Saturday, 12 February 2011

RIP Ken Olsen

Ken Olsen, who has died aged 84, drove the second great wave of computing, taking the industry from large mainframes to networks of smaller, cheaper minicomputers that could be used by small companies or scientists and engineers. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which he co-founded in 1957, grew into the world's second-largest computer company, with more than 100,000 employees and a peak turnover of $14bn. In 1986 a Fortune magazine cover story called Olsen "arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the history of American business".

Just six years later, however, he was forced out of the company. The market had moved on to microcomputers such as the IBM PC, launched in 1981, and DEC was rapidly being left behind.

The Guardian, 9th February 2011


He was our leader when I worked for DEC 1979 to 1982 (I started in IT with Burroughs in 1970). Those were heady times - before the PC and when the industry was realising there was more to IT than the mainframe. Minicomputers were in the ascendant and DEC easily outshone the likes of Data General in that market. We were second only to IBM in the industry, and gaining. It was only a matter of time before we toppled IBM and took the top spot.

I started with PDP11s and welcomed VAX VMS as a world-beater. There was an upstart company called Sun but no-one thought they'd ever come to much (UNIX and TCP/IP? Pah! Student stuff! ISO OSI 7-layer model was the gold standard in comms, and Olsen himself famously described UNIX as 'snake oil'). Then there was that IBM PC; A toy compared to a Vax! As Olsen himself said, it wouldn't come to anything.

In fact, it totally changed the world of IT. It did for DEC, IBM morphed itself into a services company instead of a mainframe hardware supplier (very clever move, that) and poor old DEC ended up being taken over by Compaq; a PC maker! Compaq was later swallowed by Hewlett Packard (HP - never a front runner in the heady days - they made electronic instruments and printers).

I left DEC just before the PC revolution to join a small software house called Systems Programming Ltd (SPL, an offshoot of Manchester engineering company Simon Carves). SPL, an anarchic and fabulously fun place to work, was taken over by Systems Designers (led by Phil Swinstead, pilot and classic car collector and probably not up to running the UK's first stock market listed software house). SD surprisingly took over Wavendon-based Scicon (BP's IT arm, a much respected company with a lot of technical expertise) to become SD Scicon, and that was in turn taken over in 1992 by the then mighty leader of computer services companies, the US company Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

Just after I retired 3 years ago, EDS was itself swallowed by... HP!

Full circle!

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