Top 10 technology tussles

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Top 10 technology tussles

Scouring the history books for the biggest battles in the technology industry.

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Anthropologists tell us about the olden days, when (predominantly) men stood with spears and threatened each other.

Over the years we've moved on: using swords, then guns, then nuclear weapons before finding the ultimate weapon – lawyers.

The technology industry, being so new, has resorted to legal battles more than most.

As much as we'd like to see a cage fight between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs using chainsaws (two men enter, one man leaves), the technology industry has fought its battles in court, or in competition in the marketplace – albeit with heavily stacked odds.

This week we've seen VMware declare war on Microsoft and Citrix over virtualisation.

Battles are contentious by default, so if you think we've missed something let us know.

10. Microsoft v Google

Shaun Nichols: Yet another recently-born rivalry, the battle between Google and Microsoft may well determine who becomes the alpha dog in tech for the coming decades.

Microsoft is the reigning king of computing. The software giant maintains a stranglehold on key areas such as operating systems, web browsing and software. Google, however, is the king of the internet. The smashing success of the flagship search engine has given Google a cash cow in the form of search advertising.

Now, as the internet increasingly becomes the basis for day-to-day computing activity the two companies, once thought to occupy different ends of the industry, find themselves on a collision course. Microsoft is eyeing a share of Google's lucrative online advertising business while Google is increasingly using its online applications to target Microsoft's stranglehold on the workplace utility and productivity market.

Iain Thomson: When a senior member of Microsoft announced he was leaving for Google, Steve Ballmer was reportedly so enraged he threw a chair across the room.

It shows how deep the rivalry is between these two companies. Microsoft has been the top dog for two decades and it'll give up that supremacy when you pry the keyboard from its cold, dead fingers.

Now you might think that Google has the upper hand in the fight. It has the search business in a lock, and has started giving away applications that Microsoft has used as a cash cow for free. But Google is the fresh-faced ingénue in the game, while a decade of fighting with governments have given Microsoft a vital advantage in the management arms race.

9. IBM verses CDC

Iain Thomson: As we'll see later IBM ruled the roost for the first years of computing. But a small team behind Control Data Corporation (CDC) took on Big Blue and caused them some serious hurt.

CDC took on IBM in the supercomputing field, and at first appeared to be winning. It set as its ethos to offer less for more; a strategy that has been mimicked ever since by competitors in computing.

Then a tiny company CDC nevertheless out-engineered IBM with the CDC 6800, which massively outperformed anything else on the market. This caught IBM off guard, causing it to pre-announce the release of the Model 92, which would be just as fast. The computer didn't even exist when it was announced, but sales for CDC kit dried up while the market waited. IBM's tactics eventually cost it US$600 million in fines – a major chunk of cash at the time. But the damage was done.

CDC's next big iron project was much better than the 6800, but was released during a recession and failed to get serious market footprint. Supercomputing genius Seymour Cray left the company and it was all downhill from there.

Shaun Nichols: If there's any good that came out of the Cold War, it's what the conflict did to the development of IT. So many of the early computing firms were able to get started because of the huge military contracts that were being handed out left, right and centre as NATO rushed to update its military operations and NASA leapt into the space race.

Another benefit of the era was the opportunity for smaller firms to start up. World War II produced a new crop of talented engineers working on systems such as radar and code-breaking equipment. Upon returning home many of those engineers entered the workforce and some of them even started companies. One of these was Control Data, a small firm that set up shop at an old aircraft plant in Minnesota.

With companies such as IBM looking to get into the burgeoning market for computing, CDC needed an advantage to keep pace. They got it in the form of a brilliant young engineer named Seymour Cray. The machines Cray designed sparked the supercomputing market. IBM then attempted to keep pace with its own deep pockets and stable of engineering minds.

The resulting back and forth between the two groups led to countless breakthroughs in computing throughout CDCs life and later through Cray Computing. When the Cold War finally ended the race, both sides had contributed new technologies and methods that are still driving innovation in the IT sector today.

8. MacOS verses Windows

Shaun Nichols: For more than two decades now the popular debate amongst computing enthusiasts has been "Mac or PC?" Though the overwhelming majority of the time the debate was really between Windows and MacOS operating systems.

While Apple can't take credit for inventing the graphical user interface (GUI) – that honour lies with Xerox PARC - the Macintosh was the first to bring it to a wide audience, and when Microsoft produced the first version of Windows, a battle of epic proportions was kicked off.

