Bill Gates’ last day at Microsoft

So, after a 2 year transition, today is the day that Bill Gates steps down from his full-time job at Microsoft (although he will remain Microsoft’s chairman and will be involved in select projects based on direction from CEO Steve Ballmer and the rest of Microsoft’s leadership team).

The original founders of MicrosoftI commented on Gates’ departure a couple of years back and more recently wrote about Mary-Jo Foley’s concept of Microsoft 2.0.

It’s 33 years since Microsoft was formed and 30 years since the famous photo with most of the founding employees was taken in Albequrque. 30 years is a long time in IT. The remaining Microsoft Founders- shortly before Bill Gates' retirementCome to think of it, 30 years is most of my life (I’m 36) and I was interested to read about how the famous photo had been recreated for 2008.

Meanwhile, Stephen Levy has written an article for Newsweek entitled “Microsoft After Gates. (And Bill After Microsoft.)”.

There’s a Microsoft video looking back at Gates’ life – and forward to the future but I prefer the version from the 2008 CES keynote:

Some people love to hate Microsoft. Some people can’t stand other people being successful – and it’s difficult to deny that Gates has been successful. For 14 years now, I’ve followed a career in IT, during which I’ve worked largely with Microsoft products, so I’d like to say “thank you and good luck” to the world’s most famous geek as he does what all of the world’s richest people should do at some stage in their life and changes his focus to work with helping those who are less fortunate.

Belated birthday wishes to Microsoft Windows

It’s my first day back at work after the Christmas holidays and I’m catching up on my administration. Whilst working through a pile of unread IT news I realised that late last year, in amongst all of the Windows Vista launch news and comment, I missed Windows’ 21st birthday. Whilst I don’t intend to turn this blog into a history of personal computing, I’ve previously noted significant anniversaries (35 years of the Internet, 30 years of Microsoft, 30 years of Apple, 15 years of the world wide web and 25 years of the IBM PC) and as Microsoft Windows has had such a huge impact on my computing life it seems that this is another birthday that should not pass un-announced. For those who are interested to read why this is so significant, Martin Veitch wrote an interesting article about Windows’ 21 eventful years in IT Week recently.

The IBM PC – 25 years old today

After reporting on the 15th anniversary of the world wide web earlier this week, there’s another important milestone in computing history to highlight today – the 25th birthday of the original IBM PC – the 5150.

IBM PC

Whilst the 5150 was not the first personal computer, the use of components that were available to other manufacturers led to the development of IBM-compatible PCs and today’s PCs and PC servers are direct descendents from the original IBM PC, albeit much more powerful than the 4.77MHz Intel 8088 with between 16 and 640KB of RAM.

Amstrad PPC640

I didn’t get my first IBM-compatible PC until 1988 when my parents bought me an Amstrad PPC640 portable computer (it’s still in my loft at home) with an NEC V30 8MHz processor, 640KB of RAM, a full-size 102-key keyboard, two 720KB 3.5″ floppy disk drives and a 2400 baud modem (which my secondary school let some of my friends and I use for short periods of time to access bulletin boards). It was best described as “luggable” but, paired with the Citizen 120D dot matrix printer (that I also still have at home), it was more than adequate for word processing and saw me through my first year at Uni’ until I used all my childhood savings to buy an Intel 80386-based PC clone with a 1MB graphics card, MS-DOS 5.0, and Windows 3.0.

Fast forward 15 years and you can pick up a PC for just a couple of hundred pounds – or, if you’ve got a few thousand to spend then it’s possible to specify some very high specification PC servers! Earlier this week I was specifying some servers for a virtualisation solution that I’m working on. Each of these servers is an HP DL585 with 4 dual-core 2.6GHz AMD Opteron 64-bit CPUs, 32GB of RAM and has a fibre-channel connection to an HP Modular Storage Array with many terabytes of data storage. How mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

Happy birthday to the world wide web

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post highlighting the 35th anniversary of the Internet. Today it’s the turn of the world wide web – for which Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee) posted a message on the alt.hypertext newsgroup encouraging people to try out the concept on 6th August 1991.

