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 Office's domination takes form

If you had a PC on your desk in 1986, chances are you were writing or crunching numbers on either WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3. Fast, lean, and full-featured, these programs were among the best that DOS had to offer. They were so good, in fact, that few businesses would dream of switching to the lackluster alternatives from Microsoft.

Unfortunately, neither Lotus nor WordPerfect anticipated the success of Windows. They assumed that applications would dictate users' choice of operating system, not the other way around. As users began clamoring for GUI-based software, Microsoft was quick to fill the void with Word and Excel.

By 1990, Microsoft was shipping both programs, along with the newly introduced PowerPoint, in a bundle it called an "office suite." Compared with the single-purpose, DOS-based software sold by Lotus and WordPerfect, Microsoft was giving Windows users a better deal. In the end, the former market leaders may have delivered more functions, but their decision to forego early support of Windows was costly one.

Louis Gerstner resurrects IBM

It had once been the behemoth of the computing industry, but by the time Louis Gerstner became CEO in 1993, IBM was literally falling apart. Having posted a US$4.97 billion loss for 1992 -- the largest in American history -- and with mainframe sales dwindling, senior management had begun spinning off business units to free them from the Big Iron anchor around their necks.

Gerstner put a stop to that. Consolidating and streamlining IBM's various divisions, Gerstner expanded IBM's software business and revitalized its corporate culture. But his most crucial move was to shift IBM's focus from products to services. Today, IBM's Global Services division remains one of its strongest earners, pulling in US$15 billion in revenue for 2007.

Equally important, IBM's new direction paved the way for countless other tech companies, including open source vendors who rely on support revenue to underwrite free software. From the brink of insolvency, Gerstner successfully steered Big Blue into a leading position for the Internet age.

The ARPANet is for porn

In 1973, Alexander Sawchuk needed a photo with which to test a new digital image compression algorithm he was developing at the University of Southern California. A glossy page with a variety of image properties to test against. In particular, he wanted a human face. A brief search around the lab turned up a photo of Lenna Sjooblom -- Playboy's Miss November 1972.

They say that anything you post to the Internet can live on forever. For Lenna it turned out to be true, even in that pre-Web age. Sawchuck's digitized photo went on to become one of the stock images used in compression research, having now appeared in countless papers on the subject.

Many more women have since followed in Lenna's footsteps, proving the rule: Give computer geeks a public network and before you know it they'll fill it with smut.

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Neil McAllister

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