The Innovation Chronicles

n 1975, while Computing Canada was busy being born, Bill Gates was scouring the pages of Popular Electronics and figuring out how to get software onto a minicomputer. In 1985, Cisco’s router was conceived while North America reeled from Apple’s Super Bowl ad (“1984”) that validated a whole generation of Macheads. In 1995, while we were cautiously surfing the ‘Net, a little Israeli-based company was dreaming up VoIP. This year, with the help of our Canadian IT industry experts (see list at left, Computing Canada was busy compiling a list – it’s in alphabetical order – of the 30 most important technology innovations in 30 years. You may not agree with all of our choices, but we’re sure they’ll strike a chord. Oh, and we snuck in a few bloopers, too (see page 31).Anti-virus
Commercial launch 1989
Anti-virus programs — which identify, erase and, in some cases, prevent PC viruses — are so pervasive that most Wintel users take them for granted. Of course, with hackers becoming ever-more ingenious (read: obnoxious), this type of software is far from a cure-all.
pedigree: The first known PC program immunized disks against Brain, a Pakistan-born virus that infected the boot records of 360K floppies in 1986. But it was IBM and Norton (bought by Symantec) that really got the anti-virus market started circa 1989.
IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It helped IT departments tackle — and in some cases forestall — potentially business-crippling virus attacks.

Apple II
Commercial launch 1979
what it is: The first personal computer that didn’t send the general public away screaming. It had a friendly plastic case, and colour graphics better than most mainframes and minis.
pedigree: The Apple II ran on a chip from MOS Technologies because it was cheaper than Intel’s 8080. Microsoft wrote a version of Basic for the Apple II and supplied it in a CD-ROM, which meant third-party developers could run amok on the new machine.
important because: As CIPS’ Dennis Hulme puts it: “(It’s) the first ‘real’ personal computer that found a way to take the power of the room fillers and put it on the desktop . . . This forced the IBM PC into existence.”

(MS) Basic
Commercial launch 1975
what it is: The first program that gave third-party developers a way to write applications software for computers smaller than a fridge. Based on the Basic programming language (invented by Kemeny & Kurtz in 1964).
pedigree: Legend tells us that Harvard geek Bill Gates and Honeywell employee Paul Allen picked up a copy of Popular Electronics featuring the MITS Altair minicomputer on the cover, and decided to write a small-memory Basic compiler for the ‘tiny’ machine.
IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It overcame one of the biggest barriers to mass adoption of smaller computers: Affordability.

Commercial launch 1999
what it is: A palm-sized wireless gadget that lets users make phone calls as well as send/receive e-mails and update/synch databases.
pedigree: Noticing that e-mail and cellphones had emerged as the next pervasive technologies, Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM — led by Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis — dreamed up a hybrid device.
IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “It was the first device that was always connected, so you could get your e-mail at any time,” says Don Tapscott, president of New Paradigm Learning Corp. “The Java core allowed the developers to develop additional apps for the device quickly and easily. Users found it so addictive, it became known as CrackBerry.”

Commercial launch 1984
what it is: A medium that could store hitherto impossible amounts of PC data.
pedigree: Capacity and access speeds were limited for PC users until Philips and Sony released the CD-ROM as the result of a joint R&D project. The first discs stored 500MB, several hundred times that of a floppy. Initially CD-ROM drives were too expensive to catch on but by 1992 they’d dropped to US$200 and soon thereafter were a standard feature in both desktops and laptops.
IMPORTANT BECAUSE: CDs offered the first fast, user-friendly way to upload large volumes of information onto PCs. This revolutionized single-machine software installations, banishing the need to insert a dozen 3.5-inch disks in a row (shudder).

Commercial launch 1977, 1981
what it is: CP/M was the first operating system for computers smaller than a walk-in fridge. It incorporated Basic Input/ Output System (BIOS) — common code that would run on many different computers. DOS was the first 16-bit OS, popularized on the IBM PC.
pedigree: No, CP/M doesn’t stand for Copied Patently by Microsoft. Developed by Gary Kildall (later of Digital Research) as a control program for IBM’s System/360 disk drive, it influenced but didn’t form the basis of DOS. Gates/Allen fashioned DOS after a product called 86-DOS from Seattle Computer Products.
IMPORTANT BECAUSE: CP/M, which offered the first practical way of managing storage on a PC, “made personal computers a practical reality,” says Paul Ceruzzi, author of A
History of Modern Computing. DOS is “one of the longest lived and most influential pieces of software written.”

Commercial launch 1979
what it is: A coaxial-based connection between computers that transmits data by breaking it into ‘packets.’

pedigree: Invented at Xerox in 1973 by Robert Metcalfe (3Com founder) and David Boggs. Metcalfe envisioned a network that was cheap and flexible enough for people to use in an office setting. He modelled it on a Hawaiian telecom system called AlohaNet. Ethernet’s first official recognition came in 1979 when DEC, Intel and Xerox recognized it as a standard.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It changed the status of small computers. “If the Internet became the Information Superhighway, Ethernet became the equally important network of local roads to feed it,” says Ceruzzi.

