You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

Look back at 30 years of the information technology business, and it’s surprising what has changed – and equally surprising what hasn’t.I can’t actually recall first hand the 30 years of IT these pages have chronicled, but I come closer than most. I joined Computing Canada as assistant editor in September 1980, later became managing editor and then editor before turning freelance in 1983, and have been a contributor ever since. For me, CC has been like the Hotel California in the old Eagles song: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
In the early 1980s, data processing (as we called it then) was a specialized field about which many people knew nothing. John Imlay summed it up well when he recalled telling a woman at a party that he was chairman of the world’s largest software company, to which she re-plied, “Oh, you make sweaters.”
Who was John Imlay, many of you ask? He was head of Management Science America Inc., a company that made financial software. He was not a billionaire, his picture wasn’t constantly splashed on the covers of magazines, and editors of IT publications could actually phone him up and talk to him. Not quite like Bill Gates.
Gates’ celebrity status demonstrates how mainstream computers have become. So, of course, does the fact that virtually everyone I know now has at least one machine that processes data at home.
And yet, now that everyone knows what Bill Gates makes (besides money) and everyone has a computer, we don’t actually talk much about hardware and software. Look back at CC 10 or 15 years ago, and you will find lots of articles about new computer models, new categories of software (remember when desktop publishing was a new concept, when graphical user interfaces gained popularity, when 5-1/2-inch diskette drives gave way to 3-1/4-inch?).
When was the last really new category of software? When did the design of the typical PC last change in a way most users would notice?
That’s one reason why one of the biggest stories Computing Canada covered during my time on staff came full circle this year. The PC arguably became a serious business tool with the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981. Certainly IBM reshaped the PC industry, and the PC reshaped IBM. But now IBM has sold its PC business to a Chinese company, Lenovo. IBM isn’t a commodity products manufacturer, and PCs are commodities today.
And here’s the real irony. Back in the 1980s, the debate had already begun about the death of the mainframe. Initially, the theory was that it would be supplanted by minicomputers – which, despite the name, were pretty big by today’s standards. Eventually the speculation turned to PCs as the mainframe killer.
But now IBM is out of the PC business after 24 years, and still building mainframes. We may call them servers today, but those Z-series machines are mainframes, and IBM, at least, still uses the word. Sometimes what doesn’t change is as surprising as what does.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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