Friday, October 2, 2009

Three books on defunct computer companies

The books are:
1. Lessons: An Autobiography by Dr An Wang with Eugene Linden
2. The Ultimate Entreprenuer: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation by Glenn Rifkin and Geoge Harrar
3. The Soul of a New Machine by Tacy Kidder

The biggest irony is that these books were written around the time when the companies were probably at their peak. The decline at Data General (Kidder's book) was in retrospect obvious by the time the book was published. The minicomputer that was the focus of the book extended the life of the company by about a decade. Likewise, Digital stayed around for about just as long while Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and reemerged in some form later but then pretty much disappeared. Of the three, Wang seemed to have been the hardiest (1951-1999), followed by Digital (1957-1998) which was taken over by Compaq and subsequently HP, while Data General which tried to challenge Digital began in 1968 and was defunct in 1999.

Its hard not to look back on these companies and be overwhelmed by how much innovation can create and destroy. All these companies underestimated IBM (ironically they thought they could take on IBM) and the PC revolution. (Although this was also a time that workstations/Unix were also challenging the market.) Even though they survived into the 90s for the most part, the last decade of their lives were pretty precarious.

Of the three books, Wang's book is mostly a pat in the back book that glosses over its failings while the book on Digital while not an attack on Ken Olsen (who did not participate in the book) per se did reveal the resulting politics and confusion of his management style (the once celebrated matrix management method). This book might have been a lot better if there were more source notes. I realize a lot of the interviews were given in confidence but without the notes it reads a lot like hearsay. Kidder's book (which won a Pulitzer) tries to convey the tecnical aspects of creating a new computer which I thought was only partially successful. It's easy to talk about bits as ones and zeros but the more technical concepts are hard to convey to layman and although Kidder tried I could not follow most of it (and in some cases it was hard enough that he chose not to try).

Some choice quotes from the Rifkin & Harrar book on Digital pretty much sums up why these companies are no longer here today:
"There is no such thing .. as personal computing." Ken Olsen, page 130.

Shields [senior VP of sales and service] liked to inspire his sales troops by telling them the projected date that DEC would surpass IBM in revenue: July 2007. Thinking the idea would spark up the sales force, the company went so far as to print up invitations: "We're going to have a party!" the note said. "If our current growth rates continue (and they will), and if IBM's current growth continues (and they will be hard pressed to do that), we will pass them in revenue and in profit by July 10, 2007.
(page 293-294. The notes were quickly pulled after customers and analysts were shocked by the boast.)

Olsen didn't hestitate to air his pet peeves publicly. ... "Graphics are terrible," he railed. "They are the second worst contribution to society after spreadsheets. Spreadsheets will go down in history as the worst thing that ever happened to business.... "
(page 297)

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