35 Technologies That Shaped the Industry

To celebrate Computerworld's 35th anniversary, we looked back over the years to find the 35 most important advances in corporate IT.

When Computerworld published its first issue in 1967, the private sector was still using vacuum tubes to exchange information. Technology and the world it has shaped have come a long way since then. To commemorate Computerworld's 35th anniversary, here's our list of the 35 products and technologies that have had the greatest impact on enterprise IT since 1967.

1. Dynamic RAM You can't process information unless you can store it and make it available to a computer. Before dynamic RAM, or DRAM, storage was unreliable (vacuum tubes), excruciatingly slow (punch cards, paper or magnetic tape) or incredibly expensive (magnetic core).

In 1966, IBM's Robert Dennard found a way to store a memory bit as a charge on a capacitor in a single-transistor cell. Patented in 1968, this became the foundation for Intel Corp.'s 1970 introduction of a 1K bit memory chip, which was 10mm sq. and sold for $21. Chip-based memory could be made quickly and cheaply, and by the mid-1970s, DRAM was the standard for virtually all computers.

Introduced in 1973, the Xerox Alto was the forerunner of today's GUI.
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Introduced in 1973, the Xerox Alto was the forerunner of today's GUI.
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2. Graphical user interface Programs and data used to be fed into a computer as line-by-line entries on punch cards or tape and were invoked by arcane scripts specific to a particular hardware and software combination. The first real break from this came in 1973, when researchers at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) created the Alto computer. This machine combined all the elements of what we now call the graphical user interface, or GUI: graphical windows and icons on a bit-mapped display navigated by a mouse with buttons.

An Alto descendant, the Xerox Star, became a commercial (if not successful) product in 1981. Steve Jobs liked the idea so much, he borrowed it for Apple Computer Inc.'s Lisa and Macintosh. After a succession of false starts, Microsoft Corp. joined the GUI club in 1990 with Windows 3.0, and Windows is now the world's de facto standard for computer interfaces. The old-fashioned command line is still available, but most users and tasks use Windows.

3. Internetworking Computers are infinitely more capable when connected. There were a few networked computers in the 1960s, but the first real wide-ranging connections were introduced by the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency with 1969's Arpanet. Arpanet's real contribution was that it recognized the potential of the computer to be more than a high-speed calculator; it could serve as a communication medium among people.

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The DRAM chip, patented in 1966, made reliable, fast and cheap storage possible.
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The DRAM chip, patented in 1966, made reliable, fast and cheap storage possible.

Arpanet pioneer David Clark of MIT sums it up this way: "It is not proper to think of networks as connecting computers. Rather, they connect people, using computers to mediate. The great success of the Internet is not technical, but [its] human impact."

4. Microprocessors In the 1960s, computers were huge, expensive and accessible only in government labs, universities and large corporations. The microprocessor changed that.

It started when a Japanese calculator maker asked Intel to design a set of 12 custom chips. Intel engineer Ted Hoff had a better idea: He designed a single-chip, general-purpose logic device that got its instructions from solid-state memory. As part of a four-chip set, this CPU could be plugged into a variety of applications without needing to be redesigned.

Intel launched the 2,250-transistor 4004 in 1971. The $200 chip delivered as much computing power as the earlier Electronic Numeric Integrator and Calculator, whose 18,000 vacuum tubes took up 3,000 cubic feet. Today's Pentium 4 CPUs pack 55 million transistors onto a piece of silicon about 2 sq. in., and nearly every computer in the world is microprocessor-based.

5. Electronic spreadsheets In 1978, Harvard Business School students Dan Bricklin and Robert Frankston were tired of dealing with numbers on paper and the inevitable erasures. To simplify their homework, using the then-new Apple II computer, they came up with VisiCalc, a self-calculating, interactive ledger-sheet program. VisiCalc's power, and the secret behind its lasting influence, was that it let nonprogrammers use a computer to do real work, like preparing budgets. In fact, VisiCalc users could do things mainframe users couldn't: enter numeric data and immediately see its effect on other numbers. Later, Lotus 1-2-3 advanced the technology with greater speed, file management functions and the ability to present data visually, in the form of graphs.

