The Limits of Vision February 10, 2011Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms.
It is with decidedly mixed feelings that I note the passing of Ken Olsen, inventor of the minicomputer and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation. In the 1960s, those companies and government agencies that could not spend millions of dollars on a large IBM or plug-compatible mainframe had to rent time of a remote mainframe using a dial-up system, or simply continue processing business transactions manually.
Olsen created a deskside computer, called the PDP-11, priced almost an order of magnitude less than the mainframe. It included a multitasking and multiprocessing operating system, so that it could be shared among workers in a small office. Computing became immediately accessible to tens of thousands more businesses than before.
It goes without saying that computing in the 1960s and 1970s was nothing like we know today (no, I wasn’t there, except at the very end as a student). They weren’t interactive; you used them for data entry, reports, and batch processing of large jobs. For these types of tasks, the PDP-11 and its later sibling the VAX/VMS were pretty good, and had a great price/performance curve for their day.
Of course, we all know the rest of the story. The minicomputer was a transitional technology, to be replaced by ever-more powerful and inexpensive PCs. Today, few if any minicomputers are manufactured. In an impressive bit of irony, Digital Equipment Corporation was acquired by storied PC manufacturer Compaq Computer, which only a few years later was acquired in a contentious deal by HP.
Here in New England, HP has largely pulled out of the millions of square feet of office and manufacturing space once occupied by Digital (Digital ZKO, just down the street from my house, counts Dell and Intel among its tenants, but occupancy is only half of what it was with Digital). The collapse of the minicomputer industry in the early 1990s caused a bit of a housing bust in this part of New England, as hundreds of thousands of workers scrambled for new employment.
Olsen, who famously was quoted as saying that he couldn’t imagine having a computer in his home, was relegated to a footnote in history (a twenty-something computing professional acquaintance this week responded “Ken who?”). It’s a tale of great vision and a successful pursuit of that vision, but also a cautionary tale that any vision has its blind spots and limits.