Tool of the Trade
November 5, 2015 7:37 AM   Subscribe

By definition, any computing platform invented in the first half of the 1980s that has survived until 2015—and is an enormous business—has accomplished something remarkable. There's the Windows PC, which traces its heritage back to the original IBM PC announced in August 1981. There's the Mac, which famously debuted in January 1984.
And then there's the Bloomberg Terminal, which hit the market in December 1982.

The Bloomberg Terminal was recently accepted into the Computer History Museum’s permanent collection and displayed as part of the Tools of the Trade exhibit.

If you've wondered how they work, Cambridge's Judge Business School has a twenty minute introduction.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker (46 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
FiveThirtyEight had an interesting article and podcast on Bloomberg terminals recently. Excerpt:
A $2,000 per month addiction

Lopez: On Wall Street, time is everything. That is why these guys never do their own laundry, they never cook their own meals. And if you have something that’s a time saver, the more you can roll into a Bloomberg [terminal] the better. This is why Goldman Sachs has a concierge for all its partners. You call one number, and you have someone who can babysit your kids or send flowers to your friends who just got married. Because all of your free time should be spent doing your work.

Wigglesworth: Two thousand dollars a month sounds like a lot to us —

Avirgan: It really is!

Wigglesworth: It is. I’m not going to buy one for my home. But if you’re a guy in the financial industry, the feeling is that you have to have one. It’s not one of the areas that you cheap out on. And if you think this isn’t worth [the price], their response has always been “tell us what we can do to make it worth the price.”

Avirgan: Which means adding more features. Which of course makes you even more dependent.

Wigglesworth: Exactly. It’s an addiction. You know, when people lose their jobs or leave for another job, Bloomberg offers them a Bloomberg [terminal] at home for free, just to keep them hooked. It’s like a dealer giving away freebies.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:44 AM on November 5, 2015 [10 favorites]

Just goes to show that your information-based service doesn't have to be eaten by the Internet. All you need is a customer base with a very great deal of other people's money, and the willingness to spend what it takes to keep them happy.

That joke about doctors specialising in diseases of the rich never gets old, does it.
posted by Devonian at 7:56 AM on November 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

You call one number, and you have someone who can babysit your kids or send flowers to your friends who just got married. Because all of your free time should be spent doing your work.

Kinda makes one wonder how such a person has kids and friends in the first place.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:57 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kinda makes one wonder how such a person has kids and friends in the first place.

I doubt there is any shortage of people willing to sign up to marry a fat bank account.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:58 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Alls I know is Bloomberg web content is pretty good.
posted by Nevin at 7:59 AM on November 5, 2015

I had to learn to use one while working as a law librarian for the EU office of an American law firm and then try to train new lawyers. We all used it very infrequently so that went well. *sideways look to camera no. two*

Astoundingly, I still retain most of my mental facilities but the screaming still comes at night.
posted by halcyonday at 8:00 AM on November 5, 2015

I use one of these daily. It's really powerful, it costs alot, the interface is a crazy fever dream of what Ridley Scott's production crew in the 1980s thought computers would be like, and the endless super fast headline scrolling thing is an atrocity.
posted by selfnoise at 8:01 AM on November 5, 2015 [11 favorites]

They are really difficult to get used to but holy shit they're so useful.
posted by dismas at 8:01 AM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

Kinda makes one wonder how such a person has kids and friends in the first place.

Easy -- they call one number...
posted by Etrigan at 8:06 AM on November 5, 2015 [12 favorites]

Used one of these in the late 90s, working for a news publisher. It was/is indeed cool, weird, unique, expensive, and very powerful. Nice FPP.

(I really wanted to steal the keyboard)
posted by sidereal at 8:10 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

A 33 year old computing platform that I've never even heard of? I feel like these fell in through an alternate universe.
posted by Foosnark at 8:12 AM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've heard of a Bloomberg Terminal, and I've wondered what that amber-on-black interface I always see on news reports or in films/TV, but I never put two and two together. Perhaps that innate resistance to math is why I'm not in a financial field to begin with.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:15 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fascinating article. That dual-screen version gives me the warm fuzzies from a tech point of view.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 8:25 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Back when I worked in Finance there were always a bunch of these scattered about the floor in every office I landed in.

