Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - Aftermath

Ken Olsen (second from left) at June 2006 event held in his
honor at Gordon College, Wenham. MA. Click to enlarge photos.

June 17, 2006: Fourteen years after Ken left DEC, an estimate one thousand former employees participated in “The Salute to Ken Olsen,” held at Gordon College, Wenham, MA, for a groundbreaking ceremony for a Ken Olsen Science Center. Ken has been a Gordon College Trustee since 1961. The Town of Maynard was represented by Board of Selectmen Chairman Bob Nadeau. Ken died in 2011; his wife had preceded him by two years. They are buried in a modest plot in Lincoln Cemetery, Lincoln, MA. At the time of Ken’s death he was survived by two children and five grandchildren.

DEC had stopped all company operations in the mill buildings in 1993. Not long after, same for Parker Street. The company headquarters had been relocated to a new building at 111 Powdermill Road, subsequently sold to Stratus Technologies. In November 1994, Digital sold the mill to a newly formed private healthcare company called Franklin Lifecare Corporation (FLC). The price was $1.5 million. It was a fire sale; during DEC’s last year the town had assessed the value of the mill at $25 million, and DEC’s property taxes were $671,000. Digital was not completely out of the facility. The Maynard Historical Society has correspondence about DEC leasing space from Franklin, and disputes about whether equipment was DEC’s to sell or had been part of the sale.

FLC’s plans were described in a prospectus titled “Mill Pond Village.” The intent was to start by finding commercial tenants for the buildings facing the mill pond. The follow-on was to create a massive senior independent living, assisted living and nursing home complex in the other buildings. The project was to have up to 800 living units, dining rooms, craft rooms, a museum for the town (!) and a cafĂ© overlooking the Assabet River. Funding never materialized. The mill complex stayed mostly vacant until Wellesley Rosewood Capital LLC (Clock Tower Place) agreed to buy it in October 1997, closing the deal January 1, 1998.

Clock Tower Place numbering of buildings
After DEC shuttered the mill and other buildings, and laid off employees, Maynard was not quite a ghost town, but it felt like one. Housing prices did not decline, but also did not increase at the same rate as neighboring towns. New housing starts and population growth stalled. Local businesses suffered greatly as the demand for daily services fell and weekday foot traffic all but disappeared in the downtown area. Sun Microsystems, in Burlington, hired so many former DEC employees that it was referred to by some as the “Son of Digital.”

An essential part of the deal for Clock Tower Place was an agreement with the Town of Maynard establishing tax incentive financing (TIF). The terms were that for increases in assessed value of the property – based on improvements to the buildings and grounds, and increased value as tenants moved in – there would be a 95% discount of property taxes for the first five years and a 50% discount for the following ten years. The TIF was approved at Town meeting, April 1998, and was to run July 1998 through June 2013. The TIF initially saved CTP more than half a million dollars a year. CYP also got a state abandoned building tax credit. Because of the tax breaks, Clock Tower Place was able to offer below-market rental rates. By mid-1999 the mill complex was at 50% occupancy, 73% the following February, and all 1,100,00 square feet full by the end of 2000. Downtown’s vacant storefronts were reoccupied in parallel. sign at Clock Tower Place parking lot
After filling the existing buildings with tenants, CTP was so optimistic about potential growth that it proposed adding a new 300,000 square foot building on the south side of the mill pond plus a five-story parking garage. Then, the business outlook changed. Three years into the recession that had started in 2008, the vacancy rate was hovering around 30%, with more departures expected. The death knell sounded when relocated. This international job-search company had moved to Clock Tower in 1998 with about 50,000 square feet of floor space. Within years it had expanded to 300,000 square feet. Monster also had a visible presence in town, sponsoring blood drives and an annual road race to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Assabet Valley. In early 2014, the company, which had already been downsizing (having missed the social media impact on job search that had fostered LinkedIn), relocated all of its 600+ remaining employees to Weston.

mill&main sign for Stratus (tenant)
With Monster gone, Wellesley Rosewood was facing less than 30% occupancy, a $50 million mortgage, and an expired TIF. Clock Tower Place was put up for sale. The buyers, in 2015, were Artemis Real Estate Partners and Saracen Properties, having bought the mortgage and secured an additional $40.8 million financing. The mill complex was rebranded as Mill & Main. Lincoln Property Company was brought in as on-site managers. Remodeling included removal of two of the smaller buildings (10 and part of 2) and extensive landscaping. Town-approved zoning changes allowed for retail and restaurant opportunities, not yet realized. Heading toward Maynard’s 150th anniversary, Mill & Main continues to seek tenants for the building space and other options that could benefit it and the town.   

