15 turning points in tech history

Difficult decisions and paths not taken -- here are the 15 pivotal moments that have shaped today's high-tech landscape

Microsoft dodges a bullet

For a brief time in 2000, the IT community could be forgiven for humming "ding-dong, the witch is dead." In June of that year, having found that Microsoft had abused its monopoly position in the software market, US District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that the software giant should be split into two companies: one to sell operating systems, and another devoted to applications.

It never happened. The following year, the US appeals court would overturn Jackson's ruling, eliminating the breakup.

We can only speculate what the IT landscape might look like today in a split-Microsoft world -- Microsoft itself described the breakup plan as "a death sentence" -- but we know what happened once the appeals court overturned Jackson's decision. Free to conduct its software business as it saw fit, Microsoft headed down a path that would eventually bring us Windows Vista -- despite how many of us wish we could still save XP.

Handspring launches the smartphone era

By the late 1990s, Palm, having created the PDA market, was struggling to defend its share against challengers, including Microsoft. A group of Palm executives left the company in 1998 to found Handspring, a startup aimed at breathing fresh air into the Palm platform.

The difference? Handspring's PDAs could accept add-on hardware modules, allowing the company and its partners to experiment. For example, rather than just store phone numbers, what if your PDA could dial them, too?

The result, an add-on cellular radio called the VisorPhone, was a hit, and Handspring ran with it. Plans were soon laid for a model that would combine phone and PDA functionality in a single, compact device.

When Handspring unveiled the Treo in 2001, the concept was too good even for Palm to ignore. Palm acquired Handspring in 2003, and the stand-alone PDA was effectively finished, replaced by the far-more-utilitarian smartphone.

That '70s spam

ARPANet, the predecessor of the modern Internet, was developed by the US Department of Defense to allow computer researchers, vendors, and other government contractors to communicate across long distances. In large part, that meant e-mail.

Then one day in 1978, Gary Thuerk, a marketer for Digital Equipment, had a bright idea for this new medium. Instead of addressing an e-mail to one or two people on ARPANet, why not include all of them at once? It would be a quick, easy way to let everyone know about an upcoming open house Digital had planned to unveil its new line of mainframes.

The resulting mass-mailing was the world's first spam, and ARPANet authorities were not pleased. "This was a flagrant violation of the use of ARPANet as the network is to be used for official US government business only," wrote Major Raymond Czahor. "Appropriate action is being taken to preclude its occurrence again."

Let us know how that's going, won't you, Raymond?

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Neil McAllister

InfoWorld

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