For a while, I also knew a couple guys who worked in IT for Bloomberg; they got in in the early 90's and by the time of the bubble burst they were rich as all hell. One guy now owns two buildings in Brooklyn and quit so he could just be a landlord

Neither of these guys is in IT any more.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:26 AM on November 5, 2015

"You can see the position of every ship in the world," says Zach Haehn, head of R&D for Bloomberg's San Francisco operation. "What they're carrying, how fast they're going, where they're going."
That sounds awesome. I want to look at that right now.
posted by clawsoon at 8:29 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

That sounds awesome. I want to look at that right now.

Have I got the site for you!
posted by theodolite at 8:31 AM on November 5, 2015 [17 favorites]

Bloomberg terminals were built to be special purpose tools good at one thing only, and they started out pretty good and evolved into brilliant.

If, of course, you're a trader. The interface? Clunky looking? Sure. Information loaded? Yes. Supporting multiple monitors early was a huge win, because back in the day big monitors were expensive and really big ones didn't exist, so the only way to get more screen space was to add more small ones.

The other thing they were was fast, and that was critical. Traders don't wait. If they want a quote, they want it now. If they put in a trade, it needs to hit the exchange as fast as possible. Bloomberg did that.

They were also famous for "Well, what do we need to add?" in the sales pitch. "Well, we mostly do government bonds." "Okay, give us two weeks, we'll be back and show you what we can do there." That sort of thing.

They're not the easiest to learn, but like many tools, when you do learn them, you can do a whole bunch of things really quickly.

They were also smart enough to make the keyboards damn near bulletproof. I've heard the most recent ones aren't as tough, but the early ones weighed 8 pounds and didn't die under anything less than a 10 pound sledgehammer or a decent amount of high explosives. Those keyboards got a workout -- most keyboards wouldn't last a month.
posted by eriko at 8:32 AM on November 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

It stopped being it's own hardware platform 20 years ago. Now it's just a keyboard with a certain visual cachet, connected to a plain old chunk of windows software.

Much like classic synthesizers or retro computing emulators. Nobody does this stuff in hardware anymore, except the control panels / knobs / buttons.
posted by ead at 8:43 AM on November 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Did Eclipse copy Views, View Stacks and Perspectives from the Bloomberg UI? I wonder...
posted by sidereal at 8:46 AM on November 5, 2015

Speaking of workouts and sledgehammers ... I once worked for the leading supplier of high-uptime telephone systems that go along with Bloomberg terminals on exchanges and back-room trading floors.

The trader phones all had two handsets; one for each ear, and quite heavy-duty. If a trader was having a particularly bad day the phone terminals often became the recipient of repeated blows by one or both of the handsets. The plasma touchscreens suffered the most.

The wall-hanging exchange floor phones were made of 3/16 in. stainless with indestructible rubber speed dial buttons ... 'cause everyone knew that "exchange floor traders are fuckin' animals."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:49 AM on November 5, 2015 [15 favorites]

Zen: I completely believe you. I've seen things you wouldn't believe....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 AM on November 5, 2015

Wikipedia sez:
The Enter key is referred to as <GO> with a green color, deriving from the Monopoly game board, by passing Go and collecting $200 in a hope that the user could make money on the information he would find.
That's your "Masters of the Universe" mindset there, that is.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:00 AM on November 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

First, as a former floor trader and upstairs trader, ZenMasterThis speaks the truth about phones. They are multipurposed. One is to talk to someone outside of screaming range and two it to repeatedly slam in frustration. I admittedly got a black eye once from having the handset rebound off the phone panel back into my face. I so deserved it. Had a hard time explaining to people not on the floor who asked. "Well, I got the black eye at work."

The Bloomberg terminals are great tools for data and trading. Also for sending Bloomberg messages to fellow traders. They have job boards, cake recipes and sports scores. LOTS of sports scores. If you are a bond trader, they are indispensable. To me, as an equity trader, not as much. There were other software packages for charting and trading I liked better. YMMV.

Bloomberg, and when I say Bloomberg here I mean both the company and the man, made a lot of money with these machines. They were/are n high demand and the users pay for the access. The hardest part for my company to manage was the year long ever green contracts. Traders come and go, but the damn contract remains. We eventually hired an employee whose initial only job was managing trading software contracts. She had to know expiration dates, notification dates, paid for features, etc. It is a logistical nightmare. We paid for a consultant to build a database to help us track it.

