Shock horror probe: 15 top stories

Picking the top 15 news stories of the past 15 years turned out to be pretty simple. Any list will be naturally subjective, but the classic front-pagers all contained the usual headline-grabbing elements of drama and conflict, often concealed a twist or two that meant they hung around for weeks.

Picking the top 15 news stories of the past 15 years turned out to be pretty simple. Any list will be naturally subjective, but the classic front-pagers all contained the usual headline-grabbing elements of drama and conflict, often concealed a twist or two that meant they hung around for weeks, and of course had a lasting impact on the IT industry. Often, they inspired genuine surprise.

The Ellis brothers

In 1987 IBM took brothers Tom and Philip Ellis to court over copyright of AT and XT computers they'd imported.

From 1987 to 1989 the Ellis brothers were the bad boys of the New Zealand PC market, introducing a new wave of computer selling that left IBM screaming for blood. In retrospect their company, Computer Imports, which was liquidated in 1989, probably did more good than bad.

The brothers' direct-selling model and cut-down prices based on spot buying in Asia caused a lot of grief to other resellers trying to maintain wider margins. If it hadn't been for some of their other activities they might well have become heroes to consumers. As Philip Ellis said at the time, it is hard to beat a supplier who comes into the market 50% cheaper than the leader, who at that time was IBM.

Deregulation of New Zealand telecomms

You saw it here first. New Zealand lead the world when in 1987 the telecommunications business of the Post Office was made a state-owned enterprise, a government business with a commercial focus. In 1990 it became one of the first telcos in the world to be fully privatised and was sold to Bell Atlantic and Ameritech.

It got its first taste of competition when Clear Communications was set up the following the year. Thus began Telecom's tooth and nail fight to keep its dominant position in the local industry and crunch any one who might provide any real competition. Last year the government finally decided to do something about it and set up a ministerial inquiry, which made several recommendations and prompted the imminent appointment of a telecomms commissioner to rule on disputes..

Launch of Windows 95

Macintosh users screamed "it's just a catch-up" but the much hyped launch of Windows 95 gave PC users an altogether more pleasant graphical user interface. The highlight of the launch was a Microserf chainsawing a box of software in half on stage for reasons that can no longer be recalled.

Microsoft bails out Apple

It was an unforgettable image -- a smiling Bill Gates looking down upon Steve Jobs. The scene unfolded in August of 1997 as Gates joined Jobs' keynote speech at Macworld Expo in Boston on a giant screen via satellite from Redmond in Washington to announce that Microsoft had invested $US150 million in the company. That image drew boos from the audience but Jobs reassured that, "Microsoft is going to be a part of the game with us as we restore this company back to health".

Apple began to lose money in 1996 so chief executive Michael Spindler was ousted and Gil Amelio was brought in to run the company. The financial malaise continued and in March 1997 Oracle boss Larry Ellison made it known that he was pulling together investors to buy Apple independent of Oracle. However, by April he'd gone cold on the idea. Losses continued to plague Apple throughout 1997 leading to Amelio's resignation in July. Jobs was bought back as interim chief and in 1998 it announced its first profit for three years.

Auckland power crisis

For Auckland businesses the power crisis was the shake-up that spawned home offices, UPS and disaster recovery plans. Many physically moved servers to rented premises outside the CBD, or homes in the burbs. If it were to happen again would we now be better prepared?

INCIS

The joke is that it stands for IBM Never Could Integrate Systems, but there are always two sides to the story – the project wasn't well scoped, the police kept changing their minds and OS/2 never really took off. Needless to say, when the police decided to can the whole project IBM made a gesture towards fighting the decision, but backed down pretty quickly.

Compaq/Digital merger and Compaq/HP merger

It was the worldwide number one PC company but Compaq wanted to be the leading computing company. So in 1998 it first bought Tandem and then Digital.

The following April Compaq announced that its Q1 earnings would only be about half of Wall Street's estimates but it still came as a shock when days later chief exec Eckhard Pfeiffer's resigned. The merger of Compaq and Digital was long and difficult. Now Hewlett-Packard says it will buy Compaq, an announcement which was met with some dismay. The jury is out on whether this match will actually make it to the altar.

MS/DOJ trial

A saga of War and Peace proportions which will probably keep a generation of lawyers flush. It all started out with an FTC probe into whether Microsoft was a monopoly, which was picked up by the Department of Justice in 1993. The US Supreme Court decided that Microsoft was a monopoly, but the next question was whether it had broken US anti-trust laws. This too was found to be the case.

