Fifteen turning points in tech history
- 09 June, 2008 22:00
Imagine how different the computing world would be if IBM had used proprietary chips in the original PC, rather than off-the-shelf components. The PC clone market would never have happened, and IBM, rather than Microsoft, might have emerged as the leading company of the computer revolution.
Or if Steve Jobs had never taken his fateful tour of Xerox PARC? Had he not seen PARC's GUI in action he might never have created the Macintosh. And then where would Windows be today?
In every industry there are key milestones that mark a change in the course of history, and the fast-moving technology field has more than its share. Presented here are 15 turning points that shaped the computing world as we know it today, including some that still continue to influence its direction for years to come.
Apple's NeXT move
In the late 1990s, Apple was in bad shape. Its image was tarnished, its market share was declining, and Windows NT and Windows 95 had outpaced the aging Mac OS in features and technology.
Apple's top-secret new OS, codenamed Copland, could restore Apple's technological lead -- if it ever shipped. After 10 years of development, it had swelled into an overambitious boondoggle.
In 1996, with no release date for Copland in sight, then-CEO Gil Amelio made one of the toughest decisions in Apple's history. Abandoning the Copland money-pit, he acquired upstart NeXT, which not only had its own, Unix-based OS that could be modified to run on the Mac but also Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as its CEO.
Reunited, Jobs proceeded to reinvent Apple. His successes included not just Mac OS X, but the iMac, the iPod, and a winning line of servers, workstations, and portables. The decision did lead to Amelio's departure, but the legacy of his NeXT move is a radically different Apple than the one he joined.
Xerox and the dawn of free software
You think you have printer problems? Consider this: In 1980, programmers at MIT's artificial intelligence lab, blessed with one of Xerox's newest laser printers, had to run upstairs to check whether a print job was finished because the machine had been installed on the wrong floor.
No problem, thought one MIT hacker. He'd simply modify the printer's software to automatically e-mail users when their jobs were completed. He'd done it before, for earlier Xerox printers; all he needed was the printer's source code. But something had changed. Citing copyright and trade secrecy, Xerox wouldn't release the code for its newest machine without a signed non-disclosure agreement -- an unheard-of request at the time.
The hacker was Richard Stallman, and his anger with Xerox fast became the stuff of legend. Stallman declared war on proprietary software, and went on to form the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation -- proving that, forcing a coder to do legwork is a sure-fire way to launch a revolt.
Microsoft dodges a bullet
For a brief time in 2000, the IT community could be forgiven for humming "ding-dong, the witch is dead." In June of that year, having found that Microsoft had abused its monopoly position in the software market, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that the software giant should be split into two companies: one to sell operating systems, and another devoted to applications.
It never happened. The following year, the U.S. appeals court would overturn Jackson's ruling, eliminating the breakup.
We can only speculate what the IT landscape might look like today in a split-Microsoft world -- Microsoft itself described the breakup plan as " a death sentence" -- but we know what happened once the appeals court overturned Jackson's decision. Free to conduct its software business as it saw fit, Microsoft headed down a path that would eventually bring us Windows Vista -- despite how many of us wish we could still save XP.
Handspring launches the smartphone era
By the late 1990s, Palm, having created the PDA market, was struggling to defend its share against challengers, including Microsoft. A group of Palm executives left the company in 1998 to found Handspring, a startup aimed at breathing fresh air into the Palm platform.
The difference? Handspring's PDAs could accept add-on hardware modules, allowing the company and its partners to experiment. For example, rather than just store phone numbers, what if your PDA could dial them, too?
The result, an add-on cellular radio called the VisorPhone, was a hit, and Handspring ran with it. Plans were soon laid for a model that would combine phone and PDA functionality in a single, compact device.
When Handspring unveiled the Treo in 2001, the concept was too good even for Palm to ignore. Palm acquired Handspring in 2003, and the stand-alone PDA was effectively finished, replaced by the far-more-utilitarian smartphone.
That '70s spam
ARPANet, the predecessor of the modern Internet, was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to allow computer researchers, vendors, and other government contractors to communicate across long distances. In large part, that meant e-mail.
Then one day in 1978, Gary Thuerk, a marketer for Digital Equipment Corp., had a bright idea for this new medium. Instead of addressing an e-mail to one or two people on ARPANet, why not include all of them at once? It would be a quick, easy way to let everyone know about an upcoming open house Digital had planned to unveil its new line of mainframes.
