Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Let Us Praise Ken Olsen

The long, successful life of Ken Olsen is done. At just short of 85, he died.

Immediately, we need to remember that a derogatory cliché of his professional life is lame — allegations that if he had only embraced personal computers or this or that technology, his Digital Equipment Corporation would have been even bigger, better and more long lived. Instead, through his drive, innovation and confidence, he created the flourishing mini-computer industry, supporting tens of thousands of employees and creating many billions in wealth for investors for decades.

He hated the DEC term, preferring Digital for his company. Yet most of us in the computer press and even his employees used DEC. In previous professional lives, I covered DEC, met and questioned Olsen, and reviewed the technologies.

At the company's end, when Compaq bought and destroyed it, I worked for an amalgam of its huge networking part and Microcom, the telecommunications chassis, software and modem folk whom Compaq had bought about four months before. Clumsy Compaq decided it would create a networking power, but scrubbed the idea about 18 months later, sending thousands of us away. I can't forgive them their failure.

From my slight remove, I reported on DEC's doings, technically and financially. I would see Olsen in operation at industry meetings, press conferences and such. As frequently, chums who worked at DEC would trot out their personal tales of interaction with him.

For those who never met him, be aware he was imposing physically, both hulking and possessing a gigantic head that made him seem even taller and sturdier. For those who would go for the big young person's cop-out — I wasn't even born then — be aware that mini-computers were absolutely essential to Massachusetts' financial and technological growth and influence. They advanced computing from gigantic mainframes into much smaller, much more affordable multi-user systems that companies could and did buy and use. From the 1960s into the 1980s, they were essential to America's economy and productivity. Look 'em up.

I have yet to meet anyone who'd say Olsen was a sweetheart. Instead, he and Bill Gates seemed to share testiness. With either, be ready for a fight if you dared to criticize any idea, proposal or decision he made. DEC employees would use phrases like he handed my head to me in front of everybody. Personally I remember at a large announcement at DEC, I dared ask when they'd go for the thousands of workstations on factory and warehouse shopfloors that competitors were snatching. Olsen had a small fit right there on camera saying they owned that market. Later a friend in DEC investor relations said I was right but he sure wasn't about to say that the Olsen.

Much continues to be made of his antipathy for personal computers. He did blow that opportunity. Eventually, they came late to market with the DEC Rainbow. I even reviewed hardware and software for a Rainbow-specific magazine as a free-lance. Yet, DEC came in way too late with way too little innovation. They were doing just fine in workstations, butOlsen's heart never got into PCs as we know them.

That was not his business though and DEC did superbly for a very long time with minis and networking. If you have a desktop, laptop or netbook, for example, you are certain to have at least one DEC legacy and public-domain gift in it — an Ethernet LAN port.

Likewise to PCs, Olsen refused to support UNIX. He stubbornly held (accurately actually) that DEC's VMS operating system was superior. Yet, the world went to the much cheaper UNIX and then its largely free LINUX offshoots. Here again, there were big crumbs and whole meals Olsen was willing to miss out on in pursuit of his main ideas. His NIH attitude did limit picking up every bit of profit available.

As brusque as he could be, Ken Olsen was an amazing force for his industry. As long as you weren't the direct, public object of his scorn, you could enjoy hearing him debate ideas and technologies. We owe him tons of gratitude and praise.

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