[PW] Kenneth Olsen Computer Quote (Quotation Query #745)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com
Sun May 8 11:52:13 PDT 2016


I explored this quotation a few years ago, but have not yet written an
entry for the QI website.

It appears that circa 1983 Olsen made a somewhat similar (but
distinct) flawed pronouncement about personal computers: "The personal
computer will fall flat on its face in business" in Business Week.
This information is based on a Google Books Snippet match; hence, it
may be inaccurate. I have not yet verified it. If someone would be
willing to get the pertinent scans for a complete citation and
accurate citation that would be great.

Year: 1983 GB
Periodical: Business Week
Issues 2788-2796
Quote Page 68
Database: Google Books Snippet; data may be inaccurate; must be
verified on paper

[Begin extracted text]
Olsen is gambling that if DEC can get all of its new products to work
together effectively, it can enter the growth markets late and still
succeed. "The personal computer will fall flat on its face in business
because users want to share files and want more than one user on the
system," he asserts. "Under those circumstances, the minicomputer
becomes more important than ever. Our strategy emphasizes the mini.
[End extracted text]

The pronouncement attributed to Olsen specified by Fred was
popularized by the 1984 edition of "The Experts Speak: The Definitive
Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation". The authors asserted that
Olsen made the remark in 1977. The accompanying footnote indicated
that the information about the quotation was given to the authors by
David H. Ahl in 1982; hence, the authors did not have direct
information from 1977. In the following excerpt the name "Olsen" was
misspelled as "Olson":

[ref] 1984, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of
Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky,
Quote Page 209 and 338, Pantheon Books, New York. (Verified on
paper)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their
home." —Ken Olson

(President of Digital Equipment Corporation), Convention of the World
Future Society in Boston, 1977
[End excerpt]

[Begin text of footnote]
28. Ken Olson, quoted by David H. Ahl in an interview with the
authors, 1982. Submitted by David H. Ahl
[End text of footnote]

A book about the history of Silicon Valley titled 'Fire in the Valley"
was serialized in "Popular Computing". In October 1984 the second part
of the serialization contained an instance of the quotation attributed
to Olsen by Ahl. Ahl wanted to build and market a personal computer,
and the powerful Olsen scuttled his plan. I am not sure of the
timeframe for this episode. I will have to re-examine the article.

[ref] 1984 October, Popular Computing, Fire in the Valley Part II: The
Making of the Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine,
Start Page 103, Quote Page 110, Published McGraw-Hill, Peterborough,
N.H. (Verified on microfilm)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
He presented the plan to market personal computers at a meeting of
DEC's Operations Committee Kenneth Olsen, the president of the company
and a figure regarded throughout the industry as one of its wisest
executives, was there along with some vice-presidents and a few
outside investors. As Ahl later recalled, the board was polite but not
enthusiastic about the project, though the engineers seemed
interested. After some tension, Kenneth Olsen finally said that he
could see no reason for anyone to want a computer in the home. Ahl
winced.

Although the board had not actually rejected the plan, Ahl saw that
without Olsen's support it would fail.
[End excerpt]

The 2003 book "DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of
Digital Equipment Corporation" included extensive comments from Olsen
about the supposed quotation (as noted by Snopes). The book author
seemed to assume that the quotation was accurate. Olsen seemed to say
it was not:

[ref] 2003, DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC: The Lasting Legacy of Digital
Equipment Corporation by Edgar H. Schein with Peter DeLisi, Paul
Kampas, and Michael Sonduck, Quote Page 38-40, Berrett-Koehler
Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

{Begin excerpt – check for OCR errors]
It is in this context that Olsen's famous quote in a 1977 Time article
must be understood. Olsen was quoted as saying that "there is no
reason for any individual to have a computer in their home," which was
allegedly an explanation of DEC's later failure to capitalize on the
rapidly growing personal computer market and the company's failure in
the 1980s to develop any products that could compete with IBM's PC.
Olsen reviewed what he said and why he said it in a conversation I had
with him on January 3, 2000. His explanation is instructive of how he
saw computing:

This [the quoted comment in Time magazine] is, of course, ridiculous
because the business we were in was making PCs, and almost from the
start I had them at home and my wife played Scrabble with timesharing
machines, and my sixth-grade son was networking the MIT computers and
the DEC computers together, hopefully without doing mischief, using
the computers I had at home. Home computers were a natural continuum
of the "personal computers" that people had at work, in the
laboratory, in the military.

I did make a number of statements and still make statements that
people don't understand about computers, or delight in misquoting. A
long time ago when the common knowledge was that PCs would run our
lives in every detail, I said that if you stole something from the
refrigerator at night you didn't want to enter this into the computer
so that it would . . . mess up the computer plans for coming meals.
Today, I still say that free access to almost infinite information is
not the same thing as thinking and creating and inventing, and
computers might be harming creativity for many people. . . .

As Olsen explained to me at length and attempted to make clear, he
thought it would be unacceptable to have the computer in the home
controlling everything. Why would anyone want that? He did not object
to the concept of a PC at all, but he had a particular way of thinking
about it that colored the kind of product development that dominated
DEC.
[End excerpt]

Garson

On Sun, May 8, 2016 at 2:13 PM, John Sleasman <johnsleasman at gmail.com> wrote:
> While not fully referenced, the Snopes article on this cites DEC sources and
> quotations/paraphrases of Olson's related comments to the effect that there
> was a context of not needing "computers" in the sense of old style
> mainframes:
>
> http://www.snopes.com/quotes/kenolsen.asp
>
> "[That interpretation of my comment] is, of course, ridiculous because the
> business we were in was making PCs, and almost from the start I had them at
> home and my wife played Scrabble with time-sharing machines, and my
> sixth-grade son was networking the MIT computers and the DEC computers
> together, hopefully without doing mischief, using the computers I had at
> home. Home computers were a natural continuum of the "personal computers"
> that people had at work, in the laboratory, in the military."
>
> On 05/08/2016 11:53 AM, Shapiro, Fred wrote:
>>
>> Kenneth H. Olsen of the DEC Corporation is often credited with saying
>> something like "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in
>> his home" in a speech to the World Future Society in Boston in 1977.  Often
>> it is said that Olsen was quoted to this effect in Time Magazine in 1977.
>>
>> I can find no contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous documentation for
>> Olsen having said this in 1977, nor have I found it quoted anywhere near
>> 1977 in Time Magazine.  I would welcome any pre-1984 documentation for the
>> quote, or any solid leads to verification of the quote.
>>
>> Fred Shapiro
>> _______________________________________________
>> Project Wombat - Project-Wombat-Open
>> list at project-wombat.org
>> http://www.project-wombat.org/
>>
>
> _______________________________________________
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