Electronic Design
Giants May Pass, But Their Computing Legacy Lives On

Giants May Pass, But Their Computing Legacy Lives On

This year saw the passing of two giants in our industry. Steven Paul Jobs (see the figure) is known to just about everyone, as is the company he started with Steve Wozniak, Apple Inc. Kenneth Harry Olsen co-founded Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) with Harlan Anderson.

I didn’t know either personally. But like most in this industry, I had been at presentations where they gave the keynote address. I have also used innumerable products of theirs like the PDP-10 and the iPod.

Making It Smaller: MiniComputers

In its time, DEC was as central to the computer industry as Apple is now. DEC is no longer a company of its own. Compaq acquired it in 1998, and in turn, Compaq became part of Hewlett-Packard in 2002.

Ken Olsen was the face of DEC until 1992. He directed DEC in the same fashion that Jobs handled Apple. Both knew technology but allowed the wizards in their labs and production lines to deliver the technological marvels of their time.

When Steve was a toddler, Ken and DEC were building a Digital Laboratory Module that was a circuit board with a handful of components including germanium transistors. They were connected in patch-board fashion using wires with banana plugs.

The DEC PDP-1 had a base price of $120,000 and had 4 kwords of 18-bit memory. It was tiny compared to the massive room-size mainframes of the time. It was the start of a series of minicomputers that resulted in the VAX series. The well-known PDP platforms included the PDP-8 and the PDP-11. I had a chance to work with both in addition to the single-chip LSI-11, which was based on the PDP-11.

Another platform was the PDP-10. The 36-bit version was also called the DECsystem-10, followed by the DECsystem-20. These minicomputers could access 256 kwords using an 18-bit address. The 36-bit registers could be split into two 18-bit registers with a number of half-word instructions that made languages like Lisp such a nice match for the PDP-10. I had access to a PDP-10 at RCA’s Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, N.J. The system also used 6-bit characters versus the 8- and 16-bit character sets we use today.

The VAX series was started in 1976. It was a 32-bit minicomputer. The VAXcluster was tied together using Ethernet.

Digital did more with ICs than just the LSI-11. The DEC Alpha was one of the premier 64-bit architectures. DEC also worked on the StrongArm with Arm. It combined technology from the Alpha and Arm’s ARM7 architectures. The Apple iPad 2 uses a dual-core Arm Cortex-A9 class Apple A5.

Ken Olsen did much more than found DEC, but he will be known for its rise and its impact on the industry where computing was synonymous with DEC.

Making It HandHeld: iPhone

The story of Apple Inc., originally known as Apple Computer, is probably more familiar to the current generation of developers. It started with the Apple I in 1976, which was sold as a circuit board. It was based on the MOS Technologies 6502, which also was the Intel 8080 and the Motorola 6800.

If Apple had stayed with the typical PC in the PC era, it would not be where it is now. Instead, it brought out the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The original Macintosh (Mac) used a Motorola 68000 with 128 kbytes of memory. These days, graphics controllers use have more memory. The Mac was introduced during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 with a commercial that brought as much attention to Apple as the Mac did.

Apple’s Macintosh line is still with us today, but it has gone through two major transitions. The first was the move to the Power PC. The latest incarnations use Intel Core processors.

The hardware has always been cutting-edge, but the software has always put Apple in a class by itself. Simply known as the Mac OS, it provided many features for Apple’s other area of expertise, mobile consumer electronics.

Apple has been leading the way with thinner, more powerful laptops, but the white Apple iPod put digital media into the average consumer’s palm. Like the Mac, it not only was technically cutting-edge, it also was slick and stylish. Jobs had a hand in making sure these products had all these properties.

The iPod was followed by the iPhone and iPad. Both are must-have gadgets. They also continue the mix of style and cutting-edge technology that Apple, through Jobs, has become known for.

Ken and Steve are no longer with us, but they have left a legacy that benefits us all.

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