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

NetWare falls to the Net

Before Novell NetWare debuted in 1985, transferring files in the typical office meant handing off a floppy disk. NetWare's affordable PC networking quickly took the computing world by storm; by the late 1980s, Novell claimed a 90 per cent share of the market.

But Novell never foresaw NetWare's Achilles' heel. If Microsoft was famously slow to embrace the Internet, the same goes double for Novell.

By most standards, Windows NT was clunky compared to NetWare, but it had one clear advantage: native support for TCP/IP, the core protocol of the Internet. NetWare servers relied on the older protocols IPX and SPX, which made it harder to integrate NetWare servers with FTP clients, browsers, and Internet e-mail. As demand for the Internet soared, businesses began replacing their NetWare servers with Windows, and NetWare networks were soon headed the way of the floppy disk.

IT gets saddled with accountability

Running a large IT shop was never easy, but at least you didn't have the government breathing down your neck. That changed in 2002, however, with the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate accounting scandals exposed the need for greater accountability on the part of publicly traded companies. But accountability means auditing, and to audit you need records. Unfortunately, the burden of recordkeeping required by Sarbanes-Oxley fell to IT.

By 2005, IT managers found themselves spending an inordinate amount of time and money on SOX compliance. Vague rules and unproven technologies left many guessing. And if SOX wasn't bad enough, healthcare companies had the added burden of HIPAA to worry about.

Whether the next administration will see fit to revisit these regulations remains to be seen, but for IT there's no going back. Regulatory compliance has cemented its position as a key component of business operations, for better or for worse.

Apple flips its chip strategy

The Macintosh has always stood apart, even before Apple launched its "Think Different" ad campaign in 1997. In defiance of the x86 platform's dominance of the PC chip market, the earliest Macs used Motorola 68000-series CPUs. Later, when performance demanded an upgrade, Apple switched to the PowerPC, but the net effect was the same: Macs and PCs were as fundamentally different as, well, apples and oranges.

But Apple couldn't fight the tide forever. Performance bottlenecks and high power consumption dogged the PowerPC, and by 2005 its future as a general-purpose processor seemed doubtful. In June of that year, Apple announced that it would begin shipping Macs based on Intel processors, ending 20 years of Thinking Different about CPUs.

In so doing, the PC processor market effectively became a monoculture. Virtually every mainstream computer you can buy today is based on Intel's architecture. Macs can even run Windows. But it's OK, Mac fans; if what's inside doesn't make you feel different, how it looks still can.

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Neil McAllister

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