IT greats: Chips with everything

Hardware top 10

The mainframe was the big thing in all respects in IT hardware when Computer Weekly was first published 40 years ago, and although it is having a renaissance today, our readers’ choice of the most important hardware over the decades since highlights how far our industry has come.

Inevitably, the microprocessor topped the Computer Weekly IT Greats poll, and when coupled with the Windows-based desktop PC, it has done the most to change working practices of businesses across the world, according to readers.

For business, the result has been that the individual productivity of employees has been multiplied, with the processor automating every­day business tasks such as word processing and accounting.

The processor and PC combination also revolutionised communications between staff, business partners and customers, helping firms to respond quickly to changes, globally and around the clock.

As well as increasing the speed of business-to-business communication, broadband has been vital in enabling the potential of the internet to be realised. Faster data transfer speeds have been the bedrock of new businesses and services aimed at mass markets.

The mobile phone has also been a central component in the communications revolution – indeed, it is hard to imagine life without one – and this is reflected in the technology taking fourth position in our poll. Today we have access to data anytime, anywhere and from any place. Whether that proves a blessing or a curse is a debate that could continue for another 40 years.


Hardware top 10

1. Microprocessor
2. Desktop PC
3. Broadband
4. Mobile phone
5. Router
6. Server
7. Barcode
8. CD drive
9. Laser printer
10. Fax


1. Microprocessor: the heart of IT-enabled business transformation

You voted the microprocessor the most important piece of hardware to revolutionise businesses over the past 40 years.

The evolution of microprocessors has followed Moore’s Law, which denotes steadily increasing performance over the years. This law, developed by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, suggests that the number of transistors per square inch on a microprocessor chip would double approximately every 18 months. This has appeared to be the case since the early 1970s.

Before this time, computers used to fill large rooms and be vastly expensive to manage and operate. A few pioneering companies, including Intel, National Semiconductor and Motorola, saw the benefit of putting all the building blocks on a single chip, radically altering the development of computer systems.

The Intel chip, which has become the most widely used desktop PC processor, started as a four-bit version, the 4004, and was released in 1971. It was followed by an eight-bit version, the 8008, in 1972. Soon, chips grew in processing power and efficiency, with 16-bit designs being introduced in 1978, and the now ubiquitous 32-bit processors arriving in 1981.

In the mid-1980s Risc (reduced instruction set computer) chips appeared, and were a popular choice for Unix-based workstations.

More recently, 64-bit processors have appeared, targeted at business PC and server markets.

Processors have also grown in complexity, with the advent of more innovative and advanced technologies such as multiple cores (processing units), and chip-based security and virtualisation.

For businesses, using more powerful processors has meant that the individual productivity of employees has been given a boost, with the processor automating everyday business tasks such as word processing and financial calculations.

In the datacentre, organisations have been able to consolidate smaller machines onto increasingly powerful datacentre servers, with individual machines having the power to run multiple business applications at the same time.


2. Personal computer: the business revolution on the desktop

Desktop PCs have become more and more powerful from their inception in the late 1970s.

The term personal computer was popularised by Apple Computer with the Apple II in the late 1970s, and by IBM introducing its first PC in 1981, so creating the industry standard for PCs.

As the desktop PC matured, business users were able to automate more of their business processes and access vital business and customer information over a network.

As processors grew more powerful, the IBM-compatible computer, running the Microsoft Windows operating system, became the ubiquitous business must-have. The PC, processor and operating system combination eventually revolutionised office working.

Organisations were attracted by the time and cost savings that business desktops could bring them, and the way they could automate working practices and put information at their employees’ fingertips.

As local and wide area networks evolved, PCs became vital communication tools for businesses, facilitating e-mail communications between employees.

PCs have also provided quick and efficient communications with business partners and customers, helping businesses to become more agile when responding to changing business needs.

Easy access to the web from the desktop has opened up a massive online marketplace, and created huge costs savings and efficiency gains.


3. Broadband: the great enabler of remote working

Broadband communications have completely transformed businesses, particularly for remote workers who link into the corporate network from home.

Speedy links to the web, business applications and e-mail mean that these workers can be more productive with their time, and use collaborative technologies such as whiteboards and videoconferencing to enable them to work effectively with office-based colleagues.

