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.

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 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!

5. Mozilla Firefox

Iain Thomson: Cue my Don LaFontaine (the voiceover guy in movie trailers) voice: "In a world where one browser dominated the Internet a new hero was born, and its name was Firefox."

OK, that's over-dramatising a tad but the rise of Firefox was one of the most heart-warming tales of computing, although maybe not if you're working at Microsoft.

Netscape popularised the browser at a time when Bill Gates was still dismissing the Internet as a fad. Having realised that Microsoft had missed the boat, Gates went after Netscape and slashed it off at the knees. It gave away the browser Netscape had been selling, bundling its own browser with Windows and waging an aggressive PR campaign to boot.

The result was that Netscape all but died out and Internet Explorer got 95 per cent of the market. As it now had the monopoly position, Microsoft virtually stopped development work on the browser and users were stuck with an application that was outdated, unsafe and a pain in the backside to use.

Then came Firefox, the open source alternative. By making the browser free Microsoft had unwittingly given open source an ideal opportunity. Firefox was launched by the Mozilla Foundation, which ironically was set up by the remnants of Netscape, and quickly became the browser of choice for the tech cognoscenti.

It didn't do this by throwing money into marketing or leveraging a market position like Microsoft. It did so by being much better than the competition. It introduced concepts like tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and a customisable user interface.

After years of seeing little or no innovation from Microsoft suddenly it had a competitor and it began updating IE, initially just copying Firefox innovations but then adding a few of its own.

Firefox is a great example of how innovation can prove to be more powerful than money and market clout. While Firefox still has only about 25 per cent of the market, it has done so entirely on its own merits and this makes it one of the most inspiring of IT stories.

Shaun Nichols: According to one source, when marketing the early versions of Internet Explorer to the press and public Microsoft PR agents were told by the higher-ups to "f*** Netscape until it bleeds".

While rather harsh and a bit crude, the phrase does provide an accurate description of how Microsoft went about the browser wars. How satisfying it must be, then, for Netscape's former developers to see the ghost of their old browser come back to haunt Microsoft.

Even more ironic is that Firefox beats Internet Explorer at its own game. Not only is the browser free, but it's open to anyone that wants to look under the hood. Developers do much of the coding free of charge for the betterment of the browser (and perhaps a little bit of wanting to stick it to Microsoft).

4. The rise of Apple

Shaun Nichols: It's the quintessential Silicon Valley success story: two geeks, one a gifted engineer, the other a marketing genius, turn a garage hobby into a business empire.

Everyone knows the story of Apple (check out our Mac at 25: Special Report). Two guys named Steve (Jobs and Wozniak) meet up at the home-brew computer club and put together a model for a powerful, low-cost home computer.

Sold as the Apple I, the company's first computer (in reality it wasn't much more than a motherboard) did pretty well. But it wasn't until Jobs and Wozniak secured some extra funding that things really began to take off.

Woz cooked up a new computer design, then the company decided to add a keyboard, case and storage. The result was the phenomenally successful Apple II, and the rest is history.

While Apple wasn't the first to undertake the journey of garage start-up to industry giant, theirs is probably the most famous, and served as inspiration to a number of later companies that would follow the same path.

Iain Thomson: Like it or loathe it, Apple is one of the most inspiring success stories in the industry. Steve Wozniak was a reclusive genius who, if he'd had his way, would have stayed an engineer in a little cubicle at HP doing great things for little money. Steve Jobs was the brash salesman who knew he was better than anyone else in the industry and set out to prove it.

These chalk-and-cheese characters came together and built something admirable, and kick-started the whole PC industry as well. It was a great example of how two youngsters, with barely a bean to their names, could build an industry on brain, brawn and sheer chutzpah.

3. Google

Iain Thomson: Out of the smoking ruins of the first Internet bubble rose a company started by a couple of students which became the most powerful brand on the planet.

Google was the brainchild of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who were researching how to make search engines better. Search engines had become the chief way of navigating the morass of information the Internet was spawning, but they weren't very good.

The Google search engine became what it is today down to one simple fact: it was miles ahead of the competition. It made MSN and Yahoo look pitiful by example. It became a word-of-mouth sensation, drawing in users without advertising because once you used it you were hooked.

The company also topped the list of places to work for a long while. An informal atmosphere prevailed, with lots of in-house facilities like cafes, crèches and at-desk massages to make staff feel more relaxed. The company also set aside time for staff to work on their own projects. The unofficial corporate creed was 'Do no evil'.

Not content with the search market, the company then set up spin-offs like Gmail, which changed web mail services across the board, and Google Earth. It is now the 800 pound gorilla in much of the technology industry.

While its reputation has suffered in recent years, notably from its compliance in censorship with the Chinese authorities, it still remains an example of how a good idea is sometimes all you need.

Shaun Nichols: Google is such a great story because the company emerged as a successful start-up at a time when some people wondered whether a successful start-up was even possible.