The resulting mass-mailing was the world's first spam, and ARPANet authorities were not pleased. "This was a flagrant violation of the use of ARPANet as the network is to be used for official U.S. government business only," wrote Major Raymond Czahor. "Appropriate action is being taken to preclude its occurrence again."
Let us know how that's going, won't you, Raymond?
Microsoft Office's domination takes form
If you had a PC on your desk in 1986, chances are you were writing or crunching numbers on either WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3. Fast, lean, and full-featured, these programs were among the best that DOS had to offer. They were so good, in fact, that few businesses would dream of switching to the lackluster alternatives from Microsoft.
Unfortunately, neither Lotus nor WordPerfect anticipated the success of Windows. They assumed that applications would dictate users' choice of operating system, not the other way around. As users began clamouring for GUI-based software, Microsoft was quick to fill the void with Word and Excel.
By 1990, Microsoft was shipping both programs, along with the newly introduced PowerPoint, in a bundle it called an "office suite." Compared with the single-purpose, DOS-based software sold by Lotus and WordPerfect, Microsoft was giving Windows users a better deal. In the end, the former market leaders may have delivered more functions, but their decision to forego early support of Windows was costly one.
Louis Gerstner resurrects IBM
It had once been the behemoth of the computing industry, but by the time Louis Gerstner became CEO in 1993, IBM was literally falling apart. Having posted a $4.97 billion loss for 1992 -- the largest in American history -- and with mainframe sales dwindling, senior management had begun spinning off business units to free them from the Big Iron anchor around their necks.
Gerstner put a stop to that. Consolidating and streamlining IBM's various divisions, Gerstner expanded IBM's software business and revitalized its corporate culture. But his most crucial move was to shift IBM's focus from products to services. Today, IBM's Global Services division remains one of its strongest earners, pulling in $15 billion in revenue for 2007.
Equally important, IBM's new direction paved the way for countless other tech companies, including open source vendors who rely on support revenue to underwrite free software. From the brink of insolvency, Gerstner successfully steered Big Blue into a leading position for the Internet age.
The ARPANet is for porn
In 1973, Alexander Sawchuk needed a photo with which to test a new digital image compression algorithm he was developing at the University of Southern California. A glossy page with a variety of image properties to test against. In particular, he wanted a human face. A brief search around the lab turned up a photo of Lenna Sjööblom -- Playboy's Miss November 1972.
They say that anything you post to the Internet can live on forever. For Lenna it turned out to be true, even in that pre-Web age. Sawchuck's digitized photo went on to become one of the stock images used in compression research, having now appeared in countless papers on the subject.
Many more women have since followed in Lenna's footsteps, proving the rule: Give computer geeks a public network and before you know it they'll fill it with smut.
The Web gets out of synch
Reading e-mail on the Web sucks; that was Microsoft's judgment in 2000, back when the Web was a page-based medium. Each HTTP request meant a roundtrip to the server that refreshed the entire page, which was no good for high-activity applications like e-mail clients. So, to make Outlook Web Access 2000 more usable, Microsoft developers created a way for browsers to communicate with Web servers, by loading small amounts of data asynchronously.
Surprisingly, the idea stuck. Despite a troubled history with Internet Explorer, the Mozilla Project built similar functionality into Mozilla 1.0 in 2002, calling it XMLHttpRequest. The floodgates were opened, and a new way of coding for the Web was born.
It's hard to believe that Facebook, GMail, Google Maps, and countless other Ajax-enabled sites owe their existence to Microsoft's lead. But it's a good thing they did; if they had waited for the W3C to standardize XMLHttpRequest, they would still be waiting today.
Linux staves off SCO
In 2003, a black cloud had descended over open source's poster child. The SCO Group, led by new CEO Darl McBride, claimed ownership of key portions of the Linux kernel. Cautious Linux customers were warned to pay license fees to SCO, lest they find themselves on the wrong end of a copyright-infringement lawsuit.
But SCO had underestimated Linux's importance to the enterprise, and particularly to IBM. Why SCO thought it could outmatch Big Blue's lawyers (or its deep pockets) is anyone's guess. What matters is the outcome. One by one, IBM's lawyers knocked down SCO's arguments, establishing Linux's legitimacy as a matter of court record.