Graphical user interface
Commercial launch 1983
what it is: A screen with icons and pull-down menus replaced the text-and-keyboard commands of DOS.
pedigree: The first ever GUI, the Xerox 8010 Star, reputedly inspired Apple’s GUI, first found in the Lisa (1983) and the Mac (1984), and then Microsoft’s Windows. This multi-pronged heritage made it difficult for Steve Jobs’ look-and-feel lawsuit against Microsoft Windows to stick.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “The Apple Macintosh succeeded where Xerox Parc failed,” says Tapscott. “It brought user-interface innovations to mainstream users for the first time. Finally a computer that wasn’t terrifying to technology neophytes.”

Commercial launch 1981
what it is: A 16-bit personal computer based on Intel’s 8088 chip and running PC-DOS from Microsoft. Its floppy drive, keyboard and monitor weren’t new, but the monitor was able to surpass Apple II’s impressive visual stats with its full screen display of 25 lines x 80 characters.

pedigree: Invented at IBM in response to the growing demand for small form-factor machines.
IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It created the standard for all future PC design and was the first computer to offer bundled third-party apps. It was also the first to take more of a business focus by partnering with VisiCalc — then, later, Lotus.

Intel microprocessor
Commercial launch 1978
what it is: A smart silicon chip containing a CPU that performs arithmetic and logical operations, extracts instructions from memory, and decodes and executes them.

pedigree: Intel launched its first microchip in 1974, but the watershed event was a “pivotal sale” of the 8088 to IBM’s PC division in 1978. Other Intel milestones included the 286 (1982), which introduced the concept of backwards-compatibility, and the 386 (1985), which let users multitask.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “The programmable microprocessor and the PC that it’s based on are inarguably two of the most important IT developments over the past 30 years,” says O’Neil.

Commercial launch 1995
what it is: A post-object-oriented programming language that lets Web designers incorporate animation and interactivity. Gained almost instant popularity after its launch because of its much-vaunted “write-once, run-anywhere” characteristics.

pedigree: Developed in 1991 by Canadian James Gosling at Sun’s labs, Java is a fusion of OO and traditional programming languages.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: Though based on existing software development principles, Java validated an uber-nerdy subject area — programming languages — in the public eye. It brought software development to a whole new breed of programmer, and still promises to be the foundation of the ‘smart’ appliance market.

Laser printer
Commercial launch 1975
what it is: The first high-speed printer works by bouncing a laser beam off a rapidly rotating, many-sided mirror.

pedigree: First invented in 1969 by Gary Starkweather at Xerox, which rolled out the 120-page-per-minute 9700 in 1977 for US$350,000. The first commercial laser printer, though, was likely IBM’s 3800 in 1975. The laser printer didn’t gain commercial acceptance until 1984 with the HP LaserJet (based on Canon technology) at a price tag of US$3,495.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It brought fast, affordable, high-quality printing into the business environment.

Commercial launch 1991
what it is: Unix variant based on ‘open source’ code — meaning it was free to software developers.

pedigree: Developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “If you had told Bill Gates his biggest competition was going to come from software that provides the complete source code free of charge, he probably would have laughed,” says Tapscott. “IBM invested more than $100 million in Linux last year, an investment that is freely available to all its competitors. Perhaps even bigger than the stability and efficiency that Linux brings is its unique business model.”

Commercial launch 1977
what it is: A device that enabled computers to communicate with each other across phone lines by converting digital to analog signals, and vice versa. Characterized by a very annoying sound that no former dial-up sufferer will miss.

pedigree: Modems were developed by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1950s. The first commercial, full-duplex modem was AT&T’s Bell 103. But it was Dennis Hayes who created the low-cost PC modem in 1977, and the phrase Hayes-compatible was coined as the standard.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It spurred growth of widespread online communications and, eventually, e-commerce.

Commercial launch 1993
what it is: Graphical software client program that enabled users to locate and view pages on the Web.

pedigree: Developed by Marc Andreessen, Jamie Zawinski and others who later went on to create Netscape. NCSA Mosaic was the first browser that ran on Windows, the Macintosh and Unix X-Windows.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “Mosaic was the first real graphical browser developed by Marc Andreessen in 1993, paving the way for the ubiquitous World Wide Web of today’s Internet,” says Hulme.

