Recently, I came across a story about the rise and fall of Motorola, a story about which I am much more familiar with the fall than the rise. Lately, I have also come across more people who once upon a time were at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), another company that was once on top of the world but fell apart either when I came of age or past that. Two big technical companies, each with a rise and fall that has been written and talked about extensively.
Having had dealings with them, albeit limited, my perspective is enhanced a bit, but it’s still mostly from the view of someone who has been much more of an observer.
When I was in college, Motorola was still a big company and a pretty big deal in the world of high-tech. They still had a big office in Mansfield, just south of Foxboro, and were still riding the wave of embedded microprocessors. They had the 68K and derivatives PowerPC and Coldfire, which together made the 68K the highest-selling processor architecture of all-time at least as of about ten years ago – well past its prime. The 68K is an ancient processor family by itself, but it has been a big deal in that a lot of microprocessor design courses in colleges use it as the base architecture to teach the fundamentals.
At my first post-college job, Motorola processors were all that we supported for a while. That changed as many more vendors entered the space, but Motorola still dominated. PowerPC was the primary architecture I worked on, coming to understand them all the way down to the signal level in terms of what constituted a bus cycle. It was fun yet challenging work to provide support for debugging using all the debug features available, from being able to set breakpoints to tracing only selected reads and/or writes to an address. We introduced a logic analyzer to the process later on, when bus speeds got to be a bit much for the FPGA image we had been using. I didn’t work with any Coldfire processors until later, when Freescale (a Motorola spin-off) was the processor vendor for the architecture.
By the time I was done at that job, IBM was playing a bigger role in PowerPC, by then more commonly called simply Power. The last processor I did much work on was one of those, in fact. And by then, Motorola’s slide was well on its way.
Motorola would resurface with the Razr, but after that, they have only really been heard from when Google bought a bunch of patents from them.
DEC, meanwhile, was pretty much once on top of the computer world. I had no idea until after I graduated from college and learned about the Alpha processor family – I remember hearing so much about the Intel Pentium processors and not realizing that there were other processors, or others that were good ones. I came to see later that Alpha was a pretty impressive processor family as well, but never sold well enough to compete with Intel’s processors. I knew of DEC from seeing their computers as a kid, but that was before I had much of an idea how to use them or how big DEC was.
As time goes on, I meet more people who worked at DEC, some together. Little did I know that a VP of software engineering I once worked for was at DEC many years ago, and was a colleague of someone I would work with about a decade later. It’s enough to make one wonder half-jokingly if all roads through engineering in the area went through DEC at some point. Considering they were once the largest private employer in Massachusetts and had some well-known people in the space there at one time or another, that would be an example of many a truth being spoke in jest.
When I was still in college, DEC was a shell of its old self, but they were still going and even came to my alma mater for a college recruiting event. I had some brief conversations with them, but they were acquired by Compaq before I graduated, and as we know, Compaq was subsequently acquired by HP.
Without question, both companies had a big impact on technology even as it exists today. Motorola is barely around to enjoy it, and DEC is long gone. Neither is forgotten, at least not entirely. But their impact lives on as part of how we went from mainframes to laptops like the one I wrote this on, how we went from rotary telephones to phones like the one I use to share some of my writing with others.