Computerworld 25 years: IBM, INCIS and the internet

Randal Jackson looks back at the big stories in IT since he began reporting for Computerworld in 1990

In 1990 when I joined Computerworld, the hottest technology on the market was probably the recently released IBM 486 personal computer.

It was the last decade where 'big iron' still held centre stage, increasingly being pressed by minicomputers from vendors such as Digital Equipment Corporation and Data-General. And of course the PC, which was well on its way to becoming ubiquitous.

IBM, which had been struggling in the PC market, and indeed as a company, began to make a comeback under Lou Gerstner. In 1995 he stunned the computer world by buying the spreadsheet software company Lotus for $US3.5 billion, then the most expensive buyout in the history of computing to date. Compared to some of today's sale prices, it seems like change down the back of the sofa.

In New Zealand, IBM signed on for the police INCIS project, which was to come back to haunt it. The business case had been presented to government in 1993, and the contract awarded to IBM the following year. Computerworld broke the story in August 1999 that the government had called it quits with IBM and the mainstream project.

That led to a ministerial inquiry, completed in November 2000, which came to be used as a guideline for government departments on how not to manage large projects. Once again, a loss of $110 million seems relatively small in hindsight but it was certainly large enough to make headlines at the time.

The 1990s were notable for the growth of Microsoft, particularly with the launch of Windows 3.0 in 1990; the battle of the browsers between Microsoft and Netscape; and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Such was the uptake of ERP that the major consultancies -- the PriceWaterhouses, Deloittes and KPMGs -- had individual practices for specific products such as SAP and Peoplesoft. These eventually became ERP practices under the pressure of mergers and acquisitions.

And then there was the internet, which was to change the face of business and society in general.

Computerworld found out very early that such things as copyright were largely to go by the board. A story about a bug affecting Tandem non-stop computers in New Zealand, and likely to move on to North America, was posted in an early chat room by a Wellington City Council employee. Then Computerworld editor Don Hill was in New York at the time and was able to read the story in the Wall Street Journal, without any acknowledgement of the source. The problem was fixed before the US banking system was affected.

The 1990s saw the demise of New Zealand's shared services banking organisation, Databank. It had been established in 1967 by a consortium of banks, and became the largest non-government data processing organisation in the Southern Hemisphere. Changes in banking regulations led to the sell-off of Databank in 1994 to EDS, which more than a decade later was itself sold to Hewlett Packard.

Mergers and acquisitions have been a feature of the past decade. Gone are once household names like Compaq, Digital Equipment Corporation, Data-General, Wang, Sun Microsystems and a host of others.

Gone too in 2005 was the Wanganui Computer Centre, which had been established in the 1970s as the "Law Enforcement System". The centre at Wanganui closed in 1995 and was moved to EDS in Auckland. It was decommissioned in May 2005.

IT was the way the industry was once described. Now it's more commonly called ICT, reflecting the important role communications plays. It seems an eternity since the only phones were landlines provided by the former Post Office. With three major players in the telco market, nearly everyone now has a mobile phone. Mobility is clearly the way of the future.

Much of today's focus is on cloud computing, with the associated requirement of adequate broadband. Governments, in particular, see it as a way to reduce costs, despite some well-heralded issues such as security. It's not so long ago that computer bureaus were the fashion. Some consider browsers as the modern-day equivalent of the old green screen. It may be, in a roundabout way, that we're reinventing the mainframe.

* This is the second in a series this week marking Computerworld's 25 year birthday. Tomorrow we look ahead to what technology might exist in 2036.

See also Second draft of history by Stephen Bell

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