic document management system”. In 1995, the “Winswiss Computer 95” prize was again awarded for utility and management software.

In 1992, Marie-José Jones and Michelle Talandier explained that, in the face of the “great classics” (Works, Excel, etc.), “several applications were flying the flag for French-speaking developers: Winfinance accounting from Obag (FR) and Winman from Hexagone (VS), as well as Cornelius, a remote maintenance expert system taken over by Vaud-based Attexor. VMM from Monthey made a splash with Contacts, a sales prospecting program that also runs on NCR’s electronic slate, where it recognizes handwriting.” Software for Accounting, remote maintenance, sales prospecting: the local companies put forward were “serious” and useful to business. A press release from 1992, however, promotes two software programs aimed at young people: “Mot à mot”, an educational program to teach children to manipulate vocabulary, and “Croquis”, a drawing program.

Another example from 1997 was Mediaprofil, a Vevey-based company that produced interactive CD-ROMs for third-party institutions. “Our know-how in databases for CD-ROMs can be very useful for reference works such as encyclopedias or catalogs” explained its director, who also presented his company at the multimedia area of the Geneva Book Fair.

So, there was a software sector in the Romandie, at least in the early 1990s, and it was partly driven by local institutions such as the salon and its banking sponsor. As we shall see later, other software products in the cultural sphere, and potentially in the entertainment sphere, emerged around 1995-97. In any case, it is worth noting that the Romandie missed the opportunity for a local video game award, when all the prconditions were met. Is the awarding of the  a prize to a game in 1990 a sign of a legacy from the Montreux show, which was oriented towards home computing? It would be interesting to go back to the origins of this other show to understand whether the project was to propel a local videogame scene.

Another possible line of inquiry opened by the chronology of Swiss IT in this article would also be: Did the presence of an (albeit light) hardware industry in the Romandie in the 1980s explain or allow the software scene of the 1990s? Or were these phenomena simply adjacent, unconnected?


Header Image: Author unkwown, coming with the article by Denise Jeanmonod, “Une ruche d’ordinateur”, 12.04.1985, Journal de Genève, p. 25.




Cite this blog post
Pierre-Yves Hurel (2023, December 4). The “Computer” exhibition of Lausanne. Part 3: American giants and local users. Confoederatio Ludens. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/mr98

  1. To find out more about Videotex, read this blog article by the Swiss National Museum: https://blog.nationalmuseum.ch/fr/2020/12/le-videotex/ or Marielle Stamm, 2009, “La saga du Vidéotex”, Geschichte und Informatik = History and Informatics, URL: https://www.e-periodica.ch/cntmng?pid=gui-001%3A2009%3A17%3A%3A243 . []
  2. See also this look back at the history of Epsitec on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, or this one wondering what happened to Smaky in 1993. []

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