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Maynard Police Department

Plaque at Maynard Police Station showing
what is on the current uniform patch.
At the very first town meeting, April 27, 1871, the need for law enforcement was seen as essential. Three constables were elected: Fred Fletcher, William Maxwell and Thomas Farrell. Their responsibilities included keeping order, distributing town warrants, and for an extra $10 per year, school truant officers. The following month the town approved construction of a brick lock-up, 14 x 14 feet, consisting of two cells. The location was behind Railroad Street. Twenty years later, the town voted to build a new lock-up, also of brick, behind the Nason Street fire station. It was in use until 1934, then demolished in 1984 to make way for the Paper Store building at 36 Nason Street.

As late as 1900, the entire annual budget for the Police Department was $500 per year, but with the growth after the American Woolen Company bought and enlarged the mill, a larger police force became necessary. In 1930, crosswalks and yellow lines were painted in various places for the first time for traffic safety, indicating increased automobile traffic. A few years later police headquarters, including a lock-up, were moved to the building on the west side of town hall. The department got its first police car in 1938, added two-way radio in 1946, became responsible for managing the newly installed parking meters in 1951. Recent years have the meters bringing in about $40,000 and parking tickets $20,000.  

On October 4th, 1955, the department moved into the new combination police and fire station at the corner of Summer and Main Streets, to reside there for 54 years. After several years of planning and failed attempts to gain voter approval, a new station got a “Yes” vote at town meeting in 2007. The site was the building west of Town Hall, vacated by the Maynard Public Library, which had moved in 2006 into what had been Roosevelt School. The Board of Selectman attended the ground breaking ceremony on April 22, 2008, the ribbon-cutting ceremony one year later.

The police department uniform patch has its own history. From 1965 to 1982 it featured an eagle clutching arrows and olive branch, and a shield, all loosely borrowed from the Great Seal of the United States. In 1982 the Maynard Clock Tower replaced the stripes on the shield. Ten years later the shield contained the present-day Maynard Seal, with a smaller eagle clutching the US and Massachusetts flags. Lastly, in 2007, the eagle vanished, leaving space for the town seal centered on a blue background, with the words MAYNARD (above) POLICE (below). The trim on the clock tower image is shown as bright red. Through the years, the clock tower trim has been painted many colors: white, grey, bright red, and the present-day brick red.    

Maynard Police Headquarters, Maynard, MA
Present day, the Maynard Police Department headquarters are adjacent to Town Hall. Staffing is 21 officers (2 women) and 7 civilians, mostly dispatchers. Fire and Police Communications (dispatch) were combined into one communications center in 2015. Maynard has 2.0 officers per 1,000 population. That is below the national average of 2.4 per thousand. The completion of the Assabet River Rail Trail catalyzed a decision to purchase two electric-powered bicycles. Completion of Maynard Crossing, at 129 Parker Street, may necessitate increased staff.

According to, the 2018 crime index in Maynard was 3.3 times smaller than the U.S. average, but higher than in its surrounding towns. ‘Crime index’ is a City Data score that combines crimes against people and crimes against property. The great majority of reported crimes are thefts of property. There has been only one murder in the past 20 years. Week after week, the police report in the Beacon-villager is mostly loose/lost animals, vehicle accidents, family disputes and arrests for impaired driving.   
The town was not always so benign. Back around 1900-1940 there was a murder almost every other year! Circumstances were the usual: robbery, revenge, jealousy. Lorenzo Barnes murdered Acton Street resident John Dean in 1896 after robbing him of $70; Barnes was the last criminal in Massachusetts to be executed by hanging. In 1919, Luigi Graceffa was found floating in Charles River, knife wounds. He had testified as a witness in a murder case in Waltham, and this was thought to be a revenge killing. Referred to in the Boston Globe as the "Mill Pond Murder," Lila Taryma, mother of four, disappeared the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, 1953. Her body was found weeks later in the mill pond, lashed to a heavy radiator. Cause of death was head injuries. Her husband, Anthony Taryma, was initially charged with her murder. They had been seen arguing at a bar that evening, but he left and she remained. Anthony was not brought to trial due to insufficient evidence.

