Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The history of Digital Equipment Corporation

Digital Equipment Corporation or DEC was at one time one of the largest computer companies in the world, even threatening to overtake IBM at one stage. However like a number of similar companies which made their fortunes from minicomputers they were unable to adapt to the rapid pace of change to personal computing in the late 1980s.

Don't mention the computer

DEC was formed in 1957 by a couple of computer engineers, Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, with experience of working on computers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. They wanted to build interactive computers but had trouble getting funding to start their business.

Due to the reluctance of investors to commit to funding a computer company (as the fast changing nature of the industry had made making a profit on the new technology rather elusive) the early DEC instead concentrated on building electronic and computing modules for laboratories with the aim of building full computers later on. The name that was chosen, Digital Equipment, also masked the original intention of the company.

Programmable Data Processor

With the company up and running the first computers came soon enough - though to keep investors from running away scared they did not call them computers, the PDP (Programmable Data Processor) family arrived with the PDP-1 in 1960. The PDP family continued to be developed throughout the following two decades with the 12-bit PDP-8 - the first successful minicomputer, and the 16-bit PDP-11.

The PDP-11 remained on sale until the 1990s with over six hundred thousand sold. Ironically one of the eventual agents of DEC's demise as we will see later, Unix, was first developed at Bell Labs on a PDP-7 in 1969.

Virtual Address eXtension

DEC's next major family of computers was the 32-bit Virtual Address eXtension (VAX) family of high-end minicomputers which arrived in the late 1970s. The VAX family along with smart terminals like the VT52 and VT100 (DEC soon dominating the terminal market) helped DEC rise to become the second-largest computer company in the world in the mid 1980s.

It is probably worth mentioning more about DEC terminals. The first DEC terminals were the VT05 and VT52 which were successful enough but the VT100 in 1978 became the most recognised terminal name in the world and made DEC the leading vendor of terminals. Eventually over six million terminals would be sold by DEC.

The decline begins

Along with competitors like Prime Computer and Wang DEC began to falter in the late 1980s with the company's first quarterly loss following on a mere couple of years after the company had reached it's peak. Personal computers and Unix workstations were beginning to appear in ever greater numbers. Companies were quickly moving away from minicomputers in favour of the client server model, workstation performance (especially RISC based systems) was beginning to approach that of the "old iron" like DEC's VAX.

However as DEC was a "full spectrum" computer giant with a product range from microprocessors to software surely it could adapt?

Alpha to Omega

DEC had dipped their toes in the water with the likes of the Rainbow 100 personal computer in 1982 but these efforts did not set the world on fire and DEC was far too reliant on the fast shrinking minicomputer market. The company was not set up to sell computers cheaply.

In 1994 DEC joined the RISC workstation club with it's 64-bit Alpha family of CPUs and workstations. Despite the industry leading speed of the Alpha microprocessor (which had Intel worried for a while) DEC's losses were beginning to mount. Restructures were followed by record losses as the 1990s progressed. Despite layoffs and sell-offs of parts of the business DEC could not be turned around and the company was bought by Compaq, one of the "upstart" PC manufacturers, in 1998. The purchase did not go well for Compaq though who ended up being bought themselves by HP in 2002.

Now DEC is long gone though it was survived by Alta Vista, the search engine it created in it's final few years. Alta Vista was eventually bought and absorbed by Yahoo in the early 2000s.
DEC PDP-8 at the National Museum of Computing