A Look Back Forward: IT Visions, Miscues, and True Transformations (Said Simply: Ken Olsen Was Right After All!)

Once upon a time, ‘parsecs’ ago in high tech time, there was a computer giant homegrown in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts founded by an engineering and entrepreneur genius. I’m referring to (of course) Digital Equipment Corporation (aka “DEC”) and wunderkind founder, CEO, President, and paternalistic ‘gentle giant’ Ken Olsen. Not familiar? Not surprising, especially since upstart Compaq Computer ended up buying DEC back in early 1998 (only later to be subsumed by HP). Besides, even in its PDP and VAX heyday, DEC was pretty ‘low profile’ and mostly an OEM channel vendor. But one really has to look hard in today’s high tech world and IT data centers to find any substantial technology, system, platform computing style or application that Digital didn’t have some impact upon, either directly or indirectly. For starters, have you ever heard of StorageWorks, Alpha, Workstations, Alta Vista, Ethernet or RDB? I was lucky to be there on the tip of the high tech spear back in the 80s and 90s. I was a proud “Deccie” and a dedicated/loyal one of Ken’s minions like all the rest at DEC. Ken was among other things a true visionary and also “low profile.”

But I digress. Obviously you and I don’t have time here to chronicle the many innovations, contributions, and legacies of Ken and Digital. No, a history lesson or nostalgic look back isn’t the focus of this blog. It’s about vision setting, interpreting that vision, and actually seeing it developed and applied to “the good of the user community” and advancement of computing in general. Sometimes those visions are half baked. Sometimes they’re quite novel and generate significant breakthroughs and changes. Some may be a bit premature and conceptual for people to grasp. Others are self-serving, ill-founded, and just plain wrong. They soon lapse into media obscurity or some discarded industry specification, consortia, program/product initiative, or marketing blitz. Sometimes visionaries are quoted out of context or are misunderstood. Here, Ken (who once appeared on the cover of Forbes and was recognized routinely by MIT for both his engineering and business acumen) was famously deemed wrong on two of his infamous assertions:

  1. There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home. (circa 1977)
  2. People will get tired of managing personal computers and will want instead terminals, maybe with windows. (circa 1992)

Now, I won’t presume to know what Ken really intended to say or claim that he actually envisioned the advent of virtualization, cloud computing, tablets/iPads, Smart Phones, thin clients, and internet client/server computing on the web and ultimately the transition to the 3rd Platform of Mobile Computing. No, that probably would be a stretch…or would it? Ken’s alleged ‘famous last words’ dismissal of personal computing in homes was grossly taken out of context. He was merely questioning “why would a casual user want a general purpose computer at home when simple terminal access to shared/centralized host resources via remote connection for day to day casual ‘personal computing’ would suffice?” Come to think of it, we mostly surf the web, check email, and log into social media sites/accounts like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, our banking institution, and so forth from home. OK, we also use our PC or tablet to store photos, tax returns, and other important personal info. Sometimes that can be scary; especially given most of us aren’t trained IT system managers. Moreover, Ken went on to say (in that same speech) how the real home computers would be intelligent micro computer devices controlling your thermostats, faucets, lights, etc. Today, we lump those in the Internet of Things (IoT) category and the Cloud for the 3rd Platform- for mobile subset computing resources.

Segue to Ken’s 2nd observation/prediction above: “People will get tired of managing personal computers and will want instead terminals.” By this time, PCs were firmly established. So was the famous window GUI from Apple which, incidentally, actually had first been developed by Xerox (i.e., Xerox Star) and not by Apple on their “Lisa PC.” Microsoft soon followed with Windows 95. GUIs replaced menu choices and CLIs as the friendliest user interface. Thank goodness! But windows aside, in which Ken was envisioning multi-thread/multi-display screens running applications in real-time, Ken also foretold of “just enough thinly provisioned client compute resources” (terminals in his day) that could access remote shared, centralized server resources, and free users of managing and administering yeoman IT tasks for their increasingly complex PCs. Of course such smart terminals like today’s powerful/fast tablets, and Smart Phones were only “Star Trek” type fantasies at the time of his predictions.

Fast forward your Beta VCR to today. The Cloud has not only transformed the data center, it’s transforming the way people access computer resources and information, increasingly mobile and on the fly from their handheld (or worn) devices! A quick glance at home PC sales reflects this transformation. Tablets, iPads, Smart Phones, and maybe still a laptop/notebook are all one needs. The Cloud enables our transition to the 3rd Platform and brings the information web closer to us casual or power users. Like “DEC,” another Commonwealth of Massachusetts home bred high tech innovator is providing the vision and leading the way to the future with IT foundation products today: EMC with its wide breadth of 2nd and 3rd Platform storage hardware, software, and professional services. Ken was right…on both counts. Just twenty years ahead of his time. Today, EMC happens to be delivering on that vision and adding new IT and computing visions of its own that empower users – and ultimately consumers of information –whether they know about EMC or not.

EMC provides the products and platforms necessary for companies to deliver the cloud experience to today’s mobile user. Solutions like ViPR and the Elastic Cloud Storage ECS Appliance enable current and next generation developers to work their magic in a cost- effective and secure manner. As access devices continue to multiply and get smaller (the watch phone anyone?), the infrastructure supporting the delivery of all that content must be flexible in both scale and speed to make sure all that information gets to where it needs to be. Wonder what Ken would predict is next for EMC?

About the Author: Rodger Burkley