Technology Over the Years

Woody Allen used to say that 80% of success is showing up. I’d add that the remaining 20% is staying there long enough.

I was first introduced to Information Technology when I was in high school, back when the Apollo program was going on and the Foundations were singing “Build Me Up Buttercup”.

I am a member of a very small group of people around town who studied “Computer Science” 40 years ago and stuck with it ever since. I enjoy being at industry roundtables when we go around the room introducing ourselves and stating how long we’ve been in the business. I’m often the granddaddy of them all.

So naturally, over the years I’ve come to see all kinds of technology come and go and I thought this month I’d summarize the ones I think were truly revolutionary.

Stored Programs. During my first year at Acadia University I learned how to write Fortran programs and punch them out on 80-column cards. A few years prior to this, people had to hardwire computers to do their tasks and every new job required rewiring.

When people started actually storing programs in computer memory for execution, this was a huge leap in technology. That was quickly followed by storing the programs for later recall, first on punched cards, then on hard drives much like the ones we still use.

COBOL. This language was invented in 1959 and is still used in millions of computer applications today. It stands the test of time.  Companies used to buy time on mainframe computers, timesharing we called it, and many of the applications they ran were written in COBOL.

Personal Computers. In the early 1980s computers became increasingly smaller in size to the point that they could sit on a desktop. No longer did you need to go to the steno pool to get a letter written, or logon to a mainframe to do any sort of calculation.

Macintosh’s. These had a revolutionary user interface, borrowed heavily from work done at Xerox labs, still in use today. The mouse that roared.

Novell Networks. The problem with personal computers was that they were, well,  personal. Everyone became an island. Local area networks came along, with Novell being the dominant player, and permitted us to be linked to one another for sharing files and devices.

FoxPro 2.6 for Windows. In the early 1990s, large corporations were struggling to convert their applications to the new Windows platform. Meanwhile small firms like ours were using tools like FoxPro to do just that, including multi-user networked applications and a built-in shareable database. The 2.6 version was the one that really started enabling slick user interfaces much like the ones we still use today.

The Internet. In 1991, I was asked by an organization called the “Nova Scotia Technology Network” to try out this thing called the Internet. For a month, a dozen colleagues and I tested out email and other communications tools.  My conclusion: “This technology is going nowhere”. It’s possible I may have been wrong.

SharePoint. So here we are now with the power of mainframes on our desktops, networks to connect them together, and the Internet to allow us to tap into vast resources. But in all of these gains was lost the ability for organizations to enable their employees to collaborate in a secure, centralized, robust fashion. SharePoint changes all that; no wonder it’s the top selling Microsoft server software of all time.

Portable Devices. These are the Palm Pilots, CE devices, and smartphones we see everywhere. By the way, don’t use these while driving unless you have a hands free adaptor; I got away with a warning last month and pointing this out in my column is the atonement for my transgression.

So what’s the next big thing?  As you know I’m not great at predictions, but here goes: probably the next  five years will see an explosion of Software-as-a-Service offerings, whereby people pay on a usage basis for computing resources and applications. Timesharing if you will, old becoming new again.

Have a great Holiday Season!

6 replies
  1. S says:

    Hi Pat

    I definitely remember the days of school encoding on column cards at UCCB. Fortran, Pascal, Cobol, original dBase, etc. and building my first computer with the 9.5 drive, then thinking how exciting to go to a 5 inch hard drive build. Getting jostled ;at the university console for processing so your own program cards would fall so your class mates would get their results in first, as you put your cards in order once again. Lesson learned there was; elastics (string) are always good to keep them (cards) together, till you were at the console to put the cards through.

    Smiles and Cheers!

    (via email)

  2. Dave says:

    Hi Pat,

    Read your article this morning with a smile on my face. I think you and I started at the same time so it was all relevant. So many “young” programmers today are amazed when they learn that yes, I can work with mainframes – and still do. I especially liked the part about the internet. My wife still teases me today about declaring that this whole internet thing was doomed to fail. At the time, I was a heavy CompuServe user, and the concept of having all this unorganized information scattered all over the place felt totally useless. Who knew that the solution of organizing that information was the next big thing!

    Have a great holiday,
    (via email)

  3. George says:

    Your info brought to light some others back to mind for me that were developed & produced for the PC beginnings – to name a few – Super Calc, WordStar, Lotus 123 (B4 IBM Screwed it up) & a program named HAL ( developed by a fellow in his garage ) that generated the code for Lotus 123 for the non mathematician, and so many more that have been the background of today’s IT Programming.

    One can go back to the introduction of the first Electronic Calculators (adding machines) like the Olivetti, Burroughs, Texas Instruments that went on & on when say multiplying – and the period where you didn’t trust the results so you still did it all by hand addition to check it. The old manual hand cranked was retired from the office assets to become a thing of the past.

    (via email)

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