business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Chances are that if you ever heard of Kenneth Olsen, it is for a reason he always disputed. Olsen is one of those people quoted for having said something that in retrospect looks completely ridiculous.

I’m sure you’ve heard this list. There’s the US Patent Commissioner who in 1899 said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” A few decades later, a movie executive questioned why anyone would want to “hear actors talk.” He thought the “talkies” wouldn’t work.

In 1977, Ken Olsen said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” He later insisted the line was taken out of context, but his record doesn’t defend that very well. Olsen, you see, was an industry pioneer in computing. He co-founded and ran the Digital Equipment Corp., which well into the 1980s (after his quote about home computers) was still the second largest computer maker behind IBM.

I’m willing to bet that we don’t have a single member of the MorningNewsBeat community who is reading today’s edition on a DEC machine. (If I’m wrong, trust me on this. You need an upgrade. ) It’s been more than 12 years since DEC was bought by Compaq, which itself was then bought by Hewlett-Packard. But mergers are not the reason for today’s column.

The reason is that Olsen died earlier this month and his obituary is a stark reminder on the importance of staying relevant and looking ahead. Because truth be told, Ken Olsen was an amazing man. He started his career in electronics in World War II by maintaining navigation, sonar and radar systems. After the war he went to MIT and in 1957 had the foresight to launch DEC, a company whose data processor became the building block for the world of computers.

Olsen’s company was a pioneer in the use of networking technologies and provided the tools that later innovators like Bill Gates would use to build the company we know as Microsoft. At its peak, DEC employed more than 100,000 people and produced revenues of $14 billion. Olsen himself was named “America’s most successful entrepreneur” by Fortune magazine in 1986.

But then there was his famous quote. Yes, it might well have been used out of context, but the reality is that a man who was so far ahead on computer development, never really did gain his footing on personal computers. His company was ahead - way ahead - in computer-to computer communication, but never did master the world of the Internet. DEC provided the foundation for minicomputers, yet never captured that market either. If Olsen and his team had done so in any of these cases, I have to believe at least some of us would still have a DEC device somewhere.

But we don’t.

Baseball pitcher Satchel Paige famously said, “don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Had he been talking about business, he might have added that looking back rarely prepares anyone for the future. Looking back reminds us of past triumphs and past glory and Olsen certainly had plenty. But had he looked forward, lots more of us would have remembered him and his company very differently.

Which way are you looking?

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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