Ken Olsen died on Feb. 6, and the industry press scrambled to eulogize him. My column deadline, that dead-tree snail-mail thing, had already passed for MSDN Magazine’s March issue. I couldn’t bump Simba’s column because April Fool’s Day only comes once per year.
Olsen founded Digital Equipment Corporation, universally known as DEC (pronounced like the floor of a ship) in 1957. DEC was famous for its headquarters in a refurbished woolen mill—the symbol of the “Massachusetts Miracle,” new industry rising from the ashes of the old. The first computer I ever programmed and played text-based Star Trek on—it didn’t have the graphics for Solitaire—was a DEC PDP-10 I met in college.
DEC was where I got my very first start teaching Windows to industry: the 16-bit SDK in C, using Charles Petzold’s “Programming Windows, Second Edition” (Microsoft Press, 1990) as the textbook. The DEC students hated it: “Near pointers and far pointers? Memory segments? Instance thunks? Are you drunk/high/kidding/crazy?”
The remains of what was once DEC headquarters.
The DEC PDP and VAX minicomputers became exceedingly popular. DEC grew to be the second largest computer company in the world, after IBM. At its zenith, DEC owned a fleet of helicopters for shuttling employees among its local sites and to the airport, bypassing the area’s (then) fierce traffic.
But those whom the gods would destroy, they first trap in a self-reinforcing positive feedback cycle. DEC failed to see the coming of the PC. To the company, the world needed VAXs and more VAXs. PCs were toys. Then Windows 3.1 hit, PCs became somewhat useful, and no one wanted VAXs anymore. You could see the guard changing in 1988, when Microsoft hired away Dave Cutler, the chief architect of the DEC VMS OS, to design the Windows NT kernel. I taught DEC some NT, which ran on one of its 64-bit “Alpha” RISC chips, but that never enjoyed much success. DEC shrank and died. Compaq bought the remnants in 1998. (There’s an alumni association at decconnection.org, and the company’s employee credit union lives on as an independent entity, dcu.org.)
I stopped by the mill recently on my way to a client. Part of it is now a self-storage facility; a place, as George Carlin said, “to keep your stuff while you’re out getting more stuff.” Other tenants include a preschool, and lots and lots of bats.
It’s easy to take cheap shots at DEC and Olsen for not understanding what hit them, but DEC had a lot of company in its mini-blindness. None of the other then-successful minicomputer makers, often founded or staffed by DEC refugees, managed to evolve and survive. Data General. Wang. Prime. Apollo. Computervision. Gone now, all gone. Sic transit gloria mundi.
As George Will (another of my influences—he also writes a back-page column for some obscure rag) wrote about the revolution now bubbling in Egypt and elsewhere: “Those Americans who know which Republican will win next year’s Iowa caucuses can complain about those who did not know that when a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, he would set a region afire. From all other Americans, forbearance would be seemly.” Point well taken, if somewhat difficult to parse. Will was saying that it’s hard to predict the future.
Ken Olsen and DEC, and many others, built a bridge from the glass house where you begged an operator to run your batch computing job and he got back to you if and when he felt like it, to one where the computer terminal sat on everyone’s desktop, at their command. We couldn’t have progressed from where we were to where we are now without the bridge that he built. And if he didn’t cross it himself, and stood on the other side wondering, “Hey, where the heck are you guys all going?”—that doesn’t change the fact that he built it when we needed it.
The world is a better place for DEC, and Olsen, having been in it. I wouldn’t mind if someone said that about me when I’m gone. Bayete, Ken Olsen and DEC.
Next month, I’ll tell you what Microsoft has to do to avoid killing itself off the same way that DEC did.
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
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