Business Software

15 Turning Points in Tech History

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 nondisclosure 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?

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