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The 10 biggest moments in IT history

Posted by Larry Dignan @ 2:25 am

Despite its relatively short lifespan, IT has had some huge watershed moments. TechRepublic’s Jack Wallen followed the tech timeline to identify the most pivotal events.

It’s unlikely that everyone will ever agree on the most important dates in the history of IT. I know my IT timeline has a personal and professional bias. But I’ve tried to be objective in examining the events that have served to shape the current landscape of the modern computing industry. Some of the milestones on my list are debatable (depending upon where you are looking from), but some of them most likely are not. Read on and see what you think.

1: The development of COBOL (1959)

There are many languages out there, but none has influenced as many others as COBOL has. What makes COBOL stand out is the fact that there are still machines chugging along, running COBOL apps. Yes, these apps could (and possibly should) be rewritten to a modern standard. But for many IT administrators, those who don’t have the time or resources to rewrite legacy apps, those programs can keep on keeping on.

2: The development of the ARPANET (1969)

It is an undeniable fact that the ARPANET was the predecessor of the modern Internet. The ARPANET began in a series of memos, written by J.C. R. Licklider and initially referred to as the “Intergalactic Computer Network.” Without the development of the ARPANET, the landscape of IT would be drastically different.

3: The creation of UNIX (1970)

Although many would argue that Windows is the most important operating system ever created, UNIX should hold that title. UNIX started as a project between MIT and AT&T Bell Labs. The biggest initial difference (and most important distinction) was that it was the first operating system to allow more than one user to log in at a time. Thus was born the multi-user environment. Note: 1970 marks the date the name “UNIX” was applied.

4: The first “clamshell” laptop (1979)

William Moggridge, working for GRID Systems Corporation, designed the Compass Computer, which finally entered the market in 1991. Tandy quickly purchased GRID (because of 20 significant patents it held) but then turned around and resold GRID to AST, retaining the rights to the patents.

5: The beginning of Linus Torvalds’ work on Linux (1991)

No matter where you stand on the Linux versus Windows debate, you can’t deny the importance of the flagship open source operating system. Linux brought the GPL and open source into the forefront and forced many companies (and legal systems) into seeing monopolistic practices as well as raising the bar for competition. Linux was also the first operating system that allowed students and small companies to think in much bigger ways than their budgets previously allowed them to think.

6: The advent of Windows 95 (1995)

Without a doubt, Windows 95 reshaped the way the desktop looked and felt. When Windows 95 hit the market the metaphor for the desktop became standardized with the toolbar, start menu, desktop icons, and notification area. All other operating systems would begin to mimic this new de facto standard desktop.

7: The 90s dot-com bubble (1990s)

The dot-com bubble of the 90s did one thing that nothing else had ever done: It showed that a great idea could get legs and become a reality. Companies like Amazon and Google not only survived the dot-com burst but grew to be megapowers that have significant influence over how business is run in the modern world. But the dot-com bubble did more than bring us companies — it showed us the significance of technology and how it can make daily life faster, better, and more powerful.

8: Steve Jobs rejoining Apple (1996)

Really, all I should need to say here is one word: iPod. Had Jobs not come back to Apple, the iPod most likely would never have been brought to life. Had the iPod not been brought to life, Apple would have withered away. Without Apple, OS X would never have seen the light of day. And without OS X, the operating system landscape would be limited to Windows and Linux.

9: The creation of Napster (1999)

File sharing. No matter where you stand on the legality of this issue, you can’t deny the importance of P2P file sharing. Without Napster, file sharing would have taken a much different shape. Napster (and the original P2P protocols) heavily influenced the creation of the BitTorrent protocol. Torrents now make up nearly one-third of all data traffic and make sharing of large files easy. Napster also led to the rethinking of digital rights (which to some has negative implications).

10: The start of Wikipedia (2000)

Wikipedia has become one of leading sources of information on the Internet and with good reason. It’s the single largest collaborative resource available to the public. Wikipedia has since become one of the most often cited sources on the planet. Although many schools refuse to accept Wiki resources (questioning the legitimacy of the sources) Wikipedia is, without a doubt, one of the largest and most accessible collections of information. It was even instrumental in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, when the candidates’ Wiki pages became the top hits for voters seeking information. These presidential Wiki pages became as important to the 2008 election as any advertisement.

What’s missing?