Police Chief: From 1902-1925, the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen acted as chief of police. After that: John Connors (1925-1936), Henry F. Piecewicz (1937-1954), Michael T. Zapareski (1955-1968), Albert J Crowley (1968-1980), Arner S. Tibbetts (1980-1986 as interim chief, 1986-1994), Edward M. Lawton (1994-1999), James F. Corcoran (1999-2012), Mark Dubois (2012-2019), Michael A. Noble (2019-present).

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - the Decline

After protracted negotiations, Compaq announced on January 26, 1998 that it would acquire a downsized Digital Equipment Corporation. The deal closed in June. The purchase price was $9.6 billion dollars. DEC shareholders got $30 plus one share of Compaq stock for each DEC share. This for a computer company once second only to IBM, a company that had reached annual sales of $14 billion dollars, market capitalization of $24 billion and 125,000 employees working in more than 80 countries.

Stumbles in the end that contributed to DEC’s decline and fall were many. A simplistic, off-repeated story is that DEC had declined to get into the personal computer business, but this was only a small part of the problem. Circa 1985, DEC decided to compete in the arena of commercial data centers. This market traditionally belonged to International Business Machines, and to complete would require a massive increase in staff involved in sales and service. The employee population increased 26,800 in two years. Around the same time, senior management decided that the upgraded VAX system would no longer support ‘open architecture’, making it difficult for manufacturers of add-on components. DEC also decided that any purchase of a used DEC computer would require a fee to relicense the software that was already on the computer. Profitable short-term? Yes. Angry customers? Also yes.

"Clocktower" belt buckle for employees
who had been at headquarters five years.
The company was also strongly committed to vertical integration, meaning that it wanted to own its manufacture of components – chips, screens, keyboards – even when buying from independent companies would cost less. Meanwhile, competition had gained ground. Sun Microsystems and Data General competed head-to-head in the mini-computer niche, DEC failed in an attempt to compete with IBM in the mainframe niche (development of the failed VAX9000 mainframe chewed through $3 billion in critically needed capital), and while DEC was focusing upward IBM, all the micro-computer companies were approaching fast from below.

DEC’s crash was fast. The last year of billion-dollar profits was 1989. Total revenue continued to increase, but 1990 was only marginally profitable, and subsequent years saw losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Restructuring was rampant and continuous. People in senior management were leaving. There were hiring freezes, followed by offerings of early retirement and generous severance packages for those willing to volunteer to leave. The layoffs began in earnest in January 1991, including in Maynard. All company operations in the mill buildings shut down in 1993, the Parker Street complex soon after. Company headquarters had previously been relocated to a new building on Powdermill Road (later sold to Stratus Technologies, soon to become part of Beijing Royal School).

Ken Olsen, President of DEC
Click on photos to enlarge
President Ken Olsen, 65 years old in 1991, and the only president the company had had since its creation in 1957, was strongly against layoffs. From a May 1992 article in the New York Times: “We’ve lived through many recessions,” he said, “This is just one more.”

The company had weathered downturns before by depending on its research excellence to leapfrog the competition to a new industry supremacy. Staff were reassigned, but not let go. This time, no. In July 1992, the company’s Board of Directors forced Olsen to resign. For thousands of employees, working for DEC within the empowering management system and mantra of “Do the right thing,” this was a heart-wrenching event. A forum comment from one employee “I used to drive to the office in the morning, and I couldn’t wait to get to work – I love my job and the company environment… The company doesn’t love itself anymore. Now I drive to work in the morning and all I can think about is getting out of this company and doing something else”

Robert Palmer, who had joined the company in 1985 to run the computer chip manufacturing division, took over as president, also taking on the title of Chief Executive Officer, and later, Chairman of the Board. He was perceived as competent, but not visionary. Over six years, Palmer oversaw plant closings, staff relocations, layoffs of 60,000 employees and sale of many of the major components of the company. Downsizing cost the company close to $5 billion.

Poster for DEC's search engine, AltaVista
Even during the decline, there had been successes. Digital launched the internet search engine AltaVista in 1995. It was the most popular among many competing search engines such as Lycos, AskJeeves and Yahoo, until Google came to dominate the market after 2000. According to one source, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had approached DEC in 1997 with their Pagerank system, hoping to be acquired by Altavista, before going on to start Google.

