Ken Olsen, the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corp. and mini-computer pioneer, passed away on Sunday. He was 84.
If Olsen was running Digital or DEC as they used to call the company today he would be right up there in star power like Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft.
In fact, that's what he was in the 1970s. Everyone in Boston knew who Ken Olsen was. He had name recognition in that town similar to Bobby Orr, Larry Bird , Red Auerbach and Kevin White. Digital was the second largest employer in the state of Massachusetts. Only the government employed more.
I only met Olsen once and I treasure the experience. I was only 21 and was asked by ComputerWorld Canada to cover the DEC World Conference in Boston at the lesser know World Trade Center there. During the event I introduced myself to Linda O'Bryon, the anchor for the Nightly Business Report on PBS. Digital was a big sponsor of the telecast and she was onsite to report on the conference as well as deliver a keynote address. Just out of pure luck I bumped into her again and she asked me to sit at her table at an invitation only session featuring Ken Olsen, Henry Kissinger and Bill Gates. I couldn't believe me eyes that I was in the same room as these people and was going to meet them later on.
After the speeches I called my Dad who is a big political junkie to tell him about Kissinger, Gates and Olsen. My Dad's response was “Who is Ken Olsen?” I had already told him about Gates and his prominence in the IT industry.
My Dad's puzzlement about Olsen is a great question even today. Who really is Ken Olsen and why should we remember him? I'm afraid that time has not been kind to Olsen's legacy. Shortly after this DEC World event, Olsen was pushed out as Digital boss by Robert Palmer, no not the singer of “Simply Irresistible” fame. In 1998, Palmer sold Digital to Compaq. It was the biggest acquisition in the computer industry at the time.
I'm afraid that the current generation of IT worker will have a tough time remembering Olsen's accomplishments. Olsen was a big deal. For example, in 1986 Fortune magazine named Olsen America's Greatest Entrepreneur. That's saying something. Olsen is largely credited with creating the mini-computer, which was a machine that competed with mainframes. With this break-through in technology Olsen didn't just find a niche to compete with the IBM's of the world, but basically created a market where their wasn't one. Digital's mini-computer or as the company branded it PDP was in competition with no one else. Digital owned the market thanks to the shrewd thinking of Olsen.
Olsen built on that success with the first 32-bit computer the company named VAX. They were known in the market as Super-Minis. At one point in the 1980s DEC was second only to IBM. But as quickly as the company rose to prominence; its decline was sharp as well. Even in its declining years the company created the Alpha chip, which was clocked as the fastest on the market and AltaVista, an Internet search engine.
Digital wasn't able to capture any marketshare on the fast growing desktop computer market. It's best known brand was called Rainbow, but it was too expensive and wasn't capable of running popular software programs at the time.
Except for IBM, Olsen topped his new competitors such as HP and Compaq by establishing subsidiaries across the globe. One of its bigger operations was in Canada.
I hope I was able to give you a sense of why Ken Olsen matter to the world of computing.