About life in the last third

Marketing or Engineering: Decmate


In doing some research for my book, The Flight of a Wild Duck which will be published in September, I ran across a poster that Ken Olsen had commissioned.  I had been looking for it for many years.

A few months after joining Digital Equipment in the summer of 1979, I was promoted to Senior Engineering Manager responsible for Small Hardware Systems Development.  This included systems products which sold for $16K or less  and included the PDP 11/23, 11/03 and PDT 150, and all PDP-8 development and maintenance. 

One of these products was the DECmate which had been introduced in the market that year.  It was a dedicated word processor.  I did not know much about it.  Stan Olsen, Ken Olsen’s brother ran the product line that was responsible for selling it.  

One day, posters started to appear thought the Mill (the headquarters of Digital Equipment in Maynard MA) showing the backside of the DECmate and with the caption “Marketting or Engineering” which I took to be a question about who was responsible.  Since I was now the manager of the engineering group responsible for the DecMate, I looked into who had made this poster and was alarmed to learn that it was the CEO, Ken Olsen.  

I then made my own poster (don’t have a copy of it) which said:

Can you imagine what software would look like if you could see it?

DECmate I

But Ken was right. That is when I learned that Ken really cared about how machines looked. DECmate II utilized the design elements of the Profession Series which I managed. It was launched in 1982.

DECMate II

8 thoughts on “Marketing or Engineering: Decmate

    • Thanks for your comment Paul. It did become pristine. See the updated blog post with DECmate II. I should have asked Jobs what he thought of the design of the Pro, Rainbow and DECmate. In my book I describe some of the similarities between Olsen and Jobs. But a big difference was that Ken loved power supplies and had little interest in software. Steve was the opposite.

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  1. Talk about serendipity! Just finished reading DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC (and watching DEC and PCs: A perspective & Digital_Man, Digital_World (PBS) on Youtube) last week. I worked on DECSYSTEMS-20’s at CMU back in 1983. I always thought DEC was an amazing company ….

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  2. A question I always wondered about. What was behind the decision to use the -8 based processor on this, especially when the DecMate II came out and x86 chips were abundant and LSI-11 was also available? It seems that the company could have saved considerable amount of development dollars had they chosen either the Rainbow (or VT180) boards or the Pro and ported the word processing software to run on either of those.

    I’m sure there was a reason, but I’ve never been able to figure it out.

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    • Bill, thanks for reading my blog and commenting. It is complicated as they say. Originally (end of 1980), we were only going to do the Professional 350 and 325. The word processing software was to be the same software that was running on the Decmate I. There was no plan to do a follow on to the DECmate I. There was no plan to do Rainbow. They IBM PC was launched almost a year later in the summer of 1981. I was in charge of the Professional. Digital had gotten pretty political. DECmate was part of the Word Processing Product Line which was run by Ken Olsen’s brother Stan (who recently died). The Terminal Product Line had developed a CP/M plugin to the VT100 terminal. While I was away in Europe on business in the summer of 1981 (just after the IBM PC launch), Dick Loveland and Barry James Folsom went to the operations committee and proposed that Dick develop the DECMate II and Barry develop the Rainbow. They were going to use the packaging that my group was developing for the Professional including the keyboard and monitor. My group was responsible for all the packaging and for setting up manufacturing and service for all three products. Having three products was a disaster. The DECmate group told me that they could no longer provide the Professional with Word Processing software claiming they had lost the source code. Rainbow and the Professional competed to get outside software. When it became clear that having three products was a disaster, Dick, Barry and I went to Ken and asked him to pick just one product. He refused and said “Let the market decide”, I am quoted in the Ultimate Entrepreneur as saying “They did. They pick IBM.” All three products failed in the market. But none of this really had to do with Digital’s eventual failure as a company. I explain it all in detail in my book “The Flight of a Wild Duck” which will be published in September.

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