DEC was not alone in suffering setbacks and contractions in the 1990s. IBM shrank from 405,000 employees in 1985 to 220,000 by 1994, and reduced its stock dividend by two-thirds. Data General, Wang Laboratories, Prime Computer, Lotus Development Corporation and Apollo Computer were all greater-Boston area computer companies that faded and folded or were acquired around the same time.

Was the sale inevitable? Probably not. With a different senior management, it is possible that Digital could have survived, perhaps prospered, but unlikely that it could have regained its aura as a radically innovative company attracting the best and the brightest. Instead, ex-DEC employees went on to populate the next generation of tech companies.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - Logo Changes

Over its 41 years, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) went through a number of logo changes, some obvious, some subtle.  The original from 1957 was a vertically oriented black rectangle against a white background with the letters “dec” also vertical – within the black book white, but the ascender of the letter “d” extending above the top of the containing rectangle being black. The second version consisted of the letters “d i g i t a l” all lower case, the dots over the letters “i” being squares. Each letter was in its own vertically oriented dark rectangle. There were no white spaces between the rectangles.

Digital Equipment Corporation's first logos, including the
briefly considered all capitals "DIGITAL" in 1965
In 1965 there was an attempt to create a new logo with all capital letters, either DIGITAL dark against a light background or light against a dark background. This did away with the individually boxed letters. It did not ‘take.’ DEC reverted to the individually boxed letters, lower case, letters in various colored rectangles separated by spaces. The letters and spaces were not designed as white. Rather, they were intended to appear as cut-outs in the rectangles, so the color of the letter matched the color of the paper or piece of equipment the logo was on. The dots over the letters “i” were squares. For a while, the different PDP models each had their own color, but the transition to the VAX minicomputers settled to “Digital Blue.”

There was a brief period, circa 1985, when “digital” appeared as white letters within grey rectangles, separated by white lines. In 1987, the background color was changed to burgundy. The “i” dots remained square. A reason for abandoning blue not yet discovered, but one possibility was an intent to differentiate from “Big Blue”, the nickname for International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), which became popular in media in the early 1980s. That name has an unclear origin, but is generally assumed to refer to the blue tint of the computer cases. Not counting company name and logo changes between founding in 1888 and becoming IBM in 1924, its logo has been through changes: a couple of font changes, 13 stripes, and then the reduction to 8 stripes in 1972.

Blue logo, pre-1987. In 1987 the
rectangle color changed to burgundy.
Finally, in 1993, during the layoffs era, the DEC logo underwent one more set of relatively subtle changes: keep the burgundy, black between the letter rectangles instead of white, from squares to circles over the letters “i” and the ends of the letters “g, t and a” slanted rather than horizontal. This did not save the company from its downward spiral toward the 1998 sale to Compaq.

In 1993 the Digital logo dots over the
"i" letters became circles. 
And then there is being kicked while you are down and REALLY being kicked while you are down. The announcement that Digital Equipment Corporation was being purchased by Compaq Computer Corporation was made January 26, 1998. Two weeks later, Hewlett-Packard, a major competitor, ran an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Business Week, targeting DEC clients who might in theory be worried about future support of their DEC hardware and software by Compaq. The WSJ ad was a double-page spread, a tableau of white space, centered six-inch high lettering: “worried?” Each letter was in its own black rectangle. The two magazine versions matched DEC’s burgundy color for the rectangles. Smaller print at the bottom of the ads read: "You've committed to UNIX by spending millions," the ad said. "But if you chose a Digital system you're probably thinking, 'now what?' " The ad went on to proclaim that H-P's "dedication to Unix ... has never wavered ... and we're not going anywhere."

The advertisement, created by Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, was deliberately designed to mimic DEC’s logo. This triggered a cease-and-desist letter from Digital's lawyers, protested trademark infringement, so it ran only the once, and it is impossible to find an image of it on the Internet. In addition to quashing the H-P advertisement, DEC and Compaq ran jointly branded counter-ads that while not specifically naming H-P, promised “Continued success. Continued support." It is totally ironic that only four years after the DEC/Compaq deal, H-P merged with Compaq.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Maynard's Newspapers

I stepped out our front door a few mornings ago to get the Sunday newspaper, which is delivered in a blue plastic bag. Across the street was my neighbor and his young son. The boy pointed to what I was about to pick up, and asked "What's that?" 
  His father answered "Mr. Mark gets a newspaper delivered to his house every morning. It's inside the bag."
  Then the boy asked, "What's a newspaper?"