Were there other important events in the timeline of IT? Sure. But I think few, if any, had more to do with shaping modern computing than the above 10 entries. What’s your take? If you had to list 10 of the most important events (or inventions) of modern computing, what would they be? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.

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Larry DignanLarry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and Smart Planet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet sister site TechRepublic. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

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22/04/2010 Posted by | science | , | Leave a comment

A Primer on the Great Proton Smashup

R.O. Blechman

Published: April 2, 2010

Yes, the collider finally crashed subatomic particles into one another last week, but why, exactly, is that important? Here is a primer on the collider – with just enough information, hopefully, to impress guests at your next cocktail party.

Let’s be basic. What does a particle physicist do?

Particle physicists have one trick that they do over and over again, which is to smash things together and watch what comes tumbling out.

What does it mean to say that the collider will allow physicists to go back to the Big Bang? Is the collider a time machine?

Physicists suspect that the laws of physics evolved as the universe cooled from billions or trillions of degrees in the first moments of the Big Bang to superfrigid temperatures today (3 degrees Kelvin) — the way water changes from steam to liquid to ice as temperatures decline. As the universe cooled, physicists suspect, everything became more complicated. Particles and forces once indistinguishable developed their own identities, the way Spanish, French and Italian diverged from the original Latin.

By crashing together subatomic particles — protons — physicists create little fireballs that revisit the conditions of these earlier times and see what might have gone on back then, sort of like the scientists in Jurassic Park reincarnating dinosaurs.

The collider, which is outside Geneva, is 17 miles around. Why is it so big?

Einstein taught us that energy and mass are equivalent. So, the more energy packed into a fireball, the more massive it becomes. The collider has to be big and powerful enough to pack tremendous amounts of energy into a proton.

Moreover, the faster the particles travel, the harder it is to bend their paths in a circle, so that they come back around and bang into each other. The collider is designed so that protons travel down the centers of powerful electromagnets that are the size of redwood trunks, which bend the particles’ paths into circles, creating a collision. Although the electromagnets are among the strongest ever built, they still can’t achieve a turning radius for the protons of less than 2.7 miles.

All in all, the bigger the accelerator, the bigger the crash, and the better chance of seeing what is on nature’s menu.

What are physicists hoping to see?

According to some theories, a whole list of items that haven’t been seen yet — with names like gluinos, photinos, squarks and winos — because we haven’t had enough energy to create a big enough collision.

Any one of these particles, if they exist, could constitute the clouds of dark matter, which, astronomers tell us, produce the gravity that holds galaxies and other cosmic structures together.

Another missing link of physics is a particle known as the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, which imbues other particles with mass by creating a cosmic molasses that sticks to them and bulks them up as they travel along, not unlike the way an entourage forms around a rock star when they walk into a club.

Have scientists ever seen dark matter?

It’s invisible, but astronomers have deduced from their measurements of galactic motions that the visible elements of the cosmos, like galaxies, are embedded in huge clouds of it.

Will physicists see these gluinos, photinos, squarks and winos?

There is no guarantee that any will be discovered, which is what makes science fun, as well as nerve-racking.

So how much energy do you need to create these fireballs?

At the Large Hadron Collider, that energy is now 3.5 trillion electron volts per proton — about as much energy as a flea requires to do a pushup. That may not sound like much, but for a tiny proton, it is a lot of energy. It is the equivalent of a 200-pound man bulking up by 700,000 pounds.

What’s an electron volt?

An electron volt is the amount of energy an electron would gain passing from the negative to the positive side of a one-volt battery. It is the basic unit of energy and of mass preferred by physicists.

When protons collide, is there a big bang?

There is no sound. It’s not like a bomb exploding.

In previous trials, there was an actual explosion.

All that current is dangerous. During the testing of the collider in September 2008, the electrical connection between a pair of the giant magnets vaporized. There are thousands of such connections in the collider, many of which are now believed to be defective. As a result the collider can only run at half-power for the next two years.

Could the collider make a black hole and destroy the Earth?

The collider is not going to do anything that high-energy cosmic rays have not done repeatedly on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. There is no evidence that such collisions have created black holes or that, if they have, the black holes have caused any damage. According to even the most speculative string theory variations on black holes, the Large Hadron Collider is not strong enough to produce a black hole.

Too bad, because many physicists would dearly like to see one.

An earlier version of this article misstated that the Earth began to cool in the aftermath of the Big Bang.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 4, 2010, on page WK3 of the New York edition.


06/04/2010 Posted by | science | , , | Leave a comment