Sometimes I feel sorry for Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation. Then I get over it. He gets teased about some of the things that he has said, but there are times that those comments are either misquoted or taken out of their original context. Unfortunately, even after correcting the quote or the context, you still wind up seeing someone who was missing a certain larger perspective of the changes were occuring in the computer industry.
He’s often said to have called Unix “snake oil”, but the if you look at even the rest of the sentence, and preferably the sentances around it, you find that it wasn’t quite that simple. A more complete version of Ken Olsen’s snake oil quote is:
Asked to comment on the recent uproar over the AT&T and Sun Microsystems Inc. Unix development alliance, Olsen without mentioning particular companies, likened some vendors of Unix products to “snake oil” salesmen and said the claim that Unix will resolve incompatibility problems within multi-vendor networks is “a naive idea.” “It still won’t resolve the problem of interchangeability”, he said, adding that the operating system is just one of the several components needed to achieve compatibility. He cited windowing ability and communications protocols as two other major components. Olsen went on to call Unix “one of the most proprietary operating systems”. But he expressed suport for standards and development of the POSIX interface, saying that will resolve the problem of making disparate operating systems compatible. “But that’s the unimportant part of making things interchangeable”, he said. Compatibility “doesn’t come by stamping Unix on the label. It doesn’t solve everything; there is no magic. It’s snake oil, absolute snake oil,” he said
Its not Unix itself that he was railing against, but rather some vendors claiming that just being Unix would solve every sort of compatibility issue. A “This is a Unix system. I know this” moment, I guess. And for anyone who might argue that connecting two Unix system two of anything else, consider how much of this has been ironed out over the since the quote was uttered. NFS vs RFS, job control vs. shell layers, and all of the Unix homonginization that was done by POSIX and FIPS.
Another quote that Olsen gets slammed for is:
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
–Ken Olson, president and founder of DEC,
at a 1977 meeting of the World Future Society in Boston
Later, he had backtracked on that saying that he meant mainframe style computers. This might be argued as showing a bit of tunnel vision though. Some might view the quote, even with the correction, as a bit of tunnel vision. Saying “computers” and meaning “mainframe style computers” to me implies that he hadn’t considered what other forms computers for homes might take.
The next quote is the one Ken Olsen quote that I’ve always found the most intreging.
One of the questions that comes up all the time is: How enthusiastic is our support for UNIX?
Unix was written on our machines and for our machines many years ago. Today, much of UNIX being done is done on our machines. Ten percent of our VAXs are going for UNIX use. UNIX is a simple language, easy to understand, easy to get started with. It’s great for students, great for somewhat casual users, and it’s great for interchanging programs between different machines. And so, because of its popularity in these markets, we support it. We have good UNIX on VAX and good UNIX on PDP-11s.
It is our belief, however, that serious professional users will run out of things they can do with UNIX. They’ll want a real system and will end up doing VMS when they get to be serious about programming.
With UNIX, if you’re looking for something, you can easily and quickly check that small manual and find out that it’s not there. With VMS, no matter what you look for — it’s literally a five-foot shelf of documentation — if you look long enough it’s there. That’s the difference — the beauty of UNIX is it’s simple; and the beauty of VMS is that it’s all there.
— Ken Olsen, president of DEC, DECWORLD Vol. 8 No. 5, 1984
One way of taking that quote is simple Unix bashing. But I often consider the fact that Unix, at the time the quote was uttered was a much simpler system. It was simpler by design. Its often been said that the name Unix was a pun on Multics, and that it was designed to avoid much of the needless complexity of Multics. But what was considered needless? Nearest I can tell, that complexity included things like memory mapped I/O, shared libraries, ACLs, SMP, and a
fully instrumented kernel (allowing things like Solaris’ dtrace.) Most of these things have found their way back into Unix and Unix-like systems now, so to some extent we are right back where we started.
Modern Unix isn’t a simple system anymore. and it is a credit to the initial designers that it has been able to be extended so cleanly for so long. I think the major place where Ken Olsen got it wrong was that when people ran into the limitations of Unix, instead of abandoning it for more complicated system, they extended Unix as they needed.