BY CADE METZ
Before Uber and Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, Google and Yahoo, DEC saw the future of the internet.
Take a gander at the video below, a classic from the year 1994 in which the mighty computer maker lays out the next twenty years of internet revolution in a mere three minutes of screen time.
“A global electronic mall is under construction,” the company tells the world’s businesses, by way of an oh-so-’90s narrator. “This means a new array of risks and opportunities. In the future, you’ll be forced to compete with distant companies you never encountered before, and you’ll be able to expand to new markets at low cost. Here, new business models will evolve quickly, with new kinds of partnerships and collaboration—new ways of working together and serving customers and making money.”
How’s that for digital prescience? He even mentions WIRED—though we’re most impressed by the bit about making money, which our narrator delivers with some extra oomph.
OK, the prediction doesn’t resonate quite as well if you pay attention to the graphically challenged webpages that bounce around as our narrator narrates. And then there’s the bit where he describes these webpages as “attractive” and “easy to use.” And the bit about reading DEC whitepapers. And the bit about DEC helping build the future it predicts.
Poor DEC. It did glimpse a fever dream of the future—and then it slipped away.
Founded in the 1950s, the Digital Equipment Corporation spent decades making big, beefy computing systems. Then, in the ’90s, it launched the first major web search engine.
It was called AltaVista, and it ran on one of those big, beefy DEC computing systems. But soon, companies like Google came along, and they realized that, in order to keep up with the ever-growing internet, you needed a new kind of algorithm—and a very different kind of hardware. As it turns out, the best way to run a search engine is with lots and lots of small machines, not one big one.
A PDP-8 on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.. This example is from the first generation of PDP-8s, built with discrete transistors and later known as the Straight 8.
The likes of Google were so successful, the machines built by the likes of DEC eventually faded into irrelevance. The company vanished into computer maker Compaq, which then vanished into HP. But, to be fair, DEC still played a very important role in the rise of the modern internet. All its best engineers jumped to Google, where they did help build the future.