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Desktops

The minicomputer returns to a Web site near you

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen pays homage to a much-loved old friend, DEC's PDP, in all its guises.

In their day, the Digital Equipment Corp. PDP series of minicomputers ruled the world. Now they have found another purpose: as toys for ex-Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

Allen so loves the PDP series--which made its debut in the 1960s--he has set up a Web site to complement his own personal and historic collection of systems.

It's important that antiquated electronics equipment be preserved for the future, according to Allen. Advances in the IT field "arrive in such swift succession," he writes in a foreword to the site, "that even the software and hardware of a few seasons ago are considered obsolete.

"The decades-old computers and software in this collection, therefore, are truly worthy of our preservation and study--both for the cutting-edge innovations of their day as well as for their historical significance."

PDPs, short for Programmed Data Processors, certainly represented the cutting edge of innovation in their time. The PDP-1 first saw the light of day in 1960. Designed by DEC founder Ken Olsen and Harlan Andersen, it was the world's first minicomputer--which meant it was smaller than the average room.

By the time Allen and Bill Gates used a DEC system to build Microsoft's first product, a Basic compiler, the PDP line had reached No. 11, with the faster, better VAX waiting in the wings to replace it.

People who worked with PDP systems are still inclined to get misty-eyed about them. They were the IT industry's workhorses, featuring everything from embedded systems in defense computers to air-conditioning systems, in telephone exchanges and, above all, in scientific research of every type, from tracking human genes to trying to find cures for cancer.

DEC is long gone, having been taken over by Compaq, which was taken over by Hewlett-Packard. But the name lives on in the memories of the surprisingly large numbers of people currently working in the IT business who claim that they cut their technological teeth on a PDP.

Colin Barker of ZDNet UK reported from London.