As the lawsuits lumbered on, McBride and company were ridiculed, then bankrupted. Meanwhile, the Linux business boomed. With allies such as Computer Associates, IBM, Novell, and Red Hat willing to take up its defence, the open source OS was clearly here to stay. Ironically, the lawsuit that was meant to be the death blow for Linux may have succeeded only in ushering in its golden age.
Intel dispels the megahertz myth
In the early days of PC chip manufacture, speed was the name of the game. All you had to do was crank up the clock cycles and watch performance-hungry customers come running. But as the new century dawned and clock speeds soared into the gigahertz, old chip designs couldn't keep up. They ran too hot and consumed too much power. Enter the Pentium M, a radical new chip pioneered by a team at Intel's Haifa, Israel, labs, led by Mooly Eden.
Though the Pentium M was intended for mobile PCs, with lower power consumption and more efficient instruction pipelines than contemporary CPUs, it became clear that Intel was onto a breakthrough, even for desktops.
Soon the die was cast. Today, Intel's leading Core series of chips, launched in 2006, are derived from the Pentium M, while the company's earlier architecture is due to be retired later this year. From now on, the chips that win the race will have to be not just faster, but smarter.
NetWare falls to the Net
Before Novell NetWare debuted in 1985, transferring files in the typical office meant handing off a floppy disk. NetWare's affordable PC networking quickly took the computing world by storm; by the late 1980s, Novell claimed a 90 percent share of the market.
But Novell never foresaw NetWare's Achilles' heel. If Microsoft was famously slow to embrace the Internet, the same goes double for Novell.
By most standards, Windows NT was clunky compared to NetWare, but it had one clear advantage: native support for TCP/IP, the core protocol of the Internet. NetWare servers relied on the older protocols IPX and SPX, which made it harder to integrate NetWare servers with FTP clients, browsers, and Internet e-mail. As demand for the Internet soared, businesses began replacing their NetWare servers with Windows, and NetWare networks were soon headed the way of the floppy disk.
IT gets saddled with accountability
Running a large IT shop was never easy, but at least you didn't have the government breathing down your neck. That changed in 2002, however, with the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate accounting scandals exposed the need for greater accountability on the part of publicly traded companies. But accountability means auditing, and to audit you need records. Unfortunately, the burden of recordkeeping required by Sarbanes-Oxley fell to IT.
By 2005, IT managers found themselves spending an inordinate amount of time and money on SOX compliance. Vague rules and unproven technologies left many guessing. And if SOX wasn't bad enough, healthcare companies had the added burden of HIPAA to worry about.
Whether the next administration will see fit to revisit these regulations remains to be seen, but for IT there's no going back. Regulatory compliance has cemented its position as a key component of business operations, for better or for worse.
Apple flips its chip strategy
The Macintosh has always stood apart, even before Apple launched its "Think Different" ad campaign in 1997. In defiance of the x86 platform's dominance of the PC chip market, the earliest Macs used Motorola 68000-series CPUs. Later, when performance demanded an upgrade, Apple switched to the PowerPC, but the net effect was the same: Macs and PCs were as fundamentally different as, well, apples and oranges.
But Apple couldn't fight the tide forever. Performance bottlenecks and high power consumption dogged the PowerPC, and by 2005 its future as a general-purpose processor seemed doubtful. In June of that year, Apple announced that it would begin shipping Macs based on Intel processors, ending 20 years of Thinking Different about CPUs.
In so doing, the PC processor market effectively became a monoculture. Virtually every mainstream computer you can buy today is based on Intel's architecture. Macs can even run Windows. But it's OK, Mac fans; if what's inside doesn't make you feel different, how it looks still can.
Outsourcing goes global
As the year 2000 approached, U.S. companies saw the Y2K problem as a threat to their software. What they didn't anticipate was the impact it would have on the American workforce.
Faced with a shortage of hands to address the Y2K crisis, IT departments looked abroad for answers. They found an untapped gold mine. The rise of the Internet, coupled with social and economic reforms, had fostered a veritable army of highly skilled workers in the developing world.
Indian companies, including Infosys and Wipro, were among the first to popularize offshore IT outsourcing, but companies in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere would soon follow. Meanwhile, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1990 had created the H-1B visa program, which made it easier for U.S. companies to import foreign workers.