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

The Web gets out of synch

Reading e-mail on the Web sucks; that was Microsoft's judgment in 2000, back when the Web was a page-based medium. Each HTTP request meant a roundtrip to the server that refreshed the entire page, which was no good for high-activity applications like e-mail clients. So, to make Outlook Web Access 2000 more usable, Microsoft developers created a way for browsers to communicate with Web servers, by loading small amounts of data asynchronously.

Surprisingly, the idea stuck. Despite a troubled history with Internet Explorer, the Mozilla Project built similar functionality into Mozilla 1.0 in 2002, calling it XMLHttpRequest. The floodgates were opened, and a new way of coding for the Web was born.

It's hard to believe that Facebook, GMail, Google Maps, and countless other Ajax-enabled sites owe their existence to Microsoft's lead. But it's a good thing they did; if they had waited for the W3C to standardize XMLHttpRequest, they would still be waiting today.

Linux staves off SCO

In 2003, a black cloud had descended over open source's poster child. The SCO Group, led by new CEO Darl McBride, claimed ownership of key portions of the Linux kernel. Cautious Linux customers were warned to pay license fees to SCO, lest they find themselves on the wrong end of a copyright-infringement lawsuit.

But SCO had underestimated Linux's importance to the enterprise, and particularly to IBM. Why SCO thought it could outmatch Big Blue's lawyers (or its deep pockets) is anyone's guess. What matters is the outcome. One by one, IBM's lawyers knocked down SCO's arguments, establishing Linux's legitimacy as a matter of court record.

As the lawsuits lumbered on, McBride and company were ridiculed, then bankrupted. Meanwhile, the Linux business boomed. With allies such as Computer Associates, IBM, Novell, and Red Hat willing to take up its defense, the open source OS was clearly here to stay. Ironically, the lawsuit that was meant to be the death blow for Linux may have succeeded only in ushering in its golden age.

Intel dispels the megahertz myth

In the early days of PC chip manufacture, speed was the name of the game. All you had to do was crank up the clock cycles and watch performance-hungry customers come running. But as the new century dawned and clock speeds soared into the gigahertz, old chip designs couldn't keep up. They ran too hot and consumed too much power. Enter the Pentium M, a radical new chip pioneered by a team at Intel's Haifa, Israel, labs, led by Mooly Eden.

Though the Pentium M was intended for mobile PCs, with lower power consumption and more efficient instruction pipelines than contemporary CPUs, it became clear that Intel was onto a breakthrough, even for desktops.

Soon the die was cast. Today, Intel's leading Core series of chips, launched in 2006, are derived from the Pentium M, while the company's earlier architecture is due to be retired later this year. From now on, the chips that win the race will have to be not just faster, but smarter.

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Neil McAllister

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