Commercial launch 1983
what it is: A handheld pointing device for computers that’s become a designer accessory unto itself.

pedigree: Originally called the ‘bug,’ it was conceived by Douglas Englebart at Stanford Research Institute in the early 1960s. A later variation, invented in the 1970s at Xerox PARC replaced the mouse’s wheels with a ball that could rotate in any direction. The mouse remained obscure until 1983 when Apple brought it to the fore.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “Years ahead of its time, the mouse blazed a trail to a possibility hitherto unthinkable — computing that the average person could use,” says Tapscott.

Multiprotocol router
Commercial launch 1985
what it is: A device comprising connectivity hardware and network operating system software, allowing networks to talk intelligently to one another.

pedigree: The story goes that in 1980 Leonard Bosack and Sandy Lerner, both Stanford University computer science staffers, developed the technology on Ethernet-enabled Alto workstations. However, the all-important software was written by staff research engineer William Yeager. As a result, when Bosack and Lerner started up Cisco and commercialized the router, they became embroiled in a bitter battle with Stanford. The two parties compromised on a royalty agreement in 1987.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: The router was critical to the proliferation of the early Internet.

Commercial launch 1983
what it is: A PC network operating system that became synonymous with local-area networks.

pedigree: The Unix-based program was originally created so that CP/M PCs could share hard disk space. Roaringly popular by 1990, NetWare went pear-shaped when Microsoft tried and failed to acquire Novell. Former CEO Ray Noorda’s fights the bizarre product acquisition strategy (Unix, WordPerfect), which didn’t help matters. NetWare has since been supplanted in the enterprise by Windows NT and its built-in NOS capabilities.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: NetWare was unique as the only NOS that supported multiple vendors’ hardware. It also significantly reduced the cost of networking by bundling inexpensive Ethernet cards with NetWare, thus giving rise to multiple millions of LANs.

Portable PC
Commercial launch 1981
what it is: A scaled-down, transportable version of a desktop computer.

pedigree: The very first portable, developed by Adam Osborne, weighed 24 pounds. It had a five-inch screen, two floppy drives, a lot of bundled software and even a modem port. Also released in 1981 was the battery-powered Epson HX-20 with an LCD display and built-in printer. In 1983 Osborne floundered and was later sold to Compaq.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: An engineering feat that, coupled with advances in networking technology, made ‘working from home’ more than just a euphemism. It facilitated the emergence of the road warrior, and today laptops outnumber desktops in many sales-driven corporations.

Public Key Encryption
Commercial launch 1976
what it is: A way to exchange data between two parties that didn’t know each other over a network. One key is kept secret, while the other can be widely distributed.

pedigree: First publicly described by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman at Stanford University and MIT. RSA Data Security was the sole licence holder of the patent until it expired in 1997.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “Without it, much of today’s networked commerce would simply be impossible. This technology is found at the heart of nearly every secure networked transaction — from high security military communications to that ‘padlock’ icon found in the bottom corner of your browser indicating a ‘secure’ Web site,” says Tapscott.
Relational Database Management System
Commercial launch 1976
what it is: Stores and interrelates large amounts of data. Users can query an RDBMS without knowing how the information was organized.

pedigree: After IBM researcher Edgar Codd devised the relational model in 1970, some IBM programmers built a prototype system that yielded Structured Query Language (SQL). Meanwhile in 1973, scientists at Berkeley began developing Ingres, eventually purchased by Computer Associates. The first commercial RDBMS was the MIT-led Multics Relational Data Store in 1976.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: We wouldn’t have data warehousing, business intelligence or Google without RDBMSes. “Relational databases helped turn data into information to be used in improving decision making,” says Catherine Aczel Boivie of Pacific Blue Cross.

Commercial launch 1987
what it is: Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) was based on a smaller set of instructions with more frequent commands than traditional complex-instruction set (CISC) processors, and thus ran faster.

pedigree: Invented by John Cocke at IBM in 1974. Big Blue developed a RISC machine but didn’t market it. The university geek community got wind, and the result was Sun Microsystems’ workstation in 1987 running a Berkeley RISC implementation called SPARC. Sun popularized RISC by licensing the architecture to other vendors.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: RISC raised the performance bar for the entire industry. Although sales have dropped drastically, the design is said to live on in ‘new’ chips like Itanium-2 and Opteron.

Commercial launch 1979
what it is: A computer program that lets users create and manipulate numeric tables electronically.
pedigree: Harvard MBA Daniel Bricklin dreamed up an interactive visible calculator in 1978 and programmed the first working prototype on an Apple II in Basic. It wasn’t very powerful so he recruited Bob Frankston to improve it. They formed Software Arts Corp. in 1979 and named the program VisiCalc, short for Visible Calculator. Unfortunately Lotus 1-2-3, developed in 1983, pretty much killed VisiCalc and in 1985 Lotus bought and discontinued the program.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “It was a ‘killer app’ in its purest sense . . . The spreadsheet opened our minds to new possibilities,” says Tapscott.

