Ken Olsen, RIP
I know we’re all busy but I’m taking a moment to honor Ken Olsen who died on Sunday at 84. Olsen, you might know, was the co-founder and long time CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation. DEC was once the second largest computer company in the world, second only to IBM, with a market cap of $14 billion. At one point in the mid-1980s Fortune magazine declared Olsen the most successful entrepreneur in American history.
DEC’s heyday is already a long time gone, at least by this industry’s sense of time, but I don’t think I overstate it when I say that DEC made all of our jobs possible in one way or another. At the beginning IBM owned the industry and big iron was not only room filling but air conditioning sucking and bank account draining.
We think of Apple as the original David against Goliath but long before there was a Macintosh there were PDP-8’s, PDP-20’s and ultimately PDP-11’s and VAX’s, computers that were smaller than mainframes and much less expensive to own and operate. Mini-computers made it first possible to think of departmental machines that eventually morphed to personal machines.
Today, when the “Evolution of Computing” slide is trotted out by cloud computing vendors the progression usually skips over the mini-computer leaping from mainframes to client-server but veterans of that age know better. The mini-computer revolution wasn’t just about hardware it was a social phenomenon. Mini’s were the first hardware to support a partner ecosystem, unlike the mainframe, which required a court order to accomplish the same thing.
The iconic accessory of the mainframe was the “glass house” but mini’s had nothing similar. Mini’s were like a party anyone could attend. In addition to the ecosystem there were legions of long haired, sandal wearing hippy types with double-E degrees from the universities around Boston, notably MIT but also UMass, who sprouted companies like entrepreneurs south of San Francisco would do a technology generation later.
Whatever you can point to in computing today, there was at least the seed of a similar idea that took hold on a mini-computer. One example is all we really need, the Internet got started there. If you need another, consider synchronous multi-processing. Ken Olsen, his brother Stanley Olsen and friend Harlan Anderson along with $70,000 in venture capital started it all.
Olsen was a genius and he wasn’t always right but he was always worth listening to. He was slow on the uptake for personal computers and lost that battle even though at one point DEC had three different PC models with three different operating systems. That one slip ended when upstart Compaq bought DEC in 1998. But DEC was an early advocate of TCP/IP and I recall one DEC World when the company rented the QE2 to serve as a floating hotel to support all of the company’s visitors to Boston. At that event, which might have been near the company’s peak, they were showing selected customers under NDA a VAX running with a solid state disk that might have had a capacity of 256 MB. That was unheard of at the time but it made the VAX run very fast.
So Ken’s gone, it was a great career and his influence spawned much of the industry we have today. This takes nothing away from other greats like Gordon Moore, Larry Ellison, Mitch Kapor or Dan Bricklin, and many others of course. In many ways they might agree about Olsen’s huge influence on their careers too.