Sunday, April 24, 2016

Patterns in the History of Computing: The Birth, Life and Death of the Tech Empire

As a student of history and a geek deeply interested in computers, Computer History is a personal passion of mine.

I am particularly interested in unlikely upstart success stories, most of which have a predictable arc:

  • A founder has an idea which is considered ridiculous to whatever industry he or she plans to disrupt.
  • A founder executes a minimum viable product, and iterates. 
  • Building an ever growing product line, the company flourishes, expands, and reaches a point I will call the Apogee, the highest point in an orbit.
  • Someone else has an idea which is going to disrupt this founder's business. This founder ignores this disruptive change and continues on the original plan.
  • The company, after realizing too late that a change in the market is afoot, eventually dies or is acquired.
  • We fondly remember the company, and its founders, who made so many pivotal or important technologies, and which is now all but gone.
I think anybody here can list 100 of these, but today I'd like to talk about DEC, and Ken Olsen, and do a brief retrospective on his accomplishments, his brilliance, and his critical mistake.

What do we owe to DEC and Ken Olsen?  The original internet machines built by Bolt Beranek and Newman were built around DEC hardware modules.  The ultimate success of Ethernet networking was due to collaboration between Xerox and DEC.  Xerox could be another example of a failed company, but rather than dying, they're merely a niche imaging company instead of the godfathers of computing.  The idea of owning your own computer and the computer being used directly by individual operators, a key element of Personal Computing, was first made possible by small DEC machine that were not even called "Computers" in the earliest days because the term was too strongly associated with the priestly caste of IBM mainframe programmers in their glass-walled temples.  And yet, Olsen's failure of vision were twofold.  He failed to move DEC towards RISC technology fast enough that they could realize the architecture benefits of RISC, which have informed subsequent CISC architecture designs, while RISC itself is dead, the process improvements in silicon ULSI design and fabrication that RISC permitted have lived on.   He famously derided the idea that personal computers, of the kind that Microsoft wanted to see proliferate would eat DEC's entire cake, killing the VAX and the PDP-11, and almost every 1970s mainframe and minicomputer company.

What is ironic to me is that DEC became what it originally was intended to become an alternative to.  Today's developers would not see much distinction between an IBM system 360 and a VAX 11/780. Both are dinosaurs, artifacts.

I actually took a whole term course in 1990, not that long ago, on VAX Assembly language. What the hell was the University of Western Ontario thinking when it set up my curriculum? VAX Assembly language?  Yet I'm happy I learned it.  The VAX architecture was and is beautiful. The VMS operating system was beautiful.  Dave Cutler, the Microsoft alpha geek (ha, did you get that pun?) behind Windows NT, basically rewrote VMS and it's running on your computer today, first it was called OS/2, then Windows NT, later Windows XP and today it's called Windows 10. It's the same kernel, and its architecture owes a lot to VMS. Like VMS,  Windows is not the only operating system that runs on PC architectures.  Unlike DEC, Microsoft at one point in its life made a lot of its money selling software. What would a Microsoft that makes most of its money selling Cloud and SaaS plus selling Enterprise platforms and tools look like? We're about to find out.

Today, Microsoft in 2016 is at the same point that DEC was in 1988. You can see Microsoft hosting huge events like Build 2016.   They have money, they have influence, and developer mindshare everywhere except on mobile.   They have a brilliant CEO who like the founder at Microsoft, is also a competent technologist.  They understand that Microsoft without change internally, is the same company in 2016 that DEC was in 1988, a few years away from irrelevance and death, unless they pivot. IBM pivoted and is now 90% an IT services and consulting company and maybe 10% a mainframe hardware company.  IBM will still be around in ten years.

What does it mean to pivot?  Microsoft is executing one right now. Go look. At Microsoft, it's free Visual Studio Community, free Xamarin,  Ubuntu Bash running unmodified user binaries on Windows 10 desktops, it's .net core, a radical (and beautiful) rebuild of the .net platform for the next 30 years of cloud and corporate computing.   Will Microsoft break the chain of companies with disruptive ideas (A computer on every desk) and unlike DEC, still be around in 20 years? I think it will.  Will Blackberry? I don't think so.   

What about the things you build? What about your company? Will you and the leadership in your organization recognize disruptive change, and the need to pivot your organization to survive? What if today you are a software vendor but you need to become a SaaS IT Provider to survive, or precisely the reverse? How will you know?  More thoughts on that later.  Only this in conclusion: The market will shift. Your skills and your current product will become a commodity, or worse, a worthless historical artifact, like buggy whips.  How will you adapt, and change so that you, and your organization will flourish?


  1. Interesting thoughts. I wasn't very aware of the history of DEC, and in fact only vaguely even know the name.

    > "How will you know? More thoughts on that later."

    I'll look forward to the followup.

  2. Another example is Digital Research and CP/M, which were eventually destroyed by Microsoft and MS-DOS (which was ironically originally a CP/M clone).

  3. It's funny to see you write about computer history but no mention of Apple at all. :)