Still looking forward into the unknown

When this column first appeared, 10 years ago this week, the computer world was a different place. Mainstream data processing was...

When this column first appeared, 10 years ago this week, the computer world was a different place. Mainstream data processing was still divided between mainframes, minicomputers and workstations, and only a couple of million people used Microsoft Windows 3. Few people in the UK had heard of the Internet, and the World-Wide Web had yet to emerge. IBM still ruled the computer world, with an annual turnover of almost $65bn (£45bn) - although it was in deep trouble, and losing money.

In 1991, the also-rans included Hewlett-Packard ($15bn), Digital Equipment ($14bn), Unisys ($8.7bn), Apple Computer ($6.5bn) and Compaq ($3.3bn). Dell's turnover was still less than $1bn - it was much smaller than Commodore and only a fraction bigger than Lotus Development.

One of the messages I tried to hammer home was the imminent explosion in the PC market, and the adoption of PC market standards. I returned several times to a computer company called ICM, and compared it with IBM. ICM was, of course, an invention: it stood for Intel, Compaq, and Microsoft. It seems obvious with hindsight, but in 1991, they only had a combined turnover of $10bn, and in the IT pecking order Microsoft was sandwiched between Seagate and Andersen Consulting.

I also banged the drum for the Web, starting with a column in June 1994. "Web servers are accessed via client applications called browsers. The most important one is Mosaic." How quaint.

Although I made what seemed like ludicrous claims for PCs and the Web, they were dwarfed by reality. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they were dwarfed by insanity - I didn't predict the modern equivalent of the South Sea Bubble.

My most spectacular misjudgement stemmed from my faith in open systems. In 1991 I claimed, "The operating system war is over. Unix has won." At the time, there was no credible competitor - Windows NT appeared two years later - and even in cynic mode I could not believe that the companies selling Unix could be so short-sighted, and downright stupid.

So don't blame me for Microsoft's stunning victory. The blame belongs to DEC, HP, IBM, Silicon Graphics, Sun and AT&T. I couldn't have done a worse job of competing with Microsoft than Sun's Scott "Motormouth" McNealy.

There are, of course, still battles to be fought, but none of the interesting ones are likely to be in the PC market. The focus has shifted to Internet-based computing, and mobile/wireless devices. However, Microsoft is in much better shape now than IBM was a decade ago and, with .net, it has a forward-looking strategy. I would not bet against it.

On previous experience, however, 2011 could well be dominated by something we have never heard of. That's the fun of it.

Jack Schofield is computer editor of the Guardian

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