At that time, I was studying for my BSc in Computer Studies and this is just one example of how irrelevant that degree was (I’m still struggling to think of anything learned in my studies that has been useful in the subsequent 12 years that I’ve been working in IT). Although there was some object oriented programming in Modula-2 (along with some C/C++) we were still learning COBOL. Up and coming operating systems (e.g. OS/2 and Windows NT) were ignored in favour of Unix and the low level language I used was 68000 assembler (not 8086). In my final year of studies (1993-1994) I did at least have the opportunity to study distributed computing but there was no mention of such concepts as hypertext in my classes. Perhaps all of this is a little harsh at it would have been difficult back then to forsee the effect that the world wide web has had on our lives.

It was not until 1995 that I first used a graphical web browser and was introduced to the delights of Yahoo! and Altavista. My first online service was a CompuServe account and later I migrated to dial-up Internet access before finally getting a broadband connection in 2002. Today, in common with many others, I rely on the world wide web for an increasing number of services – at home and at work.

Read more about the creation of the web.

Happy birthday Apple

Last year, I wrote about Microsoft’s 30th anniversary – this time round it’s Apple.

Until recently just a niche player in the personal computer marketplace, the company founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Woz) is doing better now than ever – and that’s nothing to do with the Macintosh PC line but with the company’s allegedly monopolistic online music sales tactics. According to Associated Press, Jobs is the “marketing whiz” behind the company (his return to the CEO spot a few years back certainly marked a turning point in the company’s fortunes) and Wozniak the “engineering genius” (I’ve heard Woz on TWiT – he sure loves his technology). Time will tell where Apple’s business model goes as a result of current court action but if Microsoft’s anything to go by, it won’t make too much difference.

Apple products are different – different because they look good. Why can’t all PCs look as good as a Mac Mini or a Power Mac? I’m one of the people who would pay a premium for a Macintosh – I really fancy a Mac Mini (if I can hook it up to a standard TV as my 32″ Sony Trinitron will probably outlive any affordable flat panel that I could buy today) and I reckon it might pass the wife approval factor (WAF) test for a position in the living room (my “black loud crap” has long since been confined to my den). I’m also a heathen because I would (at least try to) run Windows XP Media Center Edition and SUSE Linux on it… let’s just hope the current rumours of Windows running on a Mac turn out to be true!

Apple might not have achieved mass market domination in the PC world, but they sure have things sorted (at least for now) with digital media. Happy birthday Apple.

Happy Birthday Microsoft

Microsoft turns 30 today. We tend to associate Information Technology (IT) with a rapidly expanding market of young start-up companies but whilst it is nothing compared to the global giants IBM, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Fujitsu, 30 years is significant.

Microsoft has become ubiquitous – largely through its Windows operating system and Office productivity suite, but recently (and somewhat worryingly for someone who makes a living architecting solutions based on Microsoft technology), Microsoft has been drifting and MSFT stock prices (which were once rising at astronomical levels, splitting nine times between the company’s IPO in 1986 and 2003) have been virtually static in recent years leading to a number of reports suggesting that the company has lost its way. Maybe it was because Bill Gates stepped down as CEO, maybe it was just the sheer size of the giant, which employs almost 60,000 staff in 100 countries and had annual revenues of $39.75bn in 2004/5 (up 8% on 2003/4), generating profits of $12.25bn (up 50%).

On the surface, these figures look great – 8% growth and 50% increase in profits. But a look at the figures for the last 10 years shows that growth has slowed from 49% in 1995/6.

The trouble is that Microsoft has been losing ground to young upstarts like Google (mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”). Let’s face it, it was Microsoft that was the young upstart when Bill Gates and Paul Allen persuaded IBM to make MS-DOS the operating system for the first PC in 1981 (ousting CP/M). After being slow to embrace the Internet and a series of legal wrangles (some justified, others not), Microsoft was also late to embrace search technologies, whereas the current industry darling dominates with 36.5% of the web search market.

It didn’t help that for a period between 1995 and 2001, the flagship product (Windows) was split between the (unreliable and insecure) Windows 95, 98 and ME product line and the expensive business version, Windows NT (later Windows 2000). Since Microsoft finally converged the two product lines with the launch of Windows XP (which is still based on the Windows NT kernel) there has been a push towards delivery of a trustworthy computing platform, and despite its critics, I think Microsoft generally does pretty well there. If you have the largest market share you will get attacked my malware writers – that means Microsoft for PC operating systems and Nokia for mobile handsets!