However, it could be argued that the widespread use of broadband has facilitated the rise of viruses, Trojans, spam and phishing attacks on home workers, and has fuelled the race to secure computers against an increasingly sophisticated enemy.

For business users, eliminating dial-up access has reduced support issues for IT departments and anxieties for many remote users. After some teething problems with self-install ADSL cable modems and ­filters, most users are now able to set themselves up on broadband.

Many broadband lines now support data rates of 512 kilobits per second, and some urban sites even reach 8 megabits per second.

These high speeds allow broadband users to access high quality video and audio streams, perform videoconferencing, and make voice calls over the internet.

Some user companies also support wireless broadband networking, specifying the equipment that home workers must use and setting appropriate security policies for its usage.

The broadband market is set to make £40bn in worldwide total revenues this year, according to industry analysts. But they predict the market will top £77bn in revenues by 2010, attracting new service providers from different industries seeking a piece of the broadband market pie.

Today’s major telecommunications providers, such as BT and Cable & Wireless, are likely to face sharp competition from internet companies such as Yahoo, MSN, Google and Apple acting as content aggregators and service providers, say analysts.


4. Mobile phone

The  mobile phone has become such a core component of communications that it is hard to imagine life without it. Innovations in mobile technology have enabled users to access data from anywhere at anytime.

Most business users have memories of the brick, a large mobile phone first taken up by City traders. Since then, the mobile has undergone much miniaturisation and customisation to become the ubiquitous business tool and fashion ­accessory we know – but don’t ­always love – today. 

Mobile networks, which link handsets to base stations, were first introduced in the early to mid-1980s. Prior to this, most mobile phones were installed in cars.

Faster and smaller processors have been a key innovation and have enabled handset suppliers to build more powerful devices that can effectively act as mobile offices.

This has produced an enormous increase in productivity for business users who can use mobile phones for text messaging, e-mail, packet switching for access to the internet, and MMS for sending and receiving photos and video. And all of this in addition to voice services.

The future of mobile phones is likely to include deeper integration with fixed-line networks, which should reduce communications costs for businesses. Mobiles are also likely to give users more access to business applications, acting as a web interface onto back-end systems.


5. Router

The ability to move data seamlessly and instantly between one network and another has transformed business and allowed the internet to grow into the global network it is today.


6. Server

The arrival of servers opened the door to business computing for organisations that could not afford a mainframe, and gave business units a much needed degree of independence from the barriers imposed by old fashioned data processing departments.


7. Barcode

The most basic use of binary code, the barcode has revolutionised retailing, warehousing and supply chain systems since the 1970s, and is still holding more modern technologies such as RFID tagging at bay.


8. CD Drive

The CD drive has changed working practices fundamentally. Before the spread of the CD-Rom, IT staff had to spend hours feeding a machine with punched cards or floppy discs to install a programme. Mass local storage also became possible with the advent of read-write CD-RW drives.


9. Laser Printer

In spite of the early promise of the paperless office, we are still addicted to paper. Laser printers have offered organisations a convenient, quiet and fast way to print crisp copies of computer documents.


10. Fax

Why is a machine first patented in 1843 among the top 10 technologies of the past 40 years? Simply that after more than 100 years of false starts, the fax finally took off in the 1980s – and not just for ordering pizza.


But what about the USB coffee warmer? ask readers

According to Computer Weekly readers, the proliferation of devices powered by USB (Universal Serial Bus) connections should be highlighted.

Downtime’s quest to find the most pointless USB-powered device has already uncovered hand warmers, aquariums, humidifiers, and even a hamster in a wheel that are all USB driven.

Vying for top spot with Computer Weekly readers are USB-powered vacuum cleaners and cooling fans, but by common consent, the most useless hardware product of the past 40 years was the USB-powered coffee cup warmer.


Your big names

Outside the main choices for greatest hardware, the most popular readers’ suggestions were:
1. Apple Computer
2. Mainframe
3. Mouse
4. iPod
5. Ethernet
6. Hard disc drive
7. Disc storage
8. Liquid crystal display
9. Transistor

People who voted for the hard drive and disc storage stressed the importance of easily accessible data storage – highlighting the importance of the technology in business IT.


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