It has evolved since 1981 from an expensive, high-margin novelty to a commodity necessity, and the driving force was standards. With the advent of the IBM PC, machines from different manufacturers could interoperate for the first time. In 1982, the first clones emerged. By 1986, over 30 million PCs were in use.
The personal computer to beat in 1986 was the IBM PC-XT, featuring an Intel 80286 processor, 640K of RAM, a 1.2 MB floppy drive and a 20 MB hard drive. It ran IBM’s PC-DOS. The cost: about US$4,000.
That year, IBM’s market share was almost 45 per cent, with Compaq trailing at 16.5 per cent. And, 1986 was also the year Apple released the Mac Plus.
In 2005, shipments of Intel-based products hit almost 208 million units, with projections of close to 230 million for 2006. |
The first portable PCs arrived in 1982, but the first notebook-sized machines took a year longer. Radio Shack and NEC almost simultaneously released systems (licensed from Kyocera) weighing under 4 lbs., with up to 32K RAM, a 40 character by 8-line monochrome LCD display and running at a blazing 2.4MHz. External storage was your household cassette tape recorder. They ran for days – sometimes even weeks, on the modem-less models – on four AA batteries. Cost: about US$800.
Ultralight laptops have come and gone since then, plagued by issues of battery life and components that didn’t quite scale down as designers had hoped. IBM’s Butterfly, for example, had an innovative expanding keyboard that allowed it to have a tiny footprint and still offer a more or less full-sized keyboard. Despite the firm’s best efforts, it faded into obscurity.
Toshiba’s VHS tape-sized Libretto surfaced in 1996, and disappeared in 1999. Ahead of its time, its tiny keyboard and 6.1 inch screen didn’t capture users’ fancy. In 2005, however, Toshiba resurrected the name for a line of laptops weighing under 1 kg. By comparison IBM’s 1986 PC Convertible laptop, weighed 12 lbs., had 256 K of RAM, two 3.5-inch 720K floppy drives, and cost US$2,000. |
Handheld devices have been around for a surprisingly long time (Apple’s Newton was released in 1993), but it was only with the Palm Pilot in 1998 that the category really took off. Dozens of competitors, some with proprietary operating systems and some using a compact version of Microsoft Windows called Windows CE, leaped into the market hoping to grab a piece of the action, but most fell by the wayside.
Hewlett Packard’s Jornada was retired in favour of Compaq’s iPaq after Compaq was acquired. Faced with lackluster sales and product difficulties, Sony decided to get out of the market, as did ViewSonic and Toshiba (although Toshiba is trying again in some markets).
Palm dominated the market for many years, but today Windows-based units have gained traction. Even Palm itself offers a Windows Mobile model of its popular Treo smartphone. Research in Motion’s BlackBerry has been one of the few products to match Palm for staying power. It has evolved into an almost complete communications device. |
Desktop printers have seen a lot of change since the magazine’s birth. Back then, the dot matrix printer was king, and Epson was market leader.
HP launched the LaserJet in 1984, and in 1986, desktop publishing finally came to the PC (it had been the sole realm of the Mac, and the Apple LaserWriter, before this), fueling the growth of desktop laser printers. Brother, IBM and others quickly added their offerings to the burgeoning market.
The first LaserJets cost $US2,995; today, a printer that’s three times the speed and half the weight can be had for under $500.
Meanwhile, colour inkjet printers, perceived as less expensive than lasers, invaded the home and corporate desktops. Vendors quickly found that by selling the hardware at a low price, they could grow revenues by selling replacement ink cartridges at relatively high prices. Today, some printers cost less than a set of replacement ink cartridges, making them in effect disposable.
Today, colour laser technology has come down enough in price to be attractive to virtually every business, and even some home users. |
Displays have seen remarkable changes, shifting from monochrome to colour, growing in average screen size from 15 inches to today’s 20-plus monsters, moving from CRT technology to LCDs.
It’s been an evolution, though, not a revolution. LCD manufacturers have slowly dealt with the problems that made CRTs preferable displays – slow refresh rates, limited viewing angles, resolution limitations and high price – and have, if not completely eliminated them, brought them to the point where purchasers feel that the benefits of a smaller footprint and lower power consumption (not to mention the coolness factor) are worth the tradeoff.
Form factors are altering, too, as users adopt the widescreen format that allows them to have more items open and visible on their desktops. LCD shipments in Canada are expected to be over 2.4 million this year, according to Partner Research Corporation. |
In 1986, IBM released the now-familiar 101-key keyboard, with its function keys across the top. Other vendors added their own twists such as the 102-key keyboard with function keys down the left side. But the keyboard users still enthuse about today was the Northgate OmniKey. Creative Vision Technologies’ Avant Stellar keyboard, is the direct descendant. After a brief segue through various forms of ergonomic keyboard such as the Microsoft Natural Keyboard (released in 1999), many users today gravitate towards wireless keyboards. Companies as diverse as ViewSonic, Microsoft, Logitech, and Belkin produce wireless units using radio frequency or Bluetooth to connect to the PC. Layouts have changed surprisingly little, however. |
Believe it or not, although Mouse Systems released the first PC mouse in 1982, our favourite rodents have been around (on workstations) since the 1970s. But it was only with the advent of graphical user interfaces on the PC and Macintosh that mice moved into the mainstream. The GUI, as it now exists, would not have been possible without pointing devices.
