Monday, July 8, 2013

the last book I ever read (dot.con: How America Lost Its Mind and Money in the Internet Era, excerpt two)

from John Cassidy's dot.con: How America Lost Its Mind and Money in the Internet Era:

The early hypertext systems inspired a devoted band of enthusiasts, but it would be another twenty-five years before the invention of the World Wide Web. The reasons for the delay were technological and sociological. In the late 1960s, computers were big, expensive, difficult to program, and largely incompatible. They didn’t communicate easily, and neither did many of their users, who tended to be young men with long greasy hair, thick glasses, and an obsessive interest in science fiction. The computer “geeks” tended to congregate in university science departments, where, for reasons of economy and camaraderie, they often worked through the night. Many of them held the outside world in contempt, and the feeling was generally reciprocated.

It took the emergence of the personal computer to bring down the barriers between the computer literate and the rest of society. In 1971, Ted Hoff, an engineer at Intel, a technology firm based in Northern California, invented the microprocessor—a computer on a silicon chip the size of a thumbnail. By today’s standards, Hoff’s microchip was primitive—it contained 2,300 transistors, had a memory of 1,024 bits, and ran at 0.5 megahertz; Intel’s Pentium 4 chip contains 55 million transistors, has a memory of 512 kilobytes, and runs at 3.06 gigahertz—but it was a truly historic invention. Once Hoff had demonstrated that a computer didn’t have to be the size of a room, the profit motive did the rest. In 1975, Ed Roberts, the founder of MITS, a calculator company based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, put a microchip in a box with a screen and called his invention the Altair, after a star featured in Star Trek. The following year, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, two high school dropouts in Menlo Park, California, used the Altair as the basis for the Apple I, the first commercially successful microcomputer. In 1977, a Harvard dropout, Bill Gates, and Paul Allen, his high school friend, wrote some software for the Altair and set up a company to market it, which they called Microsoft. Four years later, Gates and Allen licensed a version of their software to IBM, the mainframe computer giant, which used it in a new product line: the IBM Personal Computer.

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