Top 10 most inspiring moments in IT

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Top 10 most inspiring moments in IT

To say that the technology industry has had a rough couple of months would be a huge understatement.

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The economic crisis has devastated the industry, sending finances through the floor and leading to tens of thousands of lost jobs in the past few months alone.

It is no fun for the people involved, and writing about it every day has dampened the environment in the vnunet.com offices as well.

But crisis also leads to reflection. Not just on better times, but on those who emerged from seemingly dire circumstances to accomplish the 'impossible'.

So this week, we take a look at some of those uplifting stories. Our hope is that they not only help raise spirits, but prompt some reflection on how success stories can emerge from the current crisis.

10. The moon landing

Shaun Nichols: No list of great science stories would be complete without what may be mankind's greatest achievement.

It was arguably an engineering feat, and the computing technology used in the project was roughly the equivalent of a pocket calculator compared to today's hardware, but the 1969 moon landing showed the general public just what a nascent technology industry could accomplish.

The event also sparked an interest in science for millions of children, many of whom would help to change the industry over the next 10 years.

Iain Thomson: The Apollo flight control computer was arguably the first embedded computer system to use integrated circuits. But, more importantly, it served to ignite interest in computers among the general public.

Watch some of the early coverage of the Apollo missions and you find constant mentions of the onboard computer systems. To the general public it was a taste of what computers could actually do for mankind, and established the idea of their utility.

To be sure, the bulk of the success of the Apollo missions was down to good engineering rather than computer technology, but it gets a spot on the list not so much for its power, but for its effect.

9. Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

Iain Thomson: When PARC was set up it was the very antithesis of the money-driven and results-driven ethos of the time. The idea was to get a bunch of geeks together, give them time and plenty of money and see what they came up with.

The results were, quite frankly, amazing. PARC is responsible for Ethernet, the computer mouse, the graphical user interface, laser printing and the first recognisable desktop system, the Alto.

Apple paid Xerox US$1m in stock for a three-day visit, and used what its staff learned to build the company we see today.

The atmosphere at PARC became the template for the whole Silicon Valley culture. Timekeeping was down to individuals, the famous beanbag chairs were used for meetings, and dress codes were just a suggestion. What made it all the more unusual was that this came from Xerox, one of the most buttoned-down technology companies on the planet.

This is not to say that PARC was some sort of slackers' paradise. Competition was fierce to get in and, once in, you couldn't rest. If your ideas weren't good enough you were out. But it involved intellectual competition, not financial or political, although those two managed to creep in on occasion.

For the technologist, though, PARC is an inspiration, somewhere geeks go if they are really, really good. It's still coming up with innovations like IPv6 and it's a pity that more centres of excellence haven't been set up along similar lines.

Shaun Nichols: PARC has become something of a legend in the computing world, like a Shangri-La for geeks. The idea that a company would set up a research centre free from corporate suits and strict budget constraints is still unheard of.

Yet, as Iain mentioned, PARC has come up with technologies that are part of the backbone of IT. More importantly, PARC served as a textbook example of why R&D is so important to all IT companies. With so many cutting budgets, PARC's lessons in what funding R&D can lead to will hopefully not fall on deaf ears.

8. Anti-virus researchers

Iain Thomson: One of the most pernicious rumours on the Internet is that anti-virus firms write viruses and release them to keep themselves in business.

As a fledgling hack I put this very question to some of the staff at a couple of firms, and the result was a mix of irritation and amusement. The fact is that it would never work, because these people know each other so well and could recognise each others' code. It also goes against the strict moral code these people set themselves.

In this era of flexible loyalties it seems rather quaint to talk about moral codes, but the spirit is alive and well in the anti-virus industry. By and large these are people who have dedicated themselves to beating viruses, which they see as potentially choking off the computing life they hold so dear.

They do so for little money and only the recognition of their peers. It's similar to the attitude you see in some doctors, nurses, teachers, fire-fighters and policemen.

Unusually too they all share information. There is an online bulletin board older than the web on which anti-virus researchers collaborate and share information on new threats. There's still competition, though, and naming rights to new viruses traditionally go to the first person who figured out how to tag them (although that system is breaking down).

But these researchers will willingly share information that could get them ahead in an effort to make computing safer for all. It's an inspiring tale of professionals working for the love of their craft.

Shaun Nichols: Anti-virus researchers are just about the only people I know who would love to see their own industry disappear. How many other jobs revolve around the idea of eliminating what drives sales of your product?

The truth, however, is that, as long as the bad guys are working together, so must the good guys. If anti-virus firms were unable or unwilling to share information with one another, we would end up with a market full of products that would address only a few attacks. Everybody would do a couple things well, but nobody could protect users from everything.

Still, when you have companies like SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and others fighting tooth and nail over intellectual property, it's refreshing to see those within the security industry so willing to share their work.

7. The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Iain Thomson: In 1990 Secret Service agents raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games, which designed and sold role-playing titles. The raid was carried out with an unsigned search warrant and the offices were trashed, all in pursuit of a hacker accused of stealing a technical document later valued at US$13.

The raid, documented in Bruce Stirling's excellent The Hacker Crackdown, was the spur that led to the formation of the EFF. Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, was so enraged by the raid that he, John Gilmore (employee number five at Sun) and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow set up the EFF, with funding from Apple's Steve Wozniak, among others.

Since then the EFF has championed digital liberties for all, and has reached a stature similar to that of the American Civil Liberties Union. Wherever rights are threatened the EFF can be found, and the organisation has been very successful in making sure that the authorities recognise that just because something's virtual it is still important.

Shaun Nichols: The EFF has really proved its worth in the past decade. Had it not been for the group's legal efforts, the file-sharing crackdowns from the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America would probably have been much worse, and users could have found themselves under far tighter restrictions.

The group has also waded firmly into the murky waters of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on behalf of those who share media files. Whenever there's a shady run of YouTube takedown notices, or an absurd copyright claim, the EFF is who you call when you don't have a pack of lawyers at your disposal.

With the debates over net neutrality and wireless spectrum access looming, the EFF could very well find itself more important than ever. It's not often that you can describe lawyers as champions of the people, but the EFF truly is standing up for the rights of the average internet citizen.

6. One Laptop per Child

Shaun Nichols: Political infighting and economic realities have tarnished the OLPC project of late, but at its launch it was one of the most noble and ambitious computing projects ever.

The brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC sought to create a cheap, rugged device that could be distributed throughout the world to help change the way children in impoverished areas learned.

While it has run into its fair share of problems, the project has succeeded in getting the XO Laptop to children, and is still hoping to reach its full vision of bringing computing to the entire planet.

Iain Thomson: When Negroponte first came up with the idea for the OLPC he was laughed at by many in the industry. A US$100 laptop! This, after all, was at a time when laptops were more expensive than desktop PCs. Couldn't be done, was the consensus among manufacturers.

But little by little Negroponte began to change their tune. As the price fell lower the success of the OLPC project sparked not derision, but panic. If the OLPC could be made and sold, they were missing a market.

So Intel came out with the Classmate, a radically reduced-spec laptop aimed at the developing world. While Intel hasn't exactly covered itself with glory over its involvement in the OLPC project, it has at least addressed a market that needed computers.

Personally, I've been an OLPC sceptic over the years; to my mind the developing world needs clean water supplies and electricity before it needs laptops. But the OLPC did inspire a rethink in the computer industry and for that it deserves credit.

Read on to page two for numbers five through to one!

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