I was sorry to learn last week that Ken Olsen is dead. He had reached a good age and had stopped contributing to the computer industry some years before. While he was active, especially through the 1960s and ‘70s, he and his colleagues revolutionised commercial computing. The legacy of what they achieved through Digital Equipment Company (DEC) will live on for years.
If you are unaware of those contributions, these two obituaries, from the New York Times and The Guardian, will give you some idea. I hope someone will soon publish an up-to-date technical appreciation of Olsen’s work and its influence. Meanwhile, there’s a detailed but shaky company history on Wikipedia.
Here’s one large footprint. The laptop computer I’m typing this article on runs the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system, a lineal descendant of Windows NT. That, in turn, was based on the DEC VMS operating system, which originated nearly 35 years ago. David Cutler, the architect of Windows NT, worked on VMS at DEC before moving to Microsoft.
There’s an indirect track, too. My laptop is also running Ubuntu, a version (‘distro’) of Linux, which is a rewriting of the Unix operating system. Much of the early work on Unix was done on DEC computers, which were also a popular host for it.
And whenever I connect the computer to a cabled network, I do so through Ethernet. This is a technology devised in the 1970s at Xerox and then popularised by DEC, Intel and Xerox (“DIX”, as they were unflatteringly known).
DEC and social networking
Here’s a further example of DEC’s pioneering. While looking for something else in my files, I came across this forgotten (by me) account from 1987 of how an American university used VAX Notes. This was a forerunner of enterprise social software.
The VAX Notes interface had none of the graphical qualities we enjoy today — it ran on dumb terminals as well as PCs. Its functions were limited mainly to text conferencing. Despite these apparent shortcomings, VAX Notes produced community-creating results similar to those of modern products such as Lotus Connections or SocialText.
Patti Anklam, formerly of DEC, describes the company as “The Camelot of collaboration”, at least in people’s memory. Her 2001 article relates how the use of VAX Notes gave rise to enthusiastic and productive communities of purpose, practice and interest.
They still exist. If you go to DECUServe, you will find VAX Notes is running even now. The site has more than 50 technical conferences “presently boasting over 18,000 technical topic streams.” In these, they say, “answers to questions come quickly and with courtesy”. That’s nice.
And here’s yet another piece of DEC’s heritage. VAX Notes’ developers — Len Kawell and Tim Halvorsen — left the company. In 1984, they joined forces with Ray Ozzie at a start-up called Iris Associates. The product that emerged five years later was called Lotus Notes, and still is.
As the author of Ecclesiastes points out:
Is there a thing whereof it is said: ‘See, this is new’? — it hath been already, in the ages which were before us.