Now, Bloomberg is a multiplatform news organization. I prefer to listen to Bloomberg News all day while trading than CNBC. Bloomberg is slanted to the industry, but they present facts and are a fair interview. CNBC is absolutely unwatchable. They are an entertainment channel, not a business news one.
posted by AugustWest at 9:01 AM on November 5, 2015 [11 favorites]

Hee, when I worked at HBS's library we had a fist fight between students over terminal access once. Turns out one of the students had not graduated but dropped out and was working with some new think tank that didn't have a terminal of their own yet and was sneaking in to use the library's.

Hell hath no fury like an MBA who realizes someone isn't cheating in their favor.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:02 AM on November 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

When I worked for ADP/Comtrend, and later IBM, in Chicago, my territory was basically the Chicago Board of Trade and the Mercantile Center. One of our early products was a multiple screen display of real-time charts, running on DG Nova S-100 bus computers that rolled out in 1981, close to the same time and competing with Bloomberg. Later on, ADP had a product called Trendsetter, that ran on Convergent Technologies' NGEN workstations running under CTOS .

The Trendsetter product ran on a 9600 baud broadcast stream, with user requests interspersed into the stream at the head location in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. (Exit 4, represent!) It seems cumbersome and slow now, but back then that was some hot stuff, let me tell you.

Trendsetter was to be a direct competitor for Bloomberg, having (filterable. in 1984!) news streams and tickers. There was no live trade execution yet, the traders watched their screens, and called the floor traders for execution. in 1985-86 sometime, we began offering a clustered office platform, which was basically CTOS on steroids, running on RS-422 cluster controllers that had (3, count them, 3!) 70 MB hard drives each. With this system came back office functionality, word processing with letter-quality printers. and Teletype Model 40 printers in the cages to print customer statements, etc. Remember Multiplan? That was the spreadsheet we had.

The next generation (1987) of ADP products ran on IBM PS/2s, using Token Ring for networking. Closer to standardization, and the software was really slick. I was the lead engineer on a lot of these installs, and could tell you some tales. An office with 4 controllers (basically 2 or three PS/2 Model 60's or 80's in a custom cabinet, with up to 32 (diskless) Model 50 workstations (IIRC) per controller. If a controller went down, all the workstations had to reboot over the ring. This could take....a while. Sadly, they spent so much time and effort into making it slick, there was little in the way of extra features, except for client-developed add-ins.

ADp's product, while brilliant for the times, never caught on the way Bloomberg and Quotron did in the financial industry. Too bad, IMHO, because if they weren't so hung up on proprietary platforms, and spent more time adding functionality, things might have been quite different, indeed. IMNSHO.
posted by pjern at 9:26 AM on November 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

My father was an executive with Dow Jones in the late 1980s, in charge of new product development. He and his team spent years trying to develop a product to compete with the Bloomberg terminal. The last iteration I remember, from about 1988, was called Professional Investor Report. IIRC, it launched and then withered away. I always saw this failure as a symptom of the conservative business strategies employed by the Bancroft family. By the time they noticed Bloomberg was happening, it was too late to compete.
posted by workerant at 9:28 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have been using a Bloomberg terminal 9-12 hours a day most every weekday I'm not traveling for more than a dozen years and I STILL discover powerful features, that have been around for years, once a month or so.

The Bloomberg is basically lesson number one in how you can combine network effects and a commitment to making your moat of capital investment ever deeper and broader to make an unstoppable juggernaut. If you don't have a Bloomberg, in an important sense you don't exist, and in an equally important sense it's basically impossible to do your job.
posted by MattD at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

After having watched the demo video -- I WANT ONE.
posted by notyou at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2015

The legend at HBS was the library was hesitant to shell out for a terminal as the faculty seemed pretty disinterested in new technology. Then one of the more influential faculty found out that it could do live baseball scores and suddenly there were two on campus - one in the library and another near said faculty's office.

Now, of course, Bloomberg's name is on the library. I feel like there's a case study here.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Now it's just a keyboard with a certain visual cachet, connected to a plain old chunk of windows software.