The electronic spreadsheet was arguably the first "killer" application, powerful enough to change the perception of the microcomputer as a toy to that of a legitimate business tool. Virtually every spreadsheet program today, including Microsoft Excel, uses the basic structure and interface pioneered by VisiCalc.

6. Unix created in 1969 at AT&T Bell Laboratories to make porting applications easier, the Unix operating system first found a home at universities, which could license the source code for free. It later became a mainstay on corporate servers, in small businesses and finally as the backbone for the Internet.

7. Unbundled software Prior to 1969, hardware and software weren't sold separately. You bought software from your hardware vendor or wrote it yourself. Faced with a federal antitrust lawsuit, IBM separated its product lines in 1969, cutting hardware prices by 3% and launching the commercial software industry.

8. Generalized markup language The grandfather of HTML and XML was born in 1969 of a simple idea: Separate content from format, and it will be easier to find information in digital documents. Three IBM staffers solved the problem in a way that opened up new processing potential. No one uses GML anymore, but its descendants are critical to modern IT.

9. Relational database IBM researcher Ted Codd defined the relational model for databases in 1969. Based on that concept and its query language, Oracle Corp. shipped the first SQL relational database system in 1979.

10. Wireless networking In 1971, the first wireless LAN (WLAN) connected seven University of Hawaii computers on four islands via packet-based radio. But wireless remained a niche technology until the IEEE 802.11 standard emerged in 1997. Despite security concerns, WLANs are proliferating in offices, homes and public spaces.

Developed in 1973, the Winchester disk's lightweight heads
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Developed in 1973, the Winchester disk's lightweight heads "flew" just above the surface of the disk.
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11. Internet e-mail Mainframe electronic mail had been used since the mid-1960s, but in 1972 it became a powerful collaboration tool connecting researchers on the Arpanet, the precursor to today's Internet.

12. Winchester Disk The first hard disks appeared in the '50s, but in 1973, IBM engineers created a new design with lightweight read/write heads that "flew" just above the surface of the disk platter. The technology, still known by its original code name, cut the cost of storage dramatically and became the standard for two decades.

13. Data Encryption Standard The first industry standard for strong encryption, Data Encryption Standard (DES) was developed by IBM and approved by the U.S. National Bureau of Standards in 1975. DES made it practical to routinely send encrypted information electronically, paving the way for e-commerce and virtual private networks.

14. Ethernet developed in the early 1970s by Bob Metcalfe at Xerox PARC, Ethernet was the first LAN designed to network hundreds of computers and printers inexpensively. It rapidly overtook its competitors and now dominates the world's LANs, with a speed that has increased from the original 2.94M bit/sec. to the current 10G bit/sec.

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The Osborne computer, which debuted in 1981 at 24 lb., was the first portable computer.
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The Osborne computer, which debuted in 1981 at 24 lb., was the first portable computer.
15. The IBM Personal Computer Introduced in 1981, the IBM Model 5150's open hardware architecture was amenable to third-party add-ons, and its quick-and-dirty design - produced in less than a year - was easy for rivals to copy. The computer industry would never be the same.

16. The portable computer Adam Osborne created the first "portable" computer, introduced in 1981 at 24 lbs. with a 5-in. screen. Later, portables got smaller, and today's lightweight laptops make road warriors and students productive and mobile.

17. NetWare Novell Inc.'s 1982 network operating system was fast, reliable and could handle 250 users on one server. In short, it was the first network that was practical for businesses to use. NetWare became the departmental standard before losing ground to Windows NT Server in the 1990s.

