Example: [Gatlin, 1999]
By 1980, the Apple II and other personal computers on the market were changing the minds of bigger, older computer companies about the future of personal computing. IBM, which dominated the market for large mainframe computers, and Digital Equipment Corporation, which had been doing a booming business in what were then seen as "smaller" computers with a wide variety of applications, had been slow about seeing that PCs were the wave of the future. Indeed, Ken Olsen, the founder of DEC (whom Bill Gates had idolized as a teenager), had been debunking the PC since 1977, when he told a convention of the World Future Society, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." This famously mistaken judgment meant that DEC would later have to make a massive attempt to catch up, and it eventually led to Olsen's ouster from the company.
Origins: We love it when we can find examples of prominent politicians, businessmen, scientists, or artists making statements that indicate they completely misjudged or failed to see the obvious in their given lines of endeavor. There's comfort to be found in the thought that maybe some of these people became great successes more through luck than anything else, that they hadn't done anything we couldn't have done but were merely fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. Such verbal misadventures on their parts allow us to continue to entertain that belief because they serve to bring the famous and successful down to our own level. "We wouldn't have made such obvious mistakes," we say smugly to ourselves. "Therefore those guys got where they did not because they were visionaries or smarter but because they got lucky."
Although a number of very successful people have said some rather questionable things about their areas of expertise, many quotes of this nature are either apocryphal or rather sensible comments that sound foolish only when taken out of context. The infamous statement about computers made by Ken Olsen and cited at the head of this page is an example of the latter — however laughable it may sound now, it hits our ears that way only because what we hear is filtered through our understanding of what home computers are, not because Ken Olsen didn't see the potential in what was to become a vital component of the PC
Ken Olsen was the co-founder and CEO of Digital (also known as Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC), a company launched out of an old wool mill in Massachusetts in 1957, which at its peak the late 1980s was the number two computer company in the United States with sales revenues of
There is no question that Ken Olsen did indeed say the words history now attributes to him — during a talk at a 1977 meeting of the World Future Society in Boston, he said he saw "no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," a statement that was publicized quite widely when Time magazine repeated it. What was missing, however, was context: repetitions of a single sentence from Olsen's talk are misleading because they don't convey that he used "computer in his home" in a very different sense than we would now use it.
The "computer" Ken Olsen was referring to (and eschewing as a home consumer product) in 1977 was not the modern PC, a desktop user-driven device many of us use to play games, send and receive
"The quote's the thing," a familiar saying tells us. Maybe it is, but context is still king.
Last updated: 21 September 2004
Gatlin, Jonathan. Bill Gates: The Path to the Future. Perennial Currents, 1999. ISBN 0-38080-625-8 (p. 39). Rifkin, Glenn and George Harrar. The Ultimate Entrepreneur. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1990. ISBN 1-55958-022-4. Schein, Edgar H. et al. DEC Is Dead, Long Live Dec. San Francisco: Berrett=Koehler, 2003. ISBN 1-57675-225-9 (pp. 38-40).