Technology-go-round

'It's Computerworld's 15th anniversary,' said the editor. 'Write something about 15 technologies that aren't really new but have been around the block before in some earlier guise.' My qualifications to write such an epic? Simple -- I'm the one closest to drawing a pension.

I've finally figured out the real appeal of being the editor: it's the joy of having a bright idea -- immediately followed by the delight of delegating it to somebody else to research and write.

"It's Computerworld's 15th anniversary," quoth the esteemed editor. "Write something about 15 technologies that aren't really new but have been around the block before in some earlier guise."

My qualifications to write such an epic? Simple -- I'm the one closest to drawing a pension.

After much research and the odd bit of heart-rending, we compromised on 15 "give or take a bit" technologies that might or might not have been around before.

First, however, I have to tell you two things: the best kept secret of the IT industry and the greatest myth that the IT industry has fostered. The best kept secret is that there's actually bugger all that's really, really new -- most of it's been around in one guise or another for years. The greatest myth carefully follows the dictum that the best place to hide is in plain sight. I am, of course, talking about the myth of the paperless office. The old adage that we'll have a paperless office just as soon as we have a paperless bathroom doesn't hold good either -- bidets have been around for years ...

Don't get me wrong -- there's lots of really cool developments happening most of the time, but that's what they are -- developments. Not genuinely new things, which is probably just as well. I don't know about you, but I'm getting too old to keep learning genuinely new things on a regular basis. (On bad hair days I can still occasionally lapse into pre-decimal currency).

By way of proof I can point to numerous examples. For instance, the first ever product review I wrote (way back in the 1980s) was of a portable notebook computer -- a Sinclair something or other. A4-sized, a bit over an inch thick and powered by four AA batteries or an external power supply. It had an eight-line LCD screen, ran forever on its AA batteries, included a rudimentary spreadsheet, PIM, diary, calculator and a few other bits and pieces, synchronised to a desktop PC via a serial cable and generally met the needs of 95% of the population. It even had a rubberised keyboard so you could spill coffee as often as you liked ...

Not long after my encounter with the Sinclair tablet I reviewed a Hewlett-Packard Portable Vectra 20 -- a giant clamshell of a portable designed to double as a mobile weightlifting kit. It had a full-size (25 lines in those days) green LCD screen (back-light -- wot dat?) and was state of the art because it had a new fangled 3.5in floppy disk drive AND a 20Mb hard disk. And its NEC V30 CPU (a slightly uprated XT), coupled with its CGA graphics adapter, meant Flight Simulator 3.0 had never looked so good.

It retailed for $12,500 -- and despite my feeble attempts at cynicism above, I must confess I so completely fell in love with it, I actually bought it. I even bought the optional HP custom-made vinyl carry bag for an extra 300 clams. (And my critics would have you believe I like my toys ...) In fact, I still have it. At that price it's going in my coffin when I eventually kick off. It's complete with an external CGA monitor, and it still works, although Flight Sim 3.0 doesn't look quite so great these days.

If you're under 28 then you probably think that the world of the PDA has always been Palms, Jornadas, iPaqs and Pocket PCs. Even if you voted for the Newton you'd still be shy of the mark by 10 years or so. The first commercially successful PDAs were the Psion handhelds -- and unlike the Apple Newton the UK company is still in business, though sadly it's moving away from producing handhelds and towards networking gear.

User-friendly graphical user interfaces -- now there's a recycling technology if ever there was one. Acorn, Amiga, Atari -- they all had a GUI long before Windows was even a gleam in Bill's eye. Not to mention the Apple Lisa and venerable Macintosh -- conceptually born in the Xerox PARC lab -- not at Cupertino as Apple would prefer the world to believe. Hell, even the Unix world had a GUI of sorts -- although it was butt-ugly ...

In the interests of accuracy I should confess that I've always been doubtful of Microsoft Windows since the 3.11 release. When I learned maths at school, 3.11, according to basic decimal theory, is actually 4.01. Should we trust a software company that can't even do basic maths without rewriting the rules to suit itself?

However, if you really want to wax romantic about GUIs, then you can't go past MS-DOS 4.0 and the graphical shell it unleashed on an undeserving world -- undeserving because nobody deserves that kind of interface.

In the good old days there were in fact better operating systems for personal computers than MS-DOS ever was. OS/2 died a whimpering, pitiful kind of death courtesy of dirty pool by Microsoft coupled with incredibly inept marketing by IBM. Digital Research had DR-DOS -- a genuine multitasking operating system that was ultimately steamrollered by the Seattle marketing machine.

Ironically, it was only a a couple of years back that Microsoft made a multimillion-dollar out-of-court settlement to Caldera Systems, the current owner of DR-DOS, for what was essentially "conduct unbecoming". (I'm sure Caldera didn't use any of that dosh to further develop its OpenLinux product line ...) Doubly ironic when you consider that Microsoft was originally one of the early investors in SCO Xenix, that grew to become SCO Unix -- most of which was recently acquired by Caldera ...

Even the current main contender as an alternative PC OS -- magazine poster child Linux, was preceded by Andrew Tannenbaum's Minix OS, written so university students could study computer operating system design and construction. Students had previously used Unix, but in the mid-80s AT&T changed the rules and decided universities should pay hefty licensing fees if they wanted to dissect Unix. Other options included Plan 9 and BeOS -- both still around but more as curiosities than as serious contenders in even the narrowest of niches.

I should add I still have my original copy of Addison Wesley's Minix for the PC AT and a 1994 copy of Nascent Linux for the PC on my bookshelves. Occasionally I boot up the old HP Vectra with Minix just to remind myself how far we've come. And then I worry because I still find it appealing.

Speaking of how far we've come, voice recognition outside of Star Trek is relatively new -- right? Wrong -- Big Blue started working on it close to 25 years ago. When Via Voice was first released to the public a few years back, IBM was quick to point out that at 21 years (as at the release date) it was the single longest running research project it had ever embarked on. I'm wryly happy to report that Via Voice still gets my name wrong -- maybe it's because I'm slightly older than 21?

However, the prize for the most recycled "technology" of the past 15 years, goes to something that isn't a technology at all, but an oft-repeated marketing mantra rolled out at almost every single product launch I've ever attended: the total solution.

In moments of idle speculation I can't help but wonder if Moses used that phrase when he launched the Ten Commandments. A sort of "Gather round folks -- I've got a few rules here to discuss and I can promise you that they are the total solution to the issues we face today."

Mind you, I was at the Fall Comdex in Las Vegas when Bill did his keynote address that first unleashed "Information at your fingertips" on the world. And I do believe it was regarded as a total solution at the time. (Although I noted with interest that Moses didn't get any of the credit.)

Now all we need is an OS without a blue screen option and we might be getting somewhere. In the meantime there's always the Yellow Pages to let your fingers do the walking ...

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