Concord, our ancient neighbor to the east, had newspapers long before Maynard warranted a bit of local reporting. The Middlesex Gazette was begun in April 1816 as a weekly. Between 1816 and 1852, Concord papers started up and stopped: the Gazette, Observer, Gazette & Yeoman, Yeoman’s Gazette and The Concord Freeman. Those last two, conservative and liberal, overlapped. Oddly, Concord had no paper from 1852 to 1875, news items appearing as a section in the Lowell papers

"Above the fold" for the Beacon-villager.
Maynard has been served by several newspapers through the years. Starting at the present and working backwards, we have the Beacon-Villager, for Maynard and Stow. It’s a weekly. It shows up Thursdays, home delivery and in stores. Holly Camaro has been the editor and major reporter since August 2013. Of late, it runs as 16 pages, but in the past was 24 or even 32 pages. The Beacon-Villager owner had gone by the name Gatehouse Media until November 2019, when Gatehouse acquired Gannett, making it the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, and then took the Gannett name. In Massachusetts, Gatehouse had already owned MetroWest Daily News and more than 100 town weekly papers, publishing in print and at town-by-town websites. Ours is

The Beacon, started in Acton was the forerunner of the Beacon-Villager. It launched in 1945. In the summer of 1953, the Beacon Publishing Company was the first business to move into Maynard’s mill after the conversion from woolen factory to rentable office and industry space. As The Beacon and later The Assabet Valley Beacon it served several towns. In time this evolved to papers for each town, including Acton’s Beacon, the Concord Free Press and the Sudbury Citizen.  

Rolling the years back, “The Maynard News,” a weekly published in Hudson, servicing the towns of Maynard, Hudson, South Acton, Stow and Concord Junction (West Concord). It started in 1899, ceased publication in 1943. What is surprising is how little actual “news” was in the paper. Week after week, the pages were filled with announcement-type items, such as a wrestling match at the Finnish Hall, a lecture on the “White Slave Trade,” engagement announcements and school concerts. Apparently, the main function of the newspapers of a century ago appears to have been akin to what we now think of social media - personal items people wanted to share with the community. Most of the old issues exist as bound folios at the Maynard Historical Society (MHS) and on microfilm at the Maynard Public Library.

“The Enterprise Weekly” later renamed to “Maynard Enterprise,” predated “The Maynard News” by eleven years, and was also printed in Hudson. A century ago, individual copies were three cents, a year’s subscription $1.50. Advertisements are interesting reading: Distasio’s Market offered beef at 15-25¢ per pound. Lerer’s Clothing Store had men’s shoes for $2 and suits for $10-20. An oak dining room table with six chairs for only $25. Ford Motor Company offered car models starting at $700. To put all this into perspective, factory pay was less than two dollars a day. The Enterprise ceased publication in 1970.

The oldest record of newspaper content about Maynard is from an unidentified paper. What exists is a handful of pages in the MHS collection dated 1879. Among the typical coverage of bridge club outings and people taken ill was a mention that the Maynard family was vacationing in New Hampshire, and hoped to visit Mount Washington.

Thoreau – famously – was not a fan of newspapers. “And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, - we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?” He also wrote that he had tried reading one newspaper a week, but even that dulled his awareness and appreciation of nature.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - DEC world & DEC air

This is actually the 1993-changed logo.
Note black spacing between the
rectangles, circle dots over the "i"
letters and subtle font changes.
There was a brief time in the 1980s when Digital Equipment Corporation ruled the computer world, and it was epitomized by the annual DEC-produced, DEC-featured, one company trade show known as DEC World (also as DECworld). In 1987, the event brought 42,000 people to Boston. Just weeks before the September opening day, senior management realized that it had underestimated the housing demand, and that all hotels in Boston were 100 percent booked. The solution? Jack Shields, marketing senior vice-president, proposed chartering ships. DEC contracted to have the Queen Mary II and the Starship Oceanic, also known as the “Big Red Boat” docked at Boston for the duration of the convention. The event cost DEC an estimated twenty million dollars, but generated close to a billion dollars in product orders and service contracts.