Having the advantage of hindsight, the company was able to avoid the pitfalls of many late 1990s dot-com companies, while keeping the good features. The company took care of its employees and created a pleasant working environment, and did not go all-out with lavish benefit packages or super-plush facilities.

Google also did some trailblazing of its own. Things such as community service programmes and the '10 per cent' concept helped foster the idea that there's more to a job than what the boss puts on your desk.

Granted, there are more than a few disgruntled ex-Googlers who would disagree with the idea of the company being a great place to work, while it has recently been forced to cut back on the perks and consolidate its stable of beta projects.

But there's no arguing Google's role in helping bring Silicon Valley back from the dot-com bust and fostering some healthy new ideas about how a company should view its employees.

2. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Shaun Nichols: It's safe to say that Bill Gates was one of the most hated men in technology in the 1990s. The Microsoft chief had earned a reputation as a ruthless opponent who didn't mind breaking the rules to eliminate competitors that often offered superior products.

The result was that Microsoft became the biggest software company in world, and Gates amassed more money than anyone on the planet.

Then, like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller a century ago, Gates decided to give his fortune away. In 1994 he committed hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, and established what would later become the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

After convincing Warren Buffet to hop onboard, the Foundation is now said to boast an endowment of some US$37bn committed to health, education and economic development throughout the world.

Iain Thomson: It's interesting to see what the lords of Silicon Valley do with their loot. Some, like Larry Ellison, waste large amounts on expensive toys. Others, like Mitch Kapor, seek to use it for change. Bill Gates, for so long the richest of them all, decided to give it way.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started off with humble beginnings but moved rapidly towards greatness. By getting Warren Buffet to add in his wealth, Gates created a charity powerhouse that is already solving global problems.

It's also been a good thing for Big Bill himself, I can't help feeling. Gates has a sharp mind and loves a challenge. By all accounts he is now bringing this razor intellect to bear on some of the world's most pressing problems - and this will be his legacy. Hopefully, his example will inspire others to make an equal contribution.

1. Linux

Iain Thomson: Linux has become one of the flagships of the free software movement and is, for me, the most inspirational of technological achievements.

Linux is the result of the Masters project Linus Torvalds chose at the University of Helsinki. Torvalds updated Mimex, an open source version of Unix used in the education field, for 32-bit computer architecture, and offered his creation free to the world.

The result was like a blast of nitrous oxide in the engine of the open source movement. Linux may have been more complicated to set up than Windows, but it was a valid alternative and it became more and more common.

Enthusiasts worked night and day to make it better and solve software problems in a way that companies couldn't compete with. Pay someone a day's wage and they'll do a day's work. Get someone enthused with something and they'll work day and night until they drop, then drag themselves up by the eyelids and work some more, just for the love of it.

Linux is still not the easiest operating system to set up, but more and more people are getting into it. It's also noticeable that it's a tool for getting unsociable geeks to communicate. Linux user groups can be found in most cities, and I know of two or three relationships that would not otherwise have come about because of some fine coding work and a shared love of the operating system.

Besides all this, it also has a place in my heart because it comes from Finland, one of my favourite places in the world. While its cuisine isn't up to much, the Finns are admirable in so many ways: plain speaking, community minded and libertarian. Much of that national character is reflected in Linux.

Shaun Nichols: Even though its fans often challenge Apple's in terms of arrogance and annoyance, you have to love Linux.

The Unix kernel first written by Linus Torvalds nearly two decades ago has become the little operating system that could take over the world. Developers and tinkerers love the freedom of the open architecture, while admins love the stability, and executives love the cheap operating costs.

Beyond culture, there's also the significant financial impact. The rise of Linux and its vendors proved that you could do open source and still make a huge profit. Companies like Novell and Red Hat rode Linux into the upper ranks of the tech world and made it among the most robust and respected enterprise operating systems around.

Honorable Mention: SETI@Home and the rise of distributed computing

Shaun Nichols: As the Internet began to boom in the late 1990s, a new sense of connection and co-operation began to take shape. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the SETI at Home project.

The idea was simple enough: take a lot of data normally meant for a supercomputer and break it into smaller chunks that home computers could crunch in their spare time. When researchers at UC Berkeley released the project, it spread like wildfire throughout the geek world.

Since then, the distributed model has moved on to other fields. Users can now participate in distributed projects that do everything from model DNA and proteins, to predict global climate change.

Iain Thomson: The SETI project was a fascinating idea and, like many, I signed up almost immediately. The simplicity was great. It used your computer's downtime to do something useful that would have cost a lot of money on a mainframe system.

As an added bonus there was a chance that you could discover a message from outer space, hopefully not one that read: 'Surrender at once and welcome to your new job in our sugar mines.'

The idea has since been used again and again, and has helped inspire distributed computing projects in business as well as research.

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