I had wondered about that change but according to their FAQ you can install the software on your home computer, which keeps you in their ecosystem.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:44 AM on November 5, 2015

On re-read, I wonder if it was what pjern worked on

We did have some remote terminals, but they were in places like large farms, co-ops, and grain elevators. I wouldn't be surprised if oil companies had them, but that wasn't my bailiwick. If you had multiple greenscreens, it could have been the commodity charting product (Comtrend), but there would have been a honking big S100 bus computer lurking nearby. We didn't do weather, though. Just commodities data.
posted by pjern at 10:26 AM on November 5, 2015

I love that there's an FPP on Bloomberg terminals. Every place I've worked has had them but I've rarely used them as they're not part of my day to day job. I might go play around with ours this afternoon.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:02 AM on November 5, 2015

odinsdream: ". I wonder what they were called."

Probably a Quotron.

Here's a later version from "Wall Street"
posted by chavenet at 11:03 AM on November 5, 2015

In 2007, IDEO did a conceptual redesign of the Bloomberg terminal.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 11:24 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, this older comment on the absolute wealth of emoji in the Bloomberg IM system.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:51 AM on November 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

I was working at Smith Barney in the late 80s when they finally pulled the plug on their own homegrown system and switched to Bloomberg. I got a cool Bloomberg machine mug where the screen appeared when you put hot liquid in the mug. But then it broke.
posted by lagomorphius at 2:07 PM on November 5, 2015

Yes!!!! Finally an FPP I can relate to! In fact, I just got home from staring at a Bloomberg all day!

Bloomberg is basically the emacs of financial data portals. It has literally everything built in that you could possibly think of, yes, including emoji (and here's a screenshot of the ship tracker, I have no idea how you make money off of that, but it certainly looks cool).

Yes, it's expensive, and there are cheaper services (Reuters), but financial data is hard to get, and costs money. This isn't just a matter of downloading prices from Yahoo Finance, there is all sorts of financial data you won't find anywhere else unless you pay money for it. Besides the issue of access to the data is the sheer amount of data, and having a sensible way to search through it for what you want. And not only data, but tools for analyzing and visualizing the data. They even have 24/7 live support - at any time I can hit "HELP HELP" and chat to somebody (of varying competence) and get them to help solve my problems.

Probably the most essential feature of Bloomberg, for me, is its link into Excel - I can build spreadsheet tools that automatically download all sorts of data from Bloomberg and use it for other analysis. It's utterly indispensable to do my job.

And it's not just financial data - it's also a news and chat portal. You get newswires instantaneously from all the major services (AP, Reuters, etc) - I don't even know how to see that on the regular internet. Chat has become incredibly important in finance to the extent that lots of trades are quoted up and executed entirely through chat. There are also anonymous chat rooms devoted to particular topics which can be quite hilarious at times (shout out to my peeps in Index Vol chat on the off chance you guys read Metafilter).

One of my favorite functions on Bloomberg used to be WHIS where you can enter guesses for economic data, and there is a rolling "hall of fame" of the best guesses. I say "used to" because Bloomberg used to send out little prizes for the winners, they don't do that anymore to my knowledge. Another good one is POSH which is basically Bloomberg version of Craigslist with people hawking all sorts of used stuff.
posted by pravit at 4:05 PM on November 5, 2015 [13 favorites]

Also I absolutely love how Bloomberg feels like it's held together with bits of tape. It's the ultimate in legacy software. Some functions seriously look like they came straight from the 1980s amber screens and they don't change them, because they know there is someone who has been using that function for decades who will throw a fit if they change it.
posted by pravit at 4:35 PM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Man, I'm always so jealous of all of you who have all-day access to Bloomberg. I LOVE financial data. I've only worked at multinational banks and wirehouses and I can never find any one system that has the breadth and depth of data that I want, which means I've spent dozens and maybe even hundreds of hours trying to moosh together different spreadsheets drawn from different systems in multiple ways to get the info I want. Of the financial data systems (not sure if that's the right term, I've just always thought of them as the "black screen" systems) I've used, Fidessa was the best, FactSet was a close second and Thomson is crap. What I wouldn't give for a few weeks of unfettered access to Bloomberg (I'm not a trader, so the machines I've had access to have always been shared by entire floors or departments).
posted by triggerfinger at 5:25 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've never used a Bloomberg machine, but I know journalists who've changed jobs just because the new one had a Bloomberg. I too would love to have a few weeks with one, just to see... and I have almost nothing to do with finance. (I get asked to pontificate on quarterly results for famous companies, but you can prep for that with Google and a spare five minutes...)

