The 3 Eras of IT: Computing, Communications, Communities


A number of this week’s milestones in the history of technology trace the shift in the focus of the “computer industry” from computing to communications to communities and the shifting fortunes of key players such as IBM, Apple, and Google.

On April 1, 1976, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne signed a partnership agreement that established the company that will become Apple Computer, Inc. on January 3, 1977. The purpose of the new company was to commercialize the Apple I, a personal computer for hobbyists developed in 1976.

That was an early milestone in the life of a new “industry,” the market for personal computers. Another one happened on March 26, 1976, when the first PC convention, the World Altair Computer Convention, was held at the Airport Marina Hotel near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The MITS Altair 8800 was a build-it-yourself microcomputer kit designed in 1975. It became a hit among hobbyists after it was featured on the cover of the January 1976 issue of Popular Electronics magazine.  The keynote speaker at the convention was Bill Gates, then a 20-year-old Harvard University student and co-developer of BASIC for the Altair.

Thirty years after the incorporation of Apple Computer Inc., on January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs introduced to the world to the iPhone and also announced that the company would from that point on be known as Apple Inc., because computers were no longer its main focus. Apple, which became the most valuable company in the world five years later, did not fit anymore into any specific “industry” pigeonhole.

When asked if the iPhone represented the convergence of computing and communications, Jobs answered: “I don’t want people to think of this as a computer. I think of it as reinventing the phone.” Apple was entering a new “industry” and it was important for this consummate salesman to put a stake in the new playground for his company and to re-orient his company to operating as a “consumer electronics” company.

But the labels did not matter, nor did buzzwords such as “convergence.” Digitization was the driving force, transforming into zeros and ones all “computing” and “communications.”

iPhone-type communications started on March 27, 1899, when Guglielmo Marconi received the first wireless signal transmitted across the English Channel, sent from Wimereux, France, to his ship-to-shore station at the South Foreland Lighthouse outside Dover, England. The signal was a test held at the request of the French Government which was considering licensing the invention in France.

Digital computation commenced on March 31, 1939, when IBM signed an agreement with Harvard University to build the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), later called Mark I, a general purpose electro-mechanical computer, proposed in 1937 by Harvard’s Howard Aiken. The agreement called for IBM to construct for Harvard “an automatic computing plant comprising machines for automatically carrying out a series of mathematical computations adaptable for the solution of problems in scientific fields.”

The dedication of the Mark I on August 7, 1944, say historians Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, “captured the imagination of the public to an extraordinary extent and gave headline writers a field day. American Weekly called it ‘Harvard Robot Super-Brain’ and Popular Science Monthly declared ‘Robot Mathematician Knows All the Answers.’”

On March 31, 1951, a ceremony in Philadelphia marked the first sale—to the U.S. Census Bureau—of the UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I), the first commercial computer developed in the U.S. The fifth UNIVAC unit (built for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) was used by CBS to predict the result of the 1952 presidential election. It was the first time two of the major television networks used computers to predict the election results:

“The radio and TV networks hope to end the suspense as quickly as possible on election night …. CBS has arranged to use Univac, an all-electronic automatic computer known familiarly as the ‘Giant Brain.’ Because it is too big (25,000 lbs.) to be moved to Manhattan, CBS will train a TV camera on the machine at Remington Rand’s offices in Philadelphia …. NBC has its own smaller electronic brain … Monrobot …. Says ABC’s News Director John Madigan, professing a disdain for such electronic gimmicks: ‘We’ll report our results through Elmer Davis, John Daly, Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson—and about 20 other human brains.’” –“Univac & Monrobot,” Time Magazine, October 27, 1952.

“When CBS hired a newly minted Univac to analyze the vote in the 1952 presidential election, network officials thought it a nifty publicity stunt. But when the printout appeared, an embarrassed Charles Collingwood reported that the machine couldn’t make up its mind. It was not until after midnight that CBS confessed the truth: Univac had correctly predicted Dwight Eisenhower would swamp Adlai Stevenson in one of the biggest landslides in history, but nobody believed it.” –Philip Elmer-Dewitt, “Television Machines That Think,” Time Magazine, April 6, 1992

Television brought the computer industry to the masses before they could tap into the digital devices on their desktops or in their hands. But long before that, they already could participate in many-to-many communications, in creating and fostering their online communities. On April 1, 1985, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant launched The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), one of the first online communities which had a far-reaching impact on the nascent culture of the Internet.

The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, put a layer of software over the all-digital network of computing and communications, the Internet. That gave rise to new companies, competing with IBM and Apple for dominance of the new all-digital platform catering to both businesses and consumers.

On April 1, 2004, one of these new companies launched Gmail, as an invitation-only beta. The launch was initially met with wide-spread skepticism due to Google’s long-standing tradition of April Fools’ jokes. Google’s press release said: “Google Gets the Message and Launches Gmail. A user complaint about existing email services lead Google to create search-based Webmail. Search is number two online activity and email is number one: ‘Heck, Yeah,’ said Google Founders.” Gmail officially exited beta status on July 7, 2009 at which time it had 170 million users worldwide. As of July 2017, Gmail had 1.2 billion users.

Google had tremendous success launching applications running on top of the Web such as search and email and benefiting from an innovative advertising system. It has failed spectacularly in copying Facebook’s success in moving to the next phase of the industry, extending The Well into a worldwide bulletin board, connecting people with existing relationships, by common interests, and with ad-hock communities.

Open software and “the cloud” have created another type of community, a business community, but there Google has also failed grasp early the market opportunity where Amazon, and then Microsoft, succeeded in establishing a formidable presence.

The future will be dominated by the companies that manage to establish the all-digital network as the foundation for their unique, proprietary, addictive, all-inclusive community.

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