Highlights of the case and its appeals were the presentation of emails from Gates and other Microsoft officials outlining how it Microsoft was going to go after the competition.

New Zealand had a part to play when Telecom was called as a witness. Microsoft appealed and was turned down. The next question was remedies. At one point it was thought Microsoft might be split into two companies, one focused on operating systems, the other on applications.

However, the case now appears to have come to a rather anti-climactic near-end (presuming the European Commission and US states don't ruin things for the software giant). Microsoft is being forced to license its application programming interfaces and server protocols, to allow competing software developers to make products work well with Windows. Neither will Microsoft be able to take retalitory action against computer manufacturers which opt to ship with other operating systems on their machines.

However, Microsoft won't have to open its source code, nor will it be split up, both of which bode well for the company's .Net web services plans.

Direct selling of PCs

PC maker Dell took the direct model, combined it with the web, and laughed all the way to the bank. Through the web and a tight supply chain model it has managed to claw its way to the top of the business PC market. The pressure on margins has forced other manufacturers to consider forms of partially direct selling, something they have approached tentatively as they don't want to step on the toes of their resellers.

But there may be only so much room in the market for a direct seller. Gateway, which also sells direct but through its own bricks and mortar stores as well as via the web, this year posted its first loss in nearly four years. It quickly shut 27 stores in the US and exited Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. It is now trying to rationalise its product offerings in an effort to cut even more cost.

Y2K

What a let-down. We can admit now that we all secretly wanted something spectacular and to happen – just not to us personally. But most people were well prepared, it seems, and apart from the odd glitch, January 1, 2000 rolled over like any other date on the calendar.

Success of New Zealand developed software as an export

An ongoing story was the success of locally developed software. Symantec's purchase of Ghost by Aucklander Murray Haszard immediately springs to mind, Compaq's deal to bundle Wingate by Aucklander Adrien de Croy and the sale of Christchurch-based GlobalBrain to US media giant NBC.

Rise and fall of dot-coms

At its headiest, New Zealand's web crowd partied all night at various Groks, small-time investors snapped up shares from any company with an "e" in its name, and primary industry players scrambled to re-invent themselves in the e-commerce mould.

But it all came to a crashing end in April of 2000 when the tech wreck began. Because New Zealand only ever had a handful of dot-com businesses it never had the huge impact it had in the US, but the fallout continues well into 2001 with the closure of Ariba's New Zealand office, OneZone, Webmedia, the demise of Yippee New Zealand, eVentures, eForce and Genie Systems to name a few.

Napster and other music sharing

Whether you think people sharing music over the net for free is a bad copyright-busting thing, or that it hails the beginning of a totally new music distribution model is, well, up to you. But there's no doubt that Napster, a peer-to-peer technology for sharing music files over the internet invented by teenager Shawn Fanning, gave the record companies a huge shake-up.

Having since effectively got the courts to shut Napster down, the record companies are still faced with a myriad of Napster copycats, each using a slight variation of the same technology. But Napster has forced the music giants to reconsider their distribution and royalty models, which will probably be a good thing for artists and customers alike.

ASPs and web services

Ever since the advent of Java in 1997 people have been talking about buying software over the web. To begin with it was applets, then came the concept of application service providers, which rent software over the internet. Despite high expectations, ASPs haven't taken up as much of the market as was expected. The businesses most likely to be attracted to the concept of renting their software over the net are small companies which aren't likely to know about ASPs, yet the companies selling ASP services are predominantly large computer firms. But despite the stumbling start, ASP services and other web services, which Microsoft calls .Net, are expected to hit the big time. It's just a matter of when: when will all the software applications be ready to run over the Net and be accessed via a browser, when will the pricing model which splits the cost between the developer, host, telco and possibly reseller be worked out, when will the right volume of potential users become aware that these services exist?

The rise of Linux

"Hello everybody out there using Minix -- I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU) for 386 (486) AT clones ... I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in Minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat."

In 1991, this email was sent out over the internet by Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of the Unix operating system Linux. Now Linux has millions of users worldwide (it’s difficult to know exactly how many because it's free), major hardware vendors support it and IBM has committed $US1 billion to Linux R&D. Analyst opinion is still divided on whether it will become mainstream, partly because while it's making inroads as a web server and on the server side generally, it's still rare to see a Linux desktop.

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