Commercial launch 1983
what it is: Transfer Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protcol (IP) were developed as an open-architecture communications protocol for the emerging Internet.

pedigree: In 1974 network engineers Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn developed TCP (Transfer Control Protocol) for the U.S. Department of Defence’s ARPAnet. By 1977 TCP performed cross-network connections and by 1978 IP (Internet Protocol) took over the routing of messages. Even though there were many other emerging networks (e.g. Usenet, Bitnet, satellite), experts realized that a single networking protocol would be important to maintain standards within the growing community of Internet users.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: TCP/IP provided an easy way for small networks to connect to the Internet, and because of this, the number of Internet sites and users exploded all over the globe.

Universal Serial Bus
Commercial launch 1998
what it is: Standard that allows peripherals to connect via cable to the CPU of a computer, and to each other.

pedigree: Compaq, Digital, Microsoft, and NEC conceived the USB port in 1993 in a group session to replace the mix of I/O ports with a universal high-speed data transfer port. The group approved standards in 1996 and the first implementation took place in 1998.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: It revolutionized PC and Mac peripheral connectivity. According to, there are more than two billion legacy-wired USB connections in the world today. And the emerging Wireless USB will probably send Bluetooth to a timely grave.

Commercial launch 1975
what it is: First ‘open’ operating system, written in C and thus able to run on any machine with a C compiler. The venerable language has withstood industry bickering, competition from NT, and complete unfathomability among uneducated users who tend to confuse ‘kernel’ with ‘colonel.’

pedigree: Originally developed in 1969 at AT&T’s Bell labs by Ken Thomson and Dennis Ritchie. Sun was the first vendor to popularize it based on Berkeley U’s implementation.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “For sheer survival value alone, Unix is a rare gem. Not only is this OS the granddaddy of operating systems like Linux, but its variants are found under the hood of the Mac OS X — the most widely distributed Unix OS today,” says Tapscott.
Voice over IP
Commercial launch 1995
what it is: Also called ‘IP telephony,’ VoIP means routing voice conversations over the Internet or any other IP network, rather than traditional circuit-switched voice transmission lines.

pedigree: In the beginning, there was Vocaltec, an Israeli-based company that accompanied its Internet phone software debut with free API licences.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: Though it undoubtedly presents issues such as reliability and quality of service, VoIP already makes up about 10 per cent of all voice calls, according to some analysts. “IP-based telephony is an example of an application that is used now, but which will have a much greater impact in the future,” says O’Neil.

Wireless Computing
Commercial launch 1990s
what it is: The ability to create and tap into networks without wires.

pedigree: Industry standards such as 802.11 and Wi-Fi have created an environment that breeds connectivity. Note, though, that the compatibility-fraught Bluetooth could lose out to Wireless USB (see USB).

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: The whole concept of mobility — including portable PCs, wireless/802.11, and cell phones — is one of the most important developments in IT history,” says O’Neil.
Adds Tapscott: “This is just the beginning. The proliferation of ‘hot spots’ and Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including the Blackberry, is going to create networks and bandwidth that a decade from now will create a ubiquity of their own.”

Commercial launch 1979
what it is: Software than enables users to create, edit, store and print text.

pedigree: The first computer wordprocessors were software-writing aids that allowed programmers to edit lines of code. But it was WordStar, from Micropro International, that dominated until the mid-80s, when WordPerfect — originally written for minicomputers — was ported to the IBM PC in 1992.

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: Says Hulme: “Where would we be without word processing? Answer: a much quieter, slower paced world.”

World Wide Web
Commercial launch 1989
what it is: A way of accessing information over the Internet via a protocol called HTTP. Web pages, written in HTML, interconnect via hyperlinks.

pedigree: Invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research).

IMPORTANT BECAUSE: “The only thing more remarkable than the widespread adoption of the Web itself is HTML,” says Tapscott. “Never in history have we had a computer ‘language’ so full or errors, pervasively misused, or extended in bizarre intractable ways.”
• DEC RAINBOW: Ken Olsen’s renegade PDP-ers never could figure out that darned PC market.
• IBM MICRO CHANNEL ARCHITECTURE: Big Blue couldn’t steer that bus.
• APPLE LISA: Well, at least we only had to wait a year for the Mac.
• DESKTOP UNIX: Did you say “kernel” or “colonel”?
• COREL NETWORK COMPUTER: The doldrums of diversification.
• PEN-BASED COMPUTING: They didn’t read the writing on the wall.
• MICROSOFT ‘BOB’: What, Windows wasn’t annoying enough?
• APPLE NEWTON: Call us superstitious, but we wouldn’t name any product after a falling fruit.
• OS/2: “We categorically, completely and totally deny the story. We believe very, very strongly in OS/2,” Microsoft Canada told Computing Canada in 1991, shortly before scrapping the OS multitasking OS in favour of Windows NT.

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