Vale DEC founder, Ken Olsen

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Vale DEC founder, Ken Olsen

Minicomputer pioneer passes away, aged 84.

Ken Olsen, computer industry pioneer and co-founder of Digital Equipment Corp, died aged 84 on Sunday.

Massaschusetts Gordon College announced Olsen's death, providing a detailed overview of his achievements.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates credited Olsen for being "a major influence in my life", noting that many of the engineers trained at Digital still worked at Microsoft producing software.

Olsen's reputation as a skeptic of personal computers was set in stone after his comment in 1977 that he saw "no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home".

DEC, which he founded in 1957, had invested its talent in low-cost "minicomputers", which sold for around US$100,000 at the time -- a fraction of the millions demanded by IBM.

DEC's first, the PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor), is widely credited with sparking MIT's hacking culture, and was the equipment on which the first computerised video game, Spacewar!, was built.

By 1988, Olsen maintained the company's decision to avoid an early entry to the PC business was good, because it lacked the scale that IBM did to pull it off. By the late eighties he said the company was encouraging PCs, but he still believed in a future model for computing, akin to thin computing and possibly cloud computing.

"We believe in PC's. We encourage them. We network them. We use them in large numbers. But we still believe that most people in an organisation want terminals. Terminals you don't have to worry about data management, you don't have to worry about floppy disks. You just sit down and it does the work for you automatically," he said.

Besides operating systems, hardware, networking, and the Yahoo-owned Alta Vista search engine, the company Olsen led made its mark in data storage as the first to deliver digital linear tape (DLT) -- a business unit snapped up by storage vendor Quantum in 1994.

Though unsophisticated by today's standards, the technology is still widely used as backup storage by the world's largest financial institutions.

Olsen held views on doing business with Defense that are shared by today's technology pioneers, Apple and Google. Both companies have reportedly refused to give in to demands by the Defense Information Systems Agency to hand over their security APIs for the iPhone and Android and instead demand the department speak with integrators.

At the outset, Olsen implemented a policy preventing DEC from bending to the Department of Defense. Besides demanding accounting rules to follow, "the products they develop are just contrary to commercial activities," said Olsen.

"We felt and still feel, still very clearly, that doing business with them hurts one's position in the commercial market," he said in 1998.

While DEC did do business on commercial terms, he said it declined to change its business practices to satisfy their ways.

Olsen was replaced as head of DEC by Robert Palmer in 1992, six years before the company was sold off to now HP-owned Compaq for about US$9 billion.

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