The HP LaserJet, introduced in 1984, brought desktop publishing to the masses.
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The HP LaserJet, introduced in 1984, brought desktop publishing to the masses.
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18. The LaserJet printer In 1969, Xerox's Gary Starkweather combined photocopier technology with laser imaging to create a fast, high-resolution (and very expensive) computer printer. But it was Hewlett-Packard Co. that built laser-beam xerography into its moderately priced LaserJet printer in 1984, instantly raising the speed and image quality of computer printing and making desktop publishing practical.

19. Lotus Notes Ray Ozzie's 1989 vision of document-based collaborative software combined group messaging, online discussion, group calendars, phone books, document databases, forms and workflow with a powerful development environment. It made "groupware" a business reality.

20. The Office suite All-in-one productivity packages weren't considered competition to "real" word processors and spreadsheets until 1990, when Microsoft packaged its top-of-the-line desktop applications together in one box. Microsoft Office quickly established a new standard. By better integrating its components and aggressively marketing Office to business users, Microsoft overwhelmed former category leaders like WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase.

21 Microsoft Windows 3.0 It took five years from Windows 1.0's 1985 introduction for Microsoft to get its GUI-based operating system right, but in 1990, it began bundling Windows 3.0 with a large number of PCs. New development tools helped corporate programmers write graphical software, which could finally use more than DOS's 640KB of memory. Five years later, customers stood in line at computer stores at midnight to get a copy of its successor, Windows 95.

22 Windows NT It was originally going to be a new version of OS/2, Microsoft's ill-fated collaboration with IBM. But when Windows NT debuted in 1993, it was Microsoft's bid to take on IBM, Novell and Unix with a server-friendly, heavy-duty operating system. With its low cost, NT eventually eclipsed NetWare, forced many Unix vendors to switch to NT and became a mainstay of departmental computing.

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Small and smart, the PalmPilot made its debut in 1996.
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Small and smart, the PalmPilot made its debut in 1996.
23 The World Wide Web It was just a project at the Swiss research lab CERN until 1993, when Marc Andreessen's graphics-friendly Mosaic browser shaped the Web into its present form. Built on the backbone of the Internet, the Web, with its Hypertext Transfer Protocol, quickly became the primary means of presenting information on networks and soon turned into a vehicle for everything from e-commerce to paperless offices.

24. Java It wasn't clear in 1995 that the world needed another programming language, but Sun Microsystems Inc.'s lightweight, object-oriented Java looked perfect for small programs that could be sent across the Internet as part of Web pages. Java found a better niche as an alternative to C++ for server-side applications and was the model for Microsoft's C# language.

25. Personal digital assistants Apple's 1993 Newton was a spectacular flop. But the simpler 1996 Palm device was small enough and smart enough to be really useful. With added wireless networking, handheld computers mean corporate data is available almost anywhere - provided that IT shops can figure out how to cope with them.

26. CICS. IBM's Customer Information Control System, introduced in 1968, is the most important mainframe transaction-processing software in the world. IBM claims that 30 billion CICS transactions (a unit of measure equivalent in scope to Web site hits) are executed worldwide each day. Today more than 30,000 organizations use CICS to serve about 30 million users worldwide.

27. Removable storage. IBM engineer David Noble developed the first floppy disk in 1967 as a way of feeding the Initial Program Load into the Model 4360, which was being switched from magnetic core memory (which retained data when switched off) to dynamic RAM (which didn't). The floppy disk was in use by 1969 as a read-only device for the System/370; it wasn't sold as a read/write device until 1971. This thin disk, 8 in. across, held just 400KB of data but led the way for all subsequent user-accessible removable storage devices, right down to today's thumbnail-size flash memory cards and multigigabyte DVDs.

28. Word processor. Wang Laboratories, which had made its name in electronic calculators with nixie-tube readouts, launched the first dedicated electronic word processor in 1971. By the late 1970s, desktop computers could run word processing software, and by the late 1990s, the typewriter had all but vanished from businesses.

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