For many years manufacturers toyed with different forms of the same technology: a ball or wheel, rolling on a surface, whose movements were translated into co-ordinates on a computer’s display. There were pen-shaped mice and trackballs (basically upside-down mice), as well as all sizes and shapes of “standard” mechanical mice.
In 1980, the first optical mouse, which used LEDs and sensors to detect the motion of the device on special grids, emerged, but it wasn’t until the invention of the modern optical mouse, which required no special mousing surface, in the late 1990s that the devices became commonplace. Laser mice were released by Logitech in 2004. |
Visioneer created the modern desktop scanner in the mid-1990s, and OEMed it to HP, Canon and Brother. From fussy, SCSI-connected proprietary devices they’ve evolved to one-button, USB or Firewire units with full operating system support. The 1992 development of a standard driver interface, known as TWAIN, went a long way toward driving the adoption of scanners by consumers.
In 2000, Microsoft’s WIA (Windows Image Acquisition) was introduced, allowing graphics software to communicate with imaging hardware under Windows. Over the years, vendors have experimented with various scanner form factors, many of which failed. In addition, as the world has gone more digital there have been fewer pictures and documents to scan, so the desktop market is shrinking. |
The first real consumer digital camera with its own viewscreen came from Casio in 1995. In 1996, Kodak introduced the DC-25, with CompactFlash storage. Before that, cameras based on television camera technology but took still pictures were the only non-film cameras available. They cost $20,000, had poorer quality than film, and no easy way to print acquired images. The first true digital cameras, which stored images in computer files, arrived in North America in the early 1990s. However, high prices and low resolution kept them out of the hands of most photographers.
The market really took off when 2 MP cameras slipped under $US100 in 2002. Now most vendors only make digital cameras, leaving film units as an endangered species. With resolutions over 10 MP, and inexpensive printers readily available, digital cameras have taken over. IDC expects global shipments of digital cameras to hit 111 million units in 2008. |
When connecting computers in networks began in the 1970s the use of shared machines to provide storage
and services began, first among minicomputers, then, as the microprocessor gained traction, among PCs. The release of Novell NetWare in 1983 brought Intel-based servers into corporations in force, and it dominated the market until the mid-1990s. However, today it has virtually disappeared, a victim of lagging development and poor marketing.
Windows had little impact in the server world until NT 4.0 Server came out in the mid-1990s. It was the first version considered stable enough for deployment in the enterprise, although it still required much more attention than Novell or Unix servers. Today, Windows servers are firmly entrenched in the enterprise, though Unix and Linux still host twice the number of Internet sites hosted by Windows. Microsoft now markets an ever-growing collection of Windows-based servers. IBM, HP and Sun hold top spots in branded volume server hardware. |
Storage has been a tale of endless standards, competing formats and form factors, and ever-growing capacity. The 3.5-inch floppy drive (1.44 MB), for example, gradually replaced the more fragile 5.25-inch floppy, which had, in turn, replaced the 8-inch floppy.
Hard drives moved into the mainstream with Seagate’s introduction of a 5 MB drive in 1980. In 1991, drives hit 100 MB. Meanwhile hardware interfaces moved from MFM to RLL, and thence through an alphabet soup of interfaces to today’s SATA, and SAS and PATA. To further complicate matters, vendors realized that, as hard drives grew in capacity and stored more mission-critical data, they needed to become more reliable. In 1988, RAID levels 1 through 5 were formally defined, allowing a series of disks to be regarded by the operating system as a single drive and have data written across several drives for disaster recovery. In Q2 of 2006, IDC said, over 700 petabytes of storage were shipped worldwide. |
When CDN was born, networks were eclectic places. Three primary protocols (IBM Token Ring, ARCNet and Ethernet) were competing for dominance, and network operating systems such as Banyan VINES, Novell NetWare and LAN Manager ran the software side. Even the cabling was complex, with thin and thick coaxial cable (remember the vampire tap?), several types of unshielded twisted pair, and, more recently, optical fibre.
A combination of bad marketing and lagging development, coupled with Microsoft’s standards-based Windows networking and the growth of TCP/IP meant the end of these proprietary stacks, the demise of Banyan and Novell’s decline and subsequent re-invention. Simplified Windows networking meant that networks moved to become a mainstream technology. Wires have given way to wireless in many environments, eliminating one pain point while adding several others. Home networking, once only the province of geeks, has grown as well. |
Twenty years ago, the Hayes Smartmodem and its associated command set was the de-facto standard, to the point that other vendors marketed their products as “Hayes compatible.”
