Out of Denmark: An Open Systems Unifier

Kim Biel-Nielsen leads Europe's latest unification effort

Name: Kim Biel-Nielsen 
Age: 45 
Birthplace: Copenhagen, Denmark 
Position: Managing director, Uniware Denmark 
Years in Current Position: 3 
Years in the Industry: 18 
Association Leadership: Vice chairman, Danish UNIX Users' Group 
(DKUUG); chairman, EurOpen 

Pet Open Systems Peeve: "That people believe Microsoft is open. 
We got rid of the "B" in IBM and we are about to go into a new 
proprietary world controlled by Intel and Microsoft." 

Management Philosophy: "Delegate as much as possible, preferably 
everything. Give individuals the power to make the decisions 
that are necessary for their jobs and for their lives. It's astonishing 
to find that if you give people the power to make the decisions, 
how large a percentage of right decisions they make." 

If the task of bringing the open systems world together through associations can be seen as a cause, Kim Biel-Nielsen is one of its foremost evangelists. One of the founders of the Danish UNIX Users' Group and the new chairman of EurOpen, Biel-Nielsen preaches the value of group action and cooperation to anyone who will listen. And he does it with a distinct Danish flair.

Biel-Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1949 and his parents immigrated to the United States in the early '50s. After about five years, they moved to Sweden, where Biel-Nielsen got his education through high school. In 1970, he moved once more with his family, this time back to Denmark, where he attended the University of Copenhagen. His attempt to become a chemical engineer ended when "I failed horribly in math, several times." Then, by accident, he discovered a course in computers and changed his course of study.

In 1976 Biel-Nielsen, now married, got his first job in computers with IBM in Copenhagen. Later he took a position with S.C. Metric, a Danish distributor of other companies' hardware and software. In 1991 the company spun off its UNIX software division, which became Uniware Denmark. Biel-Nielsen was named the new company's managing director, a position he still holds.

Biel-Nielsen's first experience with the concept of open systems came in 1982 when his company was distributing computers from the U.S. company Zilog. That company had developed a commercial UNIX system called the Zilog System 8000. "From 1982 to 1985 or '86, when Zilog discontinued manufacture of these systems, S.C. Metric had become the dominant Danish supplier of UNIX hardware," Biel-Nielsen remembers. "We had a very large installed base when they decided to discontinue building the systems. In order the sell the systems, we had gained the distribution rights of a number of software products, including Informix and Uniplex. We were then approached by other software companies in the market, who said they had almost lost out to us, and couldn't we sell the software products for them instead? Then we said that rather than find a new hardware product, why not become a distributor of software? We did that and it's proven to be a successful strategy."

Biel-Nielsen likens his current job as managing director of Uniware to walking a tightrope. "Whenever you deal with somebody, you have to be good enough that they don't find somebody else. On the other hand, you shouldn't be so good that they decide the business is lucrative enough that they should go into it themselves. What you always need to do is get new products so that you can follow the market. If you don't get new products as the market changes, you will eventually find yourself behind the market." On the other hand, Uniplex and Informix, the products his company started with, are still its best sellers.

Although Uniware has purposely restricted itself to the Danish market, it's toying with expanding its horizons, but cautiously. "In a relatively small market, you are operating under a kind of geographic and cultural protection," Biel-Nielsen notes. "You are probably not totally geared to compete in the larger markets. If we were to go into another market, I think we ought to go into a small market because we understand how a small market works. I don't think we really understand how a big market works."

Denmark's UNIX Club

A year or so after that introduction to UNIX, Biel-Nielsen was approached by a group of students who wanted to establish a UNIX club in Denmark. "I felt that it was a wonderful idea," he remembers. "We sat together, 20 people or so, and decided to form the Danish UNIX User Group, DKUUG. We just had our 10-year anniversary. Keld Simonsen, the chairman, and myself were among the first board members." Both are still on the board and Simonsen is still chairman, Biel-Nielsen has been vice chairman for the past three years.