The trouble is that since Windows 2000 and XP sorted out the security issues, operating system upgrades have been a little dull, with limited innovation. It doesn’t help that any bundling of middleware seems to result in a lengthy courtroom battle but without innovation, there is no reason for consumers to upgrade, and in the business market, where IT is a business tool (not the business itself), IT Managers are under pressure to reduce costs through standardisation. That often means standing still for as long as possible.

I really hope that Windows Vista/Longhorn and Office 12 are not the death of Microsoft. Microsoft’s mission is “enabling people and businesses to realize their full potential” and this week, in an attempt to realise its own potential, a massive re-organisation was announced, with the aim of making the giant more dynamic (and hence able to respond to the industry – let’s face it, Microsoft has never been the innovator but it is very good at marketing other people’s ideas and making them work – even MS-DOS was licensed from Seattle Computer Products). Maybe the new organisation will help the timely delivery of products but it’s amazing how the rising fortunes of the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser has focused Microsoft on delivering a new version of Internet Explorer after years of poor standards compliance) with very few new features and how the desktop search functionality provided by Google (and others) has focused Microsoft’s attention in this space (even if the current MSN Search strategy appears to be failing). Maybe increased competition in the operating system market (come on Apple, give us OS X for the PC – not just Intel-based Macs, which are really just Apple PCs and could also run Windows…) in the shape of the major Linux distributions (Red Hat and Novell SuSE) or free UNIX distributions like the x86 version of Sun Solaris will focus the giant on delivering great new features for Windows.

Microsoft was built on a dream of “a computer on every desk and in every home”. Despite all of the negative publicity that Microsoft tends to attract, it seems to me that (at least in the “developed” world) this dream has largely been realised. Let’s see what the next 30 years brings.

Find out what the moon is made of using Google maps

Today is the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings (thought by some to be a hoax, and by others to be a fantastic scientific achievement on the part of mankind). To celebrate this, Google has added some NASA imaging to Google Maps and if you zoom in really close, you can really see what the moon is made of! The Google Moon FAQ has more details of Google’s plans for expanding Internet search features beyond the boundaries of planet earth!

Reminiscing about my first computers

Alex‘s post about his first home computer got me reminiscing about mine – a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+. Then I remembered having an emulator for one a few years ago but couldn’t find it anywhere until I stumbled across World of Spectrum, which features Spectrum emulators for a variety of platforms along with a stack of games and other resources. I downloaded SPIN, which seems great, and a few games that I haven’t seen for years like Manic Miner, Horace Goes Skiing and Jet Set Willy (unfortunately the copyright owners have denied distribution for my old favourite – JetPac). There are other emulators around on the ‘net (e.g. Speculator), but SPIN was free and seems pretty good to me.

I know exactly what Alex meant when he talked about playing on his Texas Instruments TI99/4A emulator “Whilst grinning like an idiot. And chuckling. Out loud. On my own”.

There are also emulators for the Spectrum which run on Windows CE and Symbian Series 60, so I could soon be having 1980s fun on my mobile devices too!

The Spectrum+ wasn’t my first computer though. We had Acorn/BBC Bs, a Commadore PET, Sinclair ZX81s and ZX Spectrums at my middle school and then I did most of my GCSE/A Level stuff (and early hacking) on Research Machines Nimbus PCs (the only PCs I’ve ever come across that used the Intel 80186 CPU rather than the 8086 or 80286 of the time).

As for my first laptop – I still have an Amstrad PPC 640 in the attic!

Oh, those were the days…

Jack Kilby, who invented the integrated circuit, passes away

I just read that Jack St.Clair Kilby died last week. The sad thing is that I’d never heard of Jack until I read his obituary even though his invention – the integrated circuit (IC) – undoubtedly paved the way for the computerised world in which we live today. His former employer, Texas Instruments, have a tribute site. What I find interesting is that had he not been a new employee (hence with no accrued annual leave), he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to carry out his early experiments whilst the rest of the company were on vacation!

The IBM archives

As I was writing my post on Microsoft Host Integration Server (HIS), I came across many unfamiliar terms and IBM technologies. In many cases, some quick googling came up with the answers to my questions but I also stumbled across the IBM archives, which provide a decade-by-decade and year-by-year view of the computing giant’s history.