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DEC Founder Ken Olsen Dies

Industry Pioneer Took on IBM Successfully, But Missed Out on PC Revolution

Ken Olsen, the man who created Digital Equipment Corporation, and with it the minicomputer that spread the corporate use of computers - but could never grasp the point of a PC and called Unix "snake oil" - died Sunday at the age of 84.

In its heyday DEC was the world's second-largest computer company next to IBM and an alternative to Big Blue's pricey mainframes. At the company's peak, it was the largest private-sector employer in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, with thousands more employees scattered throughout the world.

DEC's example spawned a generation of copycat minicomputers such as Data General, Apollo, MAI Basic Four, Tandem and Prime.

Ironically, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote their first PC software on a DEC PDP-10. Years later an ex-DECie ran Microsoft's development of its Unix-challenging Windows NT operating system based around DEC IP. Safe to say, all modern general-purpose operating systems descend one way or another from DEC.

Equally, ironically DEC, the first successful VC-backed computer company, was eventually acquired by Compaq, the first hysterically successful PC company, which when it finally failed too went to HP.

Compaq's "luggable" Portable was the first completely IBM-compatible machine, a concept DEC with its incompatible Rainbow resisted.

By the time of DEC ignominious sale to Compaq in 1998 Olsen had been gone for six years, ousted by DEC's board for missing shifts in the market like the PC.

He later started Advanced Modular Solutions, which never really got off the ground.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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