The digital century: Software and the Internet
November 23, 1999
November 23, 1999
by the PC World staff
(IDG) -- Some folks say Steve Jobs pulled the heist of the century when he struck a deal with Xerox in 1979: The firm could invest $1 million in Apple if Jobs could visit its Palo Alto Research Center. Xerox said yes, and a Pandora's box swung open.
At PARC, Jobs spied the Alto, an experimental PC with a graphical user interface. Within minutes, it's been reported, Jobs realized that in the future, all computers would use a GUI.
According to conventional wisdom, Apple then cloned the Alto with its Macintosh -- before Microsoft, in turn, mimicked the Mac with Windows. But Apple's work on the Mac had already begun when Jobs toured Xerox. And Jef Raskin, an Apple employee, had been exploring graphical interfaces as early as 1967. "The only thing [Apple] took," says historian Owen W. Linzmayer, "was inspiration." Indeed, the company was solely responsible for many elements of the modern GUI, including the clipboard, trash can, and drag-and-drop file management -- making the visit to PARC seem like something less than grand larceny.
Start me up
After three years in production, numerous false starts, and massive hype, the operating system was unveiled in a circus tent on Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus. Onstage, ringmaster Bill Gates listed some of the production stats -- 362 "builds" of the software, 77 babies born to members of the design team -- while a Rolling Stones recording urged the crowd to "Start Me Up."
The new version catapulted Windows into the mainstream, and sold more than 3 million copies in five weeks. But Gates's real genius lay in marketing. His $200 million publicity campaign (including $12 million for rights to the Stones song) created a hysteria never before seen in computing.
But while Windows 95 did improve on Windows 3.1 -- with a revamped interface, Plug and Play compatibility, and Internet connectivity -- at its heart it was still basically DOS. And its awkward mix of 16- and 32-bit code made it hopelessly crash-prone.
As one analyst noted incredulously, "They spent all that money to promote the fact that there's a Start button in Windows 95!"
Other observers wondered if Gates knew the refrain to his $12 million tune: "You make a grown man cry."
Gettin' buggy with it
"Bug, as it applies to a flaw, dates back to Thomas Edison," says Dr. Peggy Kidwell, mathematics curator at the Smithsonian and an expert on the word's etymology. A bug's life in computing began not long after computers were born. In the early 1940s, IBM techs brought the term to Harvard as they helped troubleshoot the Mark I. The little buggers have been with us ever since.
Brave new online world
The birth of the Internet
Urban legend has it that the federal government created the Net as a communications network that could survive any attack the Russkies could throw at us. In fact, its genesis was wholly peaceful.
In July 1968, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency contracted with Bolt Beranek and Newman, a computer design firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to build ARPAnet, a network that would link research computers around the nation. By fall 1969, the company had connected computers at the Stanford Research Institute, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. As protocols and switching technologies developed, the network expanded. In 1973, designers united separate nets in a project dubbed the "Internetting problem." By 1983, some 400 computers were connected, and in 1986 the National Science Foundation created NSFNet, linking regional networks over a high-speed national backbone.
But the commercial Net we know today did not form until the mid-nineties, with the development of Web browsers and the attendant user-friendly content those browsers supported. Soon online service providers like CompuServe and AOL connected to the Net. Today 150 to 200 million people worldwide use the Internet -- a number that's expected to grow to 300 million by 2005.
A new kind of crime
The unhappy hacker
But it was the 1983 movie War Games, in which Matthew Broderick's character breaks into the Pentagon's computer system and brings the world to the brink of nuclear destruction, that launched the career of many an adolescent hacker.
Like graffiti artists, hackers hack to leave their mark -- and occasionally to make a political statement, too. Motivated by curiosity, boredom, and hunger for a little power, they range from the mildly annoying (such as the Hacking for Girlies group that brought down the New York Times site on the day the Starr Report came out) on up to the criminal "crackers" (such as Vladimir Levin, who allegedly transferred millions of dollars from Citibank's mainframe computers to accounts in Finland and Israel).
The most famous hacker is still Kevin Mitnick. Now 36 years old, Mitnick was arrested in 1995 following a two-year FBI manhunt, and sentenced to 46 months for hacking into corporate computers. He languished in prison for four years before sentencing, making him the Mumia Abu-Jamal poster boy for the hacker/slacker generation.
Whether you call them hackers, crackers, or computervredebreuk (Dutch for "disturbers of the peace of a computer"), there's no doubt that as long as computing systems exist, people will be looking for -- and finding -- ways to break into them.
As the worm turns
Morris's program wasn't the first worm or virus ever spawned. Pranksters probably wrote self-replicating programs on mainframes as early as the 1960s. But the Worm powerfully demonstrated the Internet's potential as a viral breeding ground.
In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy formed the Computer Incident Advisory Capability to combat significant threats to the Internet's infrastructure. But advances in operating systems have sped the creation of new viruses.
Experts have identified around 40,000 strains of computer virus. Reports from the viral underground, however, suggest that virus writers are working furiously to raise that number to 200,000 by the year 2000.
Use encryption, go to jail
When the program was posted to a newsgroup and distributed worldwide, Zimmermann found himself on the wrong end of a federal criminal investigation. The posting ran afoul of a U.S. law prohibiting the export of strong encryption outside the United States. The event augured the privacy issues that currently dog the digital age, and marked the beginning of the government's battle to police the Net.
Following public outcry, the government dropped its case in 1995. But the future of encryption is far from secure. Legislators view the technology as a tool for spies and terrorists and want encryption software to include a back door for federal authorities to decode mail. Nevertheless, PGP is still available free for downloading from MIT's PGP distribution site (see link below).
The World Wide Web
Scandal in a blue dress
For good or ill, the Internet had arrived as a mass medium. The public could now get some of its news from the source, instead of through the filter of newspapers and TV. What's more, the Internet reported it more quickly. It was Web columnist Matt Drudge who broke the scandal that Newsweek was reluctant to report. Network news took another three days to catch up.
But the event didn't exactly presage the end of Dan Rather and Rupert Murdoch. The Starr Report was cumbersome and loaded with legalese: Most readers just did keyword searches for "cigar" and "the Gap." And the public continued to look to conventional media for independent verification of the facts.
Today, investors large and small continue to bank on Web start-ups, with little regard to profitability. "Investors continue to ignore quality," says Ben Holmes, founder of IPOPros.com, a Boulder, Colorado, research firm. "Rather than looking at a company's earnings, they're still looking at hype and market potential."
So why hasn't Internet IPO mania petered out? "It's the revolution of our time," Holmes asserts. "The Internet is entertainment, commerce, and information all rolled into one." Side effects of the phenomenon have included day trading and the birth of the 24-hour stock exchange. Though Holmes remains confident that we'll continue to see Internet IPOs in the future, he believes that significant market consolidation is inevitable. "Three to five years from now, half these Internet stocks won't exist," he predicts. "They'll be eliminated by acquisition or attrition."
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