Since then Mac users and PC users have been locked in a war of words. MacOS is more elegant, intuitive and less prone to malware attacks, while Windows is more widely supported and runs on cheaper hardware.

The only reason the Mac/Windows battle doesn't rank higher is that the battle has more or less stabilised, if not settled. Macintosh machines take up somewhere around 10 per cent of the market and keep a foothold with the creative types, while Windows copes with the larger market and maintains dominance with the business and gamer crowds.

Iain Thomson: Back in the day there really was a fight between Apple and Microsoft.

But Microsoft leveraged its huge user base to outstrip Apple and the cash left it able to defend the charges from Apple that it had stolen the GUI idea – a claim frankly ridiculous, since Apple had stolen it in the first place.

Actually Apple's conflicts with Microsoft were immensely useful for Redmond. Microsoft pumped money into Apple when the company was in a post-Jobs death spiral, just so it could say that it had competition in the operating system market. This provided a useful argument against anti-trust cases for the equivalent of Bill Gates' pocket change.

7. Jobs verses Scully

Iain Thomson: In the mid-1980s Apple was in trouble. Sure, it had one of the best selling computers on the market but the firm was being run by two people who were, in business terms, naïve at best.

Steve Jobs had used Steve Wozniak's skills to build Apple into a computer powerhouse. But neither of them knew the first thing about running a modern company. So, at the advice of his backers, Jobs went after a modern chief executive who could run the company as Wall Street demanded.

Jobs worked hard to get John Scully, then president of Pepsi. Scully had achieved his position by marketing the products well and using strict cost control.

Initially Scully was a success. He cut down on Apple's operating costs by enforcing rigorous inventory control and cutting out useless side projects. Then he decided to cut out another area of the business he saw getting in his way – Steve Jobs.

Jobs found himself comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Scully. Jobs had built Apple around a personality cult, but in doing so had arguably offended a lot of people, noticeably many members of the board. Scully pandered to these people and sought to isolate Jobs.

Jobs was forced out, sold off his stock, turned his back on most of his supporters and took his toys elsewhere. Scully looked triumphant, but then came the realisation that he didn't know what the technology industry was really about. He ran the company into the ground with politics, the infamous PowerPC fiasco and many other cases.

Jobs triumphed in the long run – hired back to save the company from itself. But the conflict crippled Apple at a time when it could have really stuffed Microsoft and the effects linger on today.

Shaun Nichols: Scully was brought in to Apple because he was a businessman rather than a computer geek.

Unfortunately the man's best selling point for getting the job was also his greatest weakness once he got in there. Scully ran Apple like a soft drink company, opting to get rid of troublesome executive Steve Jobs in favour of peace and continuity. This works well when you're in a business where the product hasn't changed in 50 years.

Unfortunately, Apple is a computer company. And running a company in the computer businesses means constantly being aware of changes and having a vision of what new products the company will be releasing ten years down the line.

Not surprisingly, ten years after Jobs left things hit rock bottom. Scully was able to keep things going well at Apple for the first few years after Jobs departure, but as the 1990s dragged on it became painfully obvious that Apple was lacking in both vision and focus, releasing a scattered line of machines that gained little ground with each release.

When Jobs finally returned, his first moves were to dramatically reduce the the number of machines Apple built and radically overhaul the ones that the company was still producing. All that did was create the iMac, arguably the company's most important product ever.

6. SCO v Novell, IBM

Shaun Nichols: This is one of our favourite stories in the annals of IT history.

Software vendor SCO, under chief executive Darl McBride, decided to sue both Novell and IBM over a series of patents.

Though this normally would have been settled quietly and produce nothing more than a footnote in the news sites, the story became a big deal because the patents in question were key components of Unix and its open-source variants. In other words, SCO was suing for exclusive rights to enterprise Linux.

Fortunately for the rest of the industry, the effort was not successful and SCO eventually found itself facing bankruptcy. In the meantime, McBride and his company became one of the most controversial figures in the technology world this side of Redmond, WA.

Iain Thomson: One can't help but look at the disaster.

I've explained my feelings about SCO in the past and see no reason to change them. SCO thought it could use the US patent system to get a free ride off Linux. It failed, and with any luck will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

It's an interesting example of punching above your weight. Despite my cynicism over the legal industry in this country the SCO case does highlight that no matter what your funding you can't buck the facts – unless you're OJ that is.

Read on for the top five technology tussles...

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