WHIZ KID 20-year-old markets ambitious software


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In these days of once-a-week sea changes in the computer industry, it's nice to be occasionally reminded of computerdom's eternal verities -- like the existence of a 20-year-old software entrepreneur intent on changing the world.

But what's striking about Joseph Firmage of Salt Lake City (age at the introduction of the Apple II: 8) is that there are people besides members of his immediate family who actually believe he might make a go of it.

Mr. Firmage's Serius Corp. is marketing a program he spent the last four years writing, one that is nothing if not ambitious. Its goal is to let users with minimal programming skills create custom software packages that do about anything in office productivity -- from data bases to spreadsheets to multimedia-style animation -- that personal computers know how do.

Among Mr. Firmage's fans: a raft of reviewers at computer magazines and former Apple Computer Inc. President Jean-Louis Gassee, who has been following Mr. Firmage since visiting his trade show booth last year. He calls Mr. Firmage's work "one of the most interesting products I have ever seen on the Macintosh."

Mr. Firmage's product is basically a collection of smaller, inter-operating programs that can easily be fused by dragging icons across the screen and connecting them with lines, creating software tailor-made to an individual business.

It's not exactly a new idea -- in fact, some of the industry's biggest companies are targeting the same product category. But reviewers say Mr. Firmage has implemented it remarkably well.

But how, exactly? What allowed a teen-age astronomy buff in Utah whose dad is a law professor to do what whole floors of programmers at multimillion-dollar companies are struggling to complete? And doesn't that mean that anyone else can do the same thing?

"If you look at the history of software," replied Mr. Firmage, "the greatest successes come from one- to five-man R&D; teams, not 50-man teams."

And as to the notion that the undertaking was somehow easy,Mr. Firmage politely demurs. He says that the product by now is 30,000 bytes of code, about the size of the Macintosh operating system.

The work started four years ago when Mr. Firmage tried to write a custom Macintosh accounting program for his mother's greeting card business. The process proved arduous, and Mr. Firmage set out to discover the proverbial Better Way.

In 1989, after dropping out of college, which he had entered at age 16 with a physics scholarship, Mr. Firmage incorporated the company, calling it Serius in a word-play on the star Sirius, the brightest in the sky.

Sales have grown since then, mostly through booths at computer trade shows; Serius has also received $1 million in venture capital. Mr. Firmage was in Silicon Valley last week looking for $700,000 more, as well as giving demonstrations at some big computer companies.

Much of that money is going into hiring 10 programmers away from nearby Novell Inc. and Wordperfect Corp. to work on a major revision of the software, as well as on rewriting the product to run under Microsoft's Windows.

Mr. Firmage's goal for Serius is for it to set the same kind of industry standard for custom software that Postscript has for desktop publishing.

His age, he admitted, is mostly a liability right now. But he expects it to turn into an attention-getting asset as the product gets noticed more and if the company continues to perform well.

The company's two main products sell, combined, for $800, though Mr. Firmage also indicated he might entertain an offer to simply sell the programs to a larger company.

That might be success enough to gain Mr. Firmage an audience with one of his heroes: former 20-year-old Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple.

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