Poster for DECWORLD 87 (internet download)
Click on photos to enlarge.
DECworld had started as DEC Town in 1982 as an annual convention for employees – primarily for the sales force to be made familiar with the year’s innovations and new product introductions. According to an anecdote from employee Jack Conaway, Ken Olsen showed up at the Digital exhibit at a CAD/CAM Expo on the west coast, and immersed himself in talking to DEC’s booth staff and the customers. A while later Ken's office announced DEC Town the pre-cursor for the highly successful DEC Worlds that extended this model to all the applications and industries that Digital served.

DECworld 1988 was held in Cannes, France. Two years later the company split the event: DECworld in July in Boston, followed by DECville in Cannes in September. DECworld 1992 was newsworthy on two counts: being the last ever of these conventions, and Bill Gates (CEO of Microsoft) as a keynote speaker to DEC’s major corporate customers. The event, April-May 1992 tallied some 30,000 attendees. Boston estimated that the event brought about $50 million in spending on hotels, meals, transportation, entertainment, etc.

Bill Gates, a tech superstar with a net worth of six billion dollars (who’s first exposure to computers was timesharing on a PDP-10 at his school in 1968), was there to expound on how a newly forged deal to combine DEC’s minicomputers and Microsoft software was going to benefit both companies. He went off script. Gates talked about himself. Or rather, his brand new 66,000 square foot house that incorporated software to run everything. The message was not subtle: software rules, and I am the emperor of software. And he was right on both counts. Microsoft’s current capitalization stands at $1.2 trillion. Ken Olsen, the emperor of hardware, president of the second-largest computer company in the world, was forced to resign in July 1992. The company downsized for six years, then sold what remained to Compaq for $9.6 billion.

Helicopter landing pad
Although never actually called the “DEC Air Force,” Digital had a fleet of six helicopters (more?) that regularly flew routes to nearby-facilities in New Hampshire, and also to Digital’s own gate at Boston's Logan International Airport. The landing pad in Maynard was at the rear of the 55-acre complex on Parker Street, currently being developed as Maynard Crossing. From an article by Jack Farley: “The helicopters were not executive perks at DEC; they were used by any and all employees who wanted to avoid traffic in going from place to place. This egalitarian policy further emphasized just how different DEC was and how indifferent they appeared to be to the cost of anything. In doing the case study, we were told that DEC had state-of-the-art video-conferencing facilities that no one used because it was sexier to take the helicopters.”

Paul V. McGovern, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran, was Digital’s first helicopter pilot. Most of the pilots were veterans. One frequent user of the helicopters described how she lived in Wayland and had offices in both Marlborough and Merrimack, New Hampshire. She could drive to the Parker Street complex, park, get on the scheduled helicopter, and she would be in Merrimack about twenty minutes later. There, DEC had built a brand new million square foot facility and out back constructed a little log cabin with a pot-belly stove and a location sign on it as if it were a railroad station to act as a place to keep warm while waiting for the flights to Boston. There was a downside, in that round trips were not guaranteed. If the weather soured or you missed the last helicopter back you might be stuck many miles from home. Fortunately, DEC also had shuttle vans and limo service.

In addition to the hired air force – helicopters and corporate jets – Ken Olsen was himself a certified pilot. He owned his own plane, and at times flew himself to “Woods Meetings” (senior management retreats) in Maine and New Hampshire – a thought that surely worried the rest of senior management at Digital! The solution was not to ask him to stop flying, but rather to insist that he have a professional as a copilot.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Decorated Tree in the Woods

On the Assabet River Walk trail, which can be accessed from Concord Street or Colbert Avenue, there is a fifteen foot tall spruce tree. It is the only spruce tree in the entire forest. This December, for the third year in a row, it has been decorated with more than 100 red, silver and gold bulbs. Toward the end of January almost all of the bulbs will be removed. Until then, anyone essaying a walk in the woods gets a surprise. Walking in from the Colbert Avenue end, there are silver decorations every 20-30 yards, in tree branches above or alongside the trail, decreasing in distance between them as the decorated tree nears. Think 'breadcrumbs,' marking the way.

UPDATES: January 18th, before storm, all silver and gold removed (except near the top, which will require a ladder). Also most of the 'breadcrumbs.' February 8th, removed all but about 20 of the red.

