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DEC co-founder writes memoir, traces company's rise and fall

Computer pioneer Harlan Anderson on competing vs. IBM, man/machine interaction and Digital Equipment's lack of software expertise

By , Network World
October 22, 2009 12:10 PM ET
Harlan Anderson

Network World - Harlan Anderson, who founded Digital Equipment Corp. with Ken Olsen in 1957, has written a new book on his days as a computer pioneer: "Learn, Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer," published by Locust Press (read an excerpt here). In it, he chronicles his humble beginnings on an Illinois farm up through his first interactions with computers at the University of Illinois; large-scale projects at MIT's Lincoln Lab;, and then founding, growing and watching, from afar, the ultimate demise of DEC. Anderson shared some thoughts on DEC and computer advancements in general with Network World Managing Editor Jim Duffy.

What made you and Ken Olsen decide to start Digital Equipment?

We were restless. This giant [SAGE Air Defense] project at MIT was moving into the implementation phase. No longer was it the forefront of adventurous exploration of new technology. One of the things that was not uppermost in our mind was going out to make lots of money.

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What was DEC's biggest contribution to the industry?

Bringing the man/machine interaction capabilities to the commercial world. That was the initial important contribution. Software…was never Digital's strong suit for many, many years. The other thing was, the computer – compared with IBM machines at the time – was cheap enough that it was economical to let somebody tinker with it. It was uneconomical for a several million dollar machine to be tied up by one programmer. Time sharing was an attempt to get around that. Time sharing was the concept to allow diddling.

What was DEC's biggest mistake?

There weren't a lot of serious mistakes until near the end because it had an enormous rise. The decline occurred for two reasons: when the VAX strategy was wearing out and no longer propelling the company, there was no new computer strategy that could come close to that. So it was lack of a new computer strategy; the second was the innovation in the industry was moving from hardware to software, which was not part of DEC's strong suit. They did software because they had to but they were certainly not a leader in it.

Another was when the personal computer came along the industry moved to standards. Microsoft Windows became the default standard and all applications were programmed to work with that operating system standard. DEC had thrived on proprietary things which were not compatible. [Legendary DEC engineer] Gordon Bell pointed out that the company had the technology – it knew how to build the personal computer, it had the Rainbow – but there was a lot of infighting at the company at the time about which one of the different approaches was the right one to take, but neither was compatible with the industry. The matrix form of organization made it very difficult to make decisions. Decisions had to be based on consensus and you had two competing groups that were strong in their different ideas in how to do it. They really missed the boat for a variety of reasons but that's probably the biggest thing that started the downward spiral of the company.

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