Attempts to define new standards ultimately failed because users did not want to have to hunt down the make of the modem used by their favourite online service so they could connect. However, Hayes lost another standards battle: that of the compression scheme allowing high-speed data transmission. U.S. Robotics triumphed there, but later ran into difficulties of its own, was acquired by 3Com, and later spun off again. However, USR managed to survive, and still sells its popular Sportster and Courier modems today; Hayes did not, after betting the company on the notion that ISDN would replace POTS for home data connections. |
Uninterruptible power supplies are part of the very dull plumbing in most server rooms, and, increasingly, in many homes. There are two major types: A standby UPS only powers protected equipment when there is an issue with the line power. The rest of the time, it simply charges its batteries and passes line power on. An online UPS powers the equipment from its batteries at all times, using the line power to keep them charged. Standby UPSes are more cost-effective, but online UPSes provide better power filtering. Probably the most common manufacturer is American Power Conversion. APC started selling UPSes shortly before CDN was born, but it’s a mere infant compared to Tripp Lite, which was founded in 1922 to produce automobile headlights. By the 1960s, it had added power products to its portfolio, and in 1980, it marketed the first UPS for a PC. |
The history of the optical drive is one of dueling standards, and it’s not over yet. Data compact disks, first showed up in 1985 thanks to a standard agreed upon by Sony and Philips, still sell billions of disks annually. But CD capacity is insufficient for many purposes, so digital versatile disks (DVDs) were developed in the mid-1990s, a compromise between competing technologies. However, competing groups have yet to compromise on writable DVDs, leaving the industry with three competing formats. |
Anti-Virus and Firewalls
The first known computer virus was called Brain, and compared to today’s malware, it was pretty mild. Then the Morris worm took down the still-young Internet, and triggered the development of firewalls (now part of virtually every network – Cisco is a huge player here). Since then we’ve had viruses, worms, Trojans and more, and as fast as we’ve figured out how to stop one kind of malware, another emerges. Pioneer anti-virus products like McAfee VirusScan (company founded 1987) Trend Micro (1988) and Symantec’s Norton Anti-Virus (released 1990) continue to battle on. It’s not certain who’s winning. |
Backup and Recovery
As long as there has been data, there’s been a need to back it up. With punched cards, decks were duplicated. When hard disks entered the scene, another medium was needed. Magnetic tape, first used to record sound in the 1920s, was adapted for data use in the 1950s. It has now been a data storage medium for over 50 years.
The first magnetic tapes were reel-to-reel, making the sight of spinning tapes a common one in datacentres. However, these tapes were cumbersome to handle and store, and were vulnerable to damage.
IBM introduced a cartridge tape drive in 1984, although reel to reel tapes still remained common. In 1987, Exabyte introduced 8mm tape cartridges, and in 1989, HP and Sony defined the DDS format for data storage on 4mm DAT tapes. Today, virtual tape (disk systems that emulate tape to backup software) provide the necessary speed to back up large volumes of data in a short time. |
Tim Berners-Lee’s 1990 program, WorldWideWeb was the first browser. Developed on a NeXTSTEP computer, it incorporated many of its interface features. Then, in 1993, Lynx, a completely text-based browser, was introduced to allow users of dumb terminals (and often PC users with very slow dial-up connections) to surf the Web. A couple of months before Lynx came out, NCSA Mosaic, the foundation for most of today’s browsers, was released by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Mosaic ported the hitherto Unix-based application to Windows, and added graphics to the pages. Web use exploded.
Netscape Navigator gradually supplanted Mosaic, and then another of its offshoots, Microsoft Internet Explorer, pushed Netscape aside. Now, Mozilla Firefox, developed from the Netscape Communicator code base open sourced in 1998, is nibbling away at Internet Explorer’s dominance.
To combat this, Microsoft has just released Internet Explorer 7, which apes many of the features that have made alternative browsers such as Firefox and Opera so popular, such as a tabbed interface. |
In 1985, Microsoft and IBM agreed to create a new graphical operating system: OS/2. However, Microsoft had already released Windows 1.0, a graphical shell that ran on top of MS-DOS. In late 1989, the two companies announced that Windows would be developed for low-end systems, and OS/2 for high-performance machines. But in 1990, the companies ended their co-operation. OS/2 slowly disappeared, while Windows, fueled by desktop sales, blossomed. Windows 95, a hybrid 16/32 bit version, was Microsoft’s first step in weaning consumers away from MS-DOS; Windows NT 3.1, released as a business OS two years earlier, was the first true 32-bit Windows operating system. Microsoft has since continued its attempts to merge consumer and business operating systems. Meanwhile in 1991, Finnish university student Linus Torvalds wrote a little operating system called Linux that has shaken up the OS world. It has almost single-handedly created today’s thriving open source ecosystem, making major inroads into the server space. This story is far from over. |
Despite their shared bandwidth and lack of filtering capabilities, hubs once dominated the networking market.
However, they gradually gave way to switches as the price of these devices fell, and are now only used in niche applications.
Research firm Dell’Oro lists Cisco, Nortel and Hewlett-Packard as the top three Ethernet switch vendors by sales in the first quarter of 2006.
The first router was actually a program running on a DEC minicomputer; only later did hardware routing appliances appear, with Cisco Systems a market leader.
Cisco’s first claim to fame was in multiprotocol routers, an area now largely irrelevant in today’s IP-dominated world.
Dell’Oro lists Cisco, Juniper Networks and Paris-based Alcatel as market leaders. |