Sometimes winter adds its own decorations in the form of a dusting (or more) of snow. With a bit of snow only the red bulbs stand out, the silver and gold lost against the white snow.

With a lot of snow the whole tree folds up sort of like an umbrella. Snow-covered or not, best effect achieved by approaching the tree from the Colbert Avenue end in the afternoon of a sunny day. Distance from trailhead is about 1/3 mile along a root strewn trail. After rain or thaw there are soggy sections, so best to visit when the ground is dry or frozen.

Mid-January : all non-red bulbs (around 2/3 of total) removed except at top (because that will require  carrying in a ladder). By end of January most of the red will be removed, but a dozen or so will remain until next December. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Digital Equipment Corporation - PCs

Olsen was correctly quoted but misunderstood when in a talk given to a 1977 World Future Society meeting in Boston he said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” This statement was repeated in TIME magazine and elsewhere. Keep in mind that the first non-hobbyist ‘personal computers’, including the Apple II, reached the market in 1977, the IBM PC in 1981.

In the full context of Ken’s talk, he was a non-believer in the futuristic idea that we would turn over day-to-day operations of our homes – such as paying bills, turning lights and heat on and off, running security systems, and keeping inventory of food supplies in the house and creating a shopping list accordingly (any yet, here we are). Ken also knew that computers were evolving so rapidly that any purchased home computer would soon become obsolete. (So true!) In his mind the proper solution was to have video screens, keyboards and printers in homes and at businesses, all linked electronically to company-operated computers that would provide the software, software upgrades, and memory. DEC actually launched the first of what became a series of video terminals in August 1978 as the VT100 (superseded in time by VT200 and VT300). The VT series sold millions.    

Digital Equipment Corporation - VT100 terminal (internet download)
As to desktop computers, over decades, DEC had committed itself to selling mid-size computers that generated significant profits by customizing software and providing service. A leap to also making low-priced, low-profit, small computers that would run software provided by other companies saved IBM, but stymied Digital. Only after IBM launched personal computers in August 1981, did DEC decide to enter the fray. It initiated not one, not two, but three separate PC projects, at separate company facilities, with poor communication amongst them. DEC’s standard procedure would have been to then decide which was best and kill the other two. Instead, all three were brought to market – perhaps over-fast – in 1982: the high-end Professional, the DECmate series (offering only word processing) and the more general-purpose Rainbow 100.

DEC being DEC, everything was of high quality and ran various versions of DEC’s software, but by not being open to the flood of software that IBM was allowing all companies to make to run on its machines, DEC failed to set the standard and did not follow the standard. Even for something as simple as floppy disks, DEC used its own proprietary formatting. Disks formatted to the IBM standard worked on IBM clones, but not DEC’s machines, and vice versa. And as a consequence of poor internal communications and DEC’s bias toward proprietary systems, its three microcomputers were also not compatible with each other.

As example of the problems, the Rainbow 100 was priced higher than competing systems targeting the consumer market. DEC did not have a marketing, sales and delivery system that could put its PCs into store or else sell and deliver directly to consumers. PCs did not require the lucrative support and service contracts that followed placement of minicomputers. And finally, as one sales person put it, “Why try to sell 12 Rainbows when you can get the same commission on selling just one VAX?"

A couple of years later a proposal emerged from Engineering to start over, but this time with competitively priced clones of the IBM system, able to run all the software that was making the IBM PCs so successful for business applications. Compaq had already jumped into this niche with the Compaq Deskpro. Dell followed with the Turbo PC, priced at under $800. DEC was already doing cost-effective mass production of desktop systems as video terminals. All it would take was to improve on IBM’s construction short-cuts and turn out a sturdy, fast, high-end clone. Ken Olsen killed the proposal. His attitude had always been that Digital was a leader, not a follower.

By the time Olsen reversed himself on this topic – in 1991 – it was too late. DEC brought out a series of high-end, extremely reliable, IBM-compatible machines under the Prioris, Celebris and Venturis brands. But Compaq, Dell, Gateway and others had a much larger share of what was transitioning to a low profit margin business. When merger talks first started with Compaq in 1996, Digital was manufacturing about one million PCs a year. Compaq was doing twelve times that number. Compaq did not want DEC’s PC business. After the 1998 acquisition, what had been Digital’s PC business was discontinued.