20. Bill Gates, cofounder of Micro-Soft:
Quote type: Snippy accusation.
Circumstances of origin: In an “open letter” dated February 3rd, 1976 and published in several computer magazines of the day.
Why it’s notable: Gates, a twenty-year-old Harvard dropout who’d started a company named “Micro-Soft” with buddy Paul Allen less than a year before, was all fired up over widespread piracy of the company’s first product, BASIC for the Altair microcomputer. The letter is Gates before he got slicked up and toned down for public consumption, although it does end on a positive (if wildly ambitious) note: “nothing would please me more than to be able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.”
19. Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computer, speaking of Apple:
Quote type: Boneheaded miscalculation.
Circumstances of origin: During a speech Dell made before thousands of attendees at Gartner’s Symposium and ITexpo97 on October 6th, 1997.
Why it’s notable: Apple was in such dire straits in the late 1990s that you can make the case that the mail-order magnate’s recommendation that the company be shuttered was the most rational analysis of the situation. Or at least that it was merely a more extreme expression of the widespread expectation that Apple would be bought out by a mighty tech company such as Sony or Sun. Virtually nobody would have believed you if you’d laid out a scenario in which it would become the most influential company in entertainment distribution, wireless phones, and technology retailing–and achieve a market cap worth six times that of Dell.
18. HAL, a spaceship computer:
Quote type: Fictional computer message.
Circumstances of origin: In Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey; HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) is refusing the request by astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) to open the pod bay doors.
Why it’s notable: HAL’s sentient act of disobedience is one of the most memorable moments in one of the most memorable movies ever. As I’ve written before, it’s also a prescient foreshadowing of the relationship real people would have with real computers starting just a few years after 2001’s release. Life in 2009 is no space odyssey, but every frustrated computer user can identify with Dave–and every PC that refuses to behave has a little bit of HAL in it.
17. “Steven,” a character in ads for Dell Computer:
Quote type: Inexplicably popular catchphrase.
Circumstances of origin: In direct-marketing TV ads for the mail-order PC giant from 2000-2003.
Why it’s notable: Did Dell’s “Steven” commercials really air earlier in this decade? The spots, starring actor Ben Curtis as a PC-promoting slacker kid, feel like period pieces from an era when human beings were more easily amused. Yet Steven’s tagline is lodged in the great American consciousness, and it still comes up incessantly, sometimes in the darndest contexts. Dell, I suspect, would like to move on–especially given Curtis’s legal woes in 2003.
16. Clippy, a talking paperclip in Microsoft Office:
Quote type: Unhelpful help.
Circumstances of origin: Clippy (more formally known as Clippit) and the other Office Assistants debuted in Office 97. They were eventually deemphasized in Office XP, but only eradicated for good as of Office 2007 for Windows and Office 2008 for the Mac.
Why it’s notable: Clippy is the most reviled of multiple Microsoft attempts to popularize anthropomorphic helpers, and “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” is his most infamous intrusion. He’s inspired countless parodies (including at least a couple from Microsoft itself and one in software form). Actually, just looking at the little punk makes my blood boil a little.
15. Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction legend:
Quote type: Insightful epigram.
Circumstances of origin: In the 1973 edition of Clarke’s book Profiles of the Future, codified as Clarke’s Third Law.
Why it’s notable: Because it gives everybody who creates tech products such a lofty, worthwhile goal to shoot for. For all the remarkable technologies in our lives, how many of them are truly “sufficiently advanced” by Clarke’s measure?