Computing's best ideas range from innovative languages to 1-2-3

John McCormick

My most recent column was about the best computer inventions of the last 1,000 years, and so is this one. As I look back, I see a lot more great ideas than terrible ones.

• Linux. Although Unix made my 'worst' list [GCN, Sept. 25, Page 39] and Linux will never become a mainstream operating system for the office, it's great for specific uses such as servers, and it is, in essence, Unix that's cheaper and easier to install.

• Ethernet. It's so important to all computer users that we tend to forget networking was invented on an IBM Selectric typewriter in a memo written by Robert Metcalfe in 1973.

• GoTo. This powerful programming statement is also a quick way to drive a program into a ditch. Personally, I have found GoTo useful not only in program statements but also as a preface to statements I have made to a few bosses over the years.

• ASCII. Where would we be now without universal alphanumeric-to-binary translation?

• Arpanet-Internet. A certain politician once claimed he invented the Internet, but it's really the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that gets the credit.

• TCP/IP. Now that's what I call a standard.

• Cobol. People love to hate the Common Business-Oriented Language, but if it's so awful, how come there are still billions of lines of it running, which the world spent billions of dollars updating for Jan. 1, 2000? Accounting-oriented Cobol made a success of the mainframe computer in the same way that Lotus 1-2-3 sold the PC.

• Fortran. The Formula Translation programming language saves an individual scientist hundreds of hours of drudgery every year. The only reason it's not used as much as Cobol is that scientific tasks change faster than business tasks.

• Lotus 1-2-3. I still prefer the classic 1-2-3 Release 2 for MS-DOS, but VisiCalc for the Apple II came first and should share the honors with 1-2-3.

• Apple Macintosh. It pioneered a lot of great ideas and would have had far greater impact if it had followed the IBM PC's lead and opened up.

• Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. PARC dreamed up most of the great PC inventions but sadly failed to exploit them.

• C. If Unix deserves a place on my 'worst' list, the closely related C language certainly has a place on this one.

• CD-ROMs. I can't imagine a better way of storing and transporting documents and software. CDs are big enough to hold a lot of data but small enough to index easily. Even in view of DVD-ROMs and massive office suites, I still find the CD'especially the recordable kind'right in the middle of the sweet spot for capacity, convenience and low cost. As a direct descendant, the DVD doesn't get a separate place on this list.

• Telecommuting. It promises no traffic, no expensive commute and no one looking over your shoulder. Also, no chats at the coffee machine with co-workers and possibly no promotions. It may be a mixed blessing, but it has advantages for everyone, even those who work in offices.

• Americans with Disabilities Act. It probably shouldn't be on the list because to date it's had practically no impact. But I have hopes for it in the next millennium.

• Year 2000. OK, it was no picnic, but a lot of retired Cobol programmers had a chance to make a bundle in a short time. It led to massive software upgrades that cleared out a lot of junk code and legacy hardware, giving managers a solid head start on the next millennium. It's quite possible that changes made in the late 1990s will prove to have been instrumental in keeping the economy booming by forcing government and business to improve equipment, procedures and planning.

How about a few great computer people?

• Alan Turing. He invented computer science and helped win World War II by breaking the U-boat Enigma code.

• Adm. Grace Hopper. One of the great pioneers, she found the first bug, developed the first compiler and laid the foundations of Cobol by creating Flow-Matic.

• James Watson and Francis Crick. Their analysis of DNA foreshadowed biological computers in decades to come. The DNA structure is the ultimate database system.

• Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, et al.

Maybe by the time they're all gray-headed, they'll get respect for being computing's grand old men, not just brash capitalists.

John McCormick has been working with computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at poweruser@mail.usa.com.

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