Friday, July 15, 2011

A Walk Through Dead Tech Lane

The computing industry has come a long way, but it seems parallel to human evolution, there's no end in sight, just continuous change for the better. Computers and their related technologies were ironically devices for the purpose of World War 2 that found more productive use in the academe and on the consumer's hands.

Even the internet as we know it was designed for the US military requirement of a network that automatically re-routes network packets when a network node was unreachable (could have been obliterated by a nuclear bomb attack, seriously this is the idea behind TCP/IP). Worse than the body count of war atrocities, there were many computer technologies that were left for dead or put aside considered obsolete but whose contribution to the advancement of our computing user experience deserve revisiting.

CP/M: Case of the Deal Undelivered
If you look at the picture below, more than anything you'd swear you're looking at the Windows Command Prompt (or MS-DOS, the disk operating system), but if you look closely, you'd definitely stand corrected, looking at the screenshot of Gary Kildall's CP/M.

CP/M, the obscure parent of IBM PC-compatible Microsoft-made operating systems

If not for Wikipedia, I would not have realized that DR-DOS (from Kildall's company went to Novell, then to Caldera, then to Lineo up the current owner and distributor) is a direct descendant of CP/M, a competition of MS-DOS. Before 1995, DOS, be it from Digital Research or Microsoft, was supposed to be dead when OS/2 comes out, but we all know how that turned up.

Speaking of OS/2
Speech recognition is a supposedly new built-in, much hyped and embarrassingly flawed feature of Windows as Microsoft demonstrated last July 2006, but did you know that, as of this writing, more than 15 years ago on a computer with processing power of a Pentium 200MHz with 32MB memory and a little over 2GB hard drive, IBM OS/2 Warp 4 in 1996 has a decent voice command recognition?

What could have been. What should have been.

OS/2 was supposed to be the new standard, more powerful than DOS and answer to Apple's Apple II and Macintosh.

About Amiga, Apple and Computing Appliance
Before there was Apple Inc., there was Apple Computer, and their first breakthrough product was Apple I, and this company, whether you love or hate them, were very revolutionary, not only in terms of their products, but also because they were the first to pioneer computer technology usage in education.

Probably Apple's most significant contribution is commercializing the Graphical User Interface and the mouse as computer input, originally developed at Xerox PARC as Xerox Star aka Alto (I recommend Andy Hertzfeld's on Macintosh history).

GUI? Check! Mouse? Check! Mac? No!
The Apple Macintosh may be the first to have the GUI, but the Commodore Amiga 1000 is the first to have multimedia capabilities with stereo sound built-in from the start as shown in it's specifications here; more powerful than the Mac and yet less expensive.
Multitasking OS, multimedia capability, and it was created back in 1980s, get a load of that!
Credit to Apple, they pioneered the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) genre with the Newton, ushering in the inspiration for smart-phones and other palmtop devices.
Newton: iPhone, I'm your father
iPhone: Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!

To Be or Not To Be NeXT
BeOS was the operating system deservingly hyped as potential replacement to Apple's original and unfortunately gracelessly aging MacOS, but as you may have already read everywhere else on the internet, Apple opted for NeXT, so the X in MacOS X is NextStep; but architecturally, BeOS and NeXT are similar, built on a microkernel, with object-oriented kits as application interface to the system; that's where the similarity ends, NextStep has put a complete BSD system on top of the microkernel, then hidden away this layer with application programming interface kits like FoundationKit and ApplicationKit from the applications.
NeXT's NextStep Systems Structure
BeOS Systems Architecture

Microsoft: Technology Copycat From the Start
Microsoft is probably the most powerful software manufacturer on the planet but has gradually eased its grip on the computing industry since free and open source technology opened the floodgates and put them back in their proper place as desktop platform (but under threat still since how do you fight price points-wise against something free) and back down on the server market arena.

Historically, Microsoft never created any new thing, they copied and sold versions of BASIC, CP/M as DOS, copied Wordperfect and sold as Word, copied Lotus 1-2-3 and sold Excel, bastardized MacOS and sold as Windows.

Note the icons scaterred all over the desktop?
The NextStep GUI, note the X button to close the application window?

Copied many UI elements from OS/2 and NextStep among other things from other platforms

Spoils of the Internet Browser Wars
What does all the smartphone, FacebookGoogleMicrosoftApple and all the GNU/Linux-based desktop computers have in common? Arguably more than anything, they all sport internet-based products and services; usually delivered through and dependent on the web browser user experience. Nearly 20 years ago, a company named Netscape Communications developed the first cross platform web browser, running on Windows, Macintosh, OS/2, BeOS, various Unix and Unix-like flavors including Linux. Netscape also invented Secure Socket Layer (SSL), which was later standardized as Transport Layer Security (TLS), the Internet communication security standard. Javascript, the most popular key to dynamic web interfaces and applications, was also developed by Netscape. Even the access of local files through the network, be it the local network or trough the internet, via the web browser was pioneered by Netscape, historically prompting Microsoft to copy and counter with Internet Explorer.
Probably the most innovative internet company of all time

Whenever I want to look at the IT industry undaunted by its fast pace, I take a walk down dead tech lane. With the word 'dead' on it, some thinks it's like a walk through the graveyard; rather I see it as a refreshing look at what we have now, and learn to appreciate the creativity, the labor of love put into some technologies commonly used today. More importantly, seeing that what we usually take for granted as common technology now was actually a great feat from decades ago can be a humbling experience, knowing that we're standing on the shoulder of giants, giving us insight into what direction we may head to in the future.