"Where Keld is a tremendously technical university and academic type, I am much more business oriented. So from the very first day we managed to get the Danish user group to be wide enough to provide a home for both the "suits" and the "techies." And I believe that by having that span of interest, we have managed to grow the DKUUG to be the most successful UNIX association in the world." As evidence for that claim, Biel-Nielsen cites his group's membership of 1,100 out of the Danish population of five million. We've never come across an association that had the same percentage of the total population."

Why so many? One reason is Denmark's cultural climate. "It is natural for people to be members of associations. People like to do it and they get very much involved. They come to the meetings and put up proposals and are willing to do a lot of voluntary work." The other reason is that the association has carefully made room for both technical and commercial UNIX people. "We said we wanted to provide services which are of interest to everybody," he says. The group provides a professionally written newsletter, as well as 10 to 12 meetings a year on technical topics, as well as marketing and executive-level topics. In addition, more informal "club meetings" give members a chance to socialize and discuss the latest industry news.

The DKUUG pioneered expansion of the Internet in Northern Europe, providing gateways to Norway, Finland, and Estonia. Those areas now have a direct connection to Amsterdam and use the Danish lines for backup. The Danish Internet hub, DKNet, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the DKUUG, employs 10 persons and turns over $1 million to $2 million a year. "Every six months we have to double the line capability, just because of the explosion in traffic."

Currently, the DKUUG is campaigning worldwide for the right to use the three Danish national alphabetic characters in computer systems.

Getting Europe Together

Biel-Nielsen's association with EurOpen began eight years ago when he joined the board of directors. As the umbrella organization for Europe's open systems associations, EurOpen has had trouble finding its niche. The original concept called for a head tax on members of all the European open systems groups, so that EurOpen would get part of their membership dues. In turn, EurOpen provided a number of services, including a technical newsletter, technical conferences and public domain software. That system worked fine until some of the larger associations began to get so big that they became self-sufficient. Then the head tax concept no longer seemed fair to the larger groups. "We were adding national groups from developing Eastern European countries which were unable to pay for the services, but they had high requirements for the services. The taxes were imposed on the large associations, which didn't need the services because they were providing for themselves. So we had a rapidly deteriorating system. EurOpen declined very much."

Biel-Nielsen was then voted out of the executive leadership and an attempt was made to rescue the situation by adding expensive central services and staff. However, about two years ago the national groups rebelled and voted in a new executive, in which Biel-Nielsen was included. They implemented a new structure that they called Eurocheap, meaning that "everything that cost money was slashed." And instead of paying a head tax based on the number of members, the national groups had the option several categories of membership. The EurOpen newsletter and conferences were discontinued, and EUNet, the European Internet, was spun off.

However, a realization began to grow that the cost-cutting had gone too far. "We had managed to remove the reason for EurOpen to exist by really removing every service," Biel-Nielsen says. "At the last governing board meeting I proposed a change of direction, and at the same time decided to run for chairman. I got elected as chair for two years and we got to re-launch central services, but in a new and different way." Although the process hasn't been formally agreed to, EurOpen plans to join with UniForum, USENIX and other national groups into a world citizenship of UNIX user groups. "The idea behind this is that if you are a member of any open systems user group, you have the right to use the services of another group when you visit that territory."

EurOpen also is building a new European newsletter, taking the best articles from other association newsletters. In a test launch recently, the new EurOpen Quarterly secured 5,000 commitments for subscriptions. "Without a publication at the EurOpen level, we don't have a common vehicle to speak to the members, or to the members of the member associations."

Biel-Nielsen also hopes to launch a pilot program for EurOpen value-added network services, involving use of the World Wide Web to spread information about the services and activities of all the European associations. "And we hope that by 1995 we will be able to re-launch conferences or specialized workshops at the European level. What we have to do for the next two years is to make the association visible and make it something that the members may be proud of. Once we've done that, we want to extend the range of this so that people understand the concept of joint citizenship between groups. I see the synergy of the World Wide Web and the global citizenship of open systems groups making people understand what happens in other parts of the world. In the end, they may feel they have been enriched by this."