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PC World

The digital century: Video games & computing's hall of shame


November 24, 1999
Web posted at: 12:40 p.m. EST (1740 GMT)

by the PC World staff

(IDG) -- What's a few decimal points between friends? A lot, as Intel learned when it got bitten by the Pentium math bug in November 1994. The problem? In doing some calculations, the chip produced errors beyond eight decimal places. Intel dismissed the bug as trivial. Then CNN picked up the story, and attorneys general in eight states filed liability suits against Intel. It quickly became the biggest PR blunder in computing history. "It was a classic case of how even incredibly smart people can do incredibly dumb things," says Lou Hoffman, principal of the Hoffman Agency, a PR firm in San Jose, California.

Intel finally agreed to replace all Pentium chips on request -- at a cost of $475 million. The company apparently learned its lesson. In 1997, when flaws were uncovered in the Pentium II, Intel promptly issued fixes. It now publishes an errata sheet of known bugs for every chip it builds.
--Daniel Tynan

Monday:The Digital Century: The PC

Tuesday:The Digital Century: Software and the Internet

Wednesday:The Digital Century: Tech Trailblazers

Thursday:The Digital Century: Video games & Computing's Hall of Shame

Friday:The Digital Century: Computing Through the Ages


Computers 1, Humans 0
February 1996: World chess champion Garry Kasparov squared off against IBM's Deep Blue in a six-game match. The computer won the first game, becoming the first machine to beat a reigning world champ. But Kasparov rallied to win three subsequent games and draw twice, giving him a 4 to 2 overall victory. For the moment, humankind's dominance over machines remained intact.

Anticipating a rematch, IBM took Deep Blue back to the lab and bulked up its processors to compute 200 million moves per second -- twice as many as before. Over nine days in May 1997, the chess titans met again. This time Kasparov took the first game, but victory ultimately eluded him. Two losses and three draws later, the exhausted human conceded victory to the stoic machine, 3.5 to 2.5.

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In game two of the match, Kasparov grew obsessed by a move the machine made that seemed eerily human. The move, which indicated a level of forward thinking not usually exhibited by computers, spooked Kasparov and ruined his focus. But Kasparov refused to see his defeat as signaling the end of human dominance in chess: "I have no doubt," he said, "in a proper...[match] this machine will be beaten."

We may never find out. Perhaps wary of the hostility Deep Blue might incur if it continued to beat human opponents, IBM pulled it from competition, claiming that its scientists wanted to move on to "other challenges."
--Steven Gray

Games go digital

Pong, anyone?
In 1972, few people had seen a computer up close. Maybe that's why Atari's arcade game Pong was such a huge sensation. The graphics and concept were fantastically primitive: A vertical white line divided the screen, separating two smaller vertical bars (the paddles) on either side. A distinctive "ping" sounded whenever the ball hit a paddle.

Pong wasn't the first video game or even the first with a Ping-Pong theme. (Some say it wasn't a computer game at all, since it used hardwired circuits instead of a microprocessor.) But the addictive game gobbled up quarters in record numbers from the minute it debuted at a California pub. Such variants as Super Pong, Quadra-Pong, and Puppy Pong (in a doghouse-shaped console) followed. Every digital diversion since, from Pac-Man to Tomb Raider, owes a debt to the electronic table-tennis game.
--Harry McCracken

The 10 greatest PC games of all time
Be honest. What's the first thing you tried out on that shiny new Pentium III you just bought? Chances are you didn't rush to see how much faster Word ran -- you fired up your favorite game. And you're not alone. In a very real sense, games have become a driving force in PC technology. Thanks to the gaming industry, practically every new system sold today comes with a video card that accelerates 3D graphics. Even Intel and AMD have responded, enhancing their latest processors with new instructions designed to handle the complex graphics, smarter opponents, and more immersive worlds found in today's games.

From Flight Simulator to Starcraft, computer games have kept us entertained and kept the industry moving. Here are ten of our all-time favorites.

  1. Civilization (1991): Sid Meier has designed many great games, but Civilization is on another level entirely. Spanning thousands of years, Microprose's classic game challenged you to lead your tiny tribe through the development of organized society, employing your skills in politics, city management, research, and battle. Never before (and arguably never since) had a game distilled as vast and complex a subject into such an enjoyable gaming experience.

  2. Myst (1993): Who can forget the chilling feeling when that eerie blue book is opened for the first time? Beautiful graphics, cunning puzzles, and an engaging story made Cyan's Myst an instant classic and the best-selling CD-ROM ever.

  3. Doom (1994): Shareware distribution. Multiplayer gaming. First person 3D. Scaring the local PTA. Doom wasn't the first game to use these techniques, but as the game that put all of them on the map, id Software's gory masterpiece has earned its place in gaming history.

  4. Microsoft Flight Simulator (1983): Fly from O'Hare to LAX, or just take off from Sea-Tac and try to perfect that roll. No enemy fighters. No world to save. Just the wondrous sensation of flight.

  5. Half Life (1998): Just when you thought first-person shooters were all guts and gore, Sierra's Half Life came along and blew us all away. A technological tour-de-force, Half Life's fluid animation and terrifyingly intelligent enemies made it an instant hit. But its most amazing innovation was its approach to game design. Instead of using a plot line as an excuse for combat, Half Life made you play a part in a complex story that unfolded before your eyes.

  6. Sim City (1987): Who knew that dealing with zoning laws, traffic jams, and police department budgets could be so much fun? With Sim City, Maxis introduced us to the joys of playing God (or at least a really powerful mayor) in a virtual world.

  7. Ultima IV (1985): Many consider Origin Systems' Ultima IV the definitive computer role-playing game. Gamers still hold fond memories of their adventures through the vast land of Brittania, which challenged them to make moral as well as combat decisions.

  8. X-Com (1994): Every top ten needs a dark horse, and we're proud to make X-Com ours. Way before the X-Files craze hit, Microprose had a sleeper hit with this definitive alien-fighting game. Between frantic battles with the alien races, players had to build bases, intercept alien craft, and research new technology. This genre-breaking combination was held together by an addictive combat system that spawned whole legions of imitators.

  9. Starcraft (1998):Having left its stamp on the real-time strategy genre with the Warcraft series, Blizzard set out to perfect its work with Starcraft. The result: one of the deepest, most well-balanced real-time strategy games ever. This game will remain a favorite for years to come.

  10. Tetris (1985): This frantic race to fit together falling blocks has proven to be one of the most addictive titles of all time. With versions available for PCs, nearly every game console, and even a few handheld calculators, Tetris is everywhere.
    --Eric Dahl

The 10 biggest hardware flops
  1. IBM PCjr: Orphaned at an early age; famously awful keyboard.
  2. NeXT machine: Sleek, black, and UNIX-based; ten years ahead of its time.
  3. Apple Lisa: Suffice it to say that 2700 of them were buried in a landfill.
  4. IBM PS/2: Failed to take PC market away from the clones.
  5. The Net PC: Dumb and dumber terminals.
  6. The network computer: No Java, just jive.
  7. Newton MessagePad: Lookd kool, two bad it never learnd tous pell.
  8. Pentop computers: Write idea; wrong time, price and size.
  9. PowerPC: Once seen as an Intel killer; never more than just another Mac.
  10. Xerox Alto: Can you say "blown opportunity"?

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Scientific American's analysis of Kasparov vs. Deep Blue II
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