Quick question: when you get the machine, do you get always get everything or are there tiered levels of service? Is there a Bloomberg Basic, a Bloomberg Pro, or packages of access you have to pay to play? It sounds like you get the machine and that's it - if you can find it, you can use it.
posted by Devonian at 7:45 PM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Bloomberg terminals are interesting because they're an almost-perfect counterargument to the currently dominant paradigm in software development, which is to constantly strip down software, rip functionality and features out, so that ideally it only does one thing, apparently in order that a not-particularly-bright chimpanzee could use it after three or four beers without having to think too hard.

I have a soft spot for true "power tools" like that, particularly when they are not built for use within the software-development community/industry internally. (Tellingly, programmers don't often build Playschool-esque software for their own use; in fact quite the opposite.) It's interesting how much functionality you can squeeze onto a screen when you drop the assumption that your users are necessarily all morons in a hurry. Or you at least give them credit for being trainable morons.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:15 PM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Write programs that do one thing and do it well."

"And use Emacs to write it."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:19 AM on November 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Devonian -- the answer to your question around tiers is "sort of."

The Bloomberg communication and transaction platform and Bloomberg's data and APIs (the Excel and database links alluded to by pravit) are all included in the basic subscription. Higher tiers of service from Bloomberg are basically if you use Bloomberg as an accounting or audit system, which some people do, but most people don't.

However, one of Bloomberg's many killer apps is that it is a very powerful tool for the redistribution, in an integrated, easy to access and search way, of third party data, which ranges from real time pricing, newswires, and securities research. Third parties are permitted to entitle you separately, and are free to charge you (cash per month, per download, or simply to require you (separately) do business with them) for it. A few third parties -- the Financial Times is the best example -- have deals where non-entitled people can see the headlines but can't read the stories, which is awesome advertising, but for the vast majority if you aren't entitled you don't even know that they posted something.

(For me this is really great. I do business with 20+ Wall Street brokerage firms most of whom publish securities research. Every one of them has its own website for accessing their research, with ever-increasingly-annoying login, token and validation systems and passwords to remember ... put since they mostly put their research out on Bloomberg too, I can access it without having to search, do another login, etc.)
posted by MattD at 5:52 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

This kind of sparked something I haven't thought of in awhile. When I worked for the university reference library in college as a student (approximately 10 years ago) we'd regularly get these little paper booklet... things. They were maybe 50-100 pages long and made of some of the flimsiest paper I've ever encountered. I remember they contained what looked like stock information. I had no idea who used them or why they would be needed. My job when they arrived was just to photocopy them onto printer paper so they could be bound into proper hardcover books and not disintegrate when you looked at them too long.

The point being I'm now even more baffled at what purpose those booklets were used for if machines like this were around. Some sort of historical record?
posted by Green With You at 11:16 AM on November 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Green With You, those sound like the Value Line investment research books. I'm no expert (just worked in the periodicals archive of a public library that subscribed to these) but I think they're a more refined tool than the Bloomberg, which I gather is just a firehose of raw data, headlines, etc.
posted by carsonb at 1:50 PM on November 29, 2015

My job when they arrived was just to photocopy them onto printer paper so they could be bound into proper hardcover books and not disintegrate when you looked at them too long.

Wow, that's an interesting use of library resources. I was responsible for adding new Value Line reports to the binders the company provided to my public library in the mid-90s. The thing is that each entry got revised and republished every few months, so the flimsy paper just didn't need to hold up to much long-term wear. In a public library, we had no interest at all in maintaining a historical record of Value Lines past, and we chucked the old page as the new one was entered. I used to bring the outdated reports home with me after I updated the binders. The binders were very satisfyingly clicky, and were as sturdy as the paper was flimsy.

A Value Line subscription was a much cheaper and easier to use tool than a Bloomberg terminal would be, since pretty much every decently-funded branch library could have one, and the binders were dead simple to use (companies are listed by alphabetical order, and all the reports have the same format and information listed.) And huh, they still offer the service in print, and if you want to recall what it looked like, here are some sample pages.
posted by asperity at 6:42 PM on November 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

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