E-mail and the PC top 20 years of breakneck technology growth

Since the first GCN was published in December 1982, the federal systems landscape has been a site of constant innovation. Here are 21 technologies that changed the way feds work.

1. Desktop computing. The IBM PC of 1981, the Apple Macintosh of 1984 and their descendants started a chain reaction that is still rippling across the world. A PC transformed the agency desktop from a paper-shuffling surface into a test bed for employee initiative and advancement. That old 1960s slogan 'Power to the people' could have been written for the PC.

2. E-mail. Not until 1997 did the volume of e-mail messages draw even with the volume of paper mail delivered to most desk workers. Now e-mail and instant messaging are cutting heavily into the volume of telephone calls. But the daily sack of business e-mail is getting overstuffed with viruses, junk and come-ons.

3. Portable computing. Laptops, notebooks and personal digital assistants promised access anywhere, anytime, and they delivered. In the 1980s they were 20-pound-plus luggables. Now they've slimmed down and powered up; some are even rugged enough to drop on the ground without damage. And wireless phones and PDAs are merging into a mobile information one-stop device.

4. The word processor. That quintessential productivity tool, now more than a quarter-century old, topped out with bells and whistles some time ago and now seems destined for assimilation into Web authoring suites and Extensible Markup Language tools. But almost everyone still uses one of the market leaders--Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect. Does anyone miss running down to the typing pool?

5. The spreadsheet. VisiCalc, the first PC spreadsheet application, is as old as the PC itself. Far more than computerized ledgers, spreadsheet successors Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel and Borland Quattro Pro have kept financial operations humming ever since.

And these number-crunchers are equally useful for formatting information. Their cellular structure in some ways mimics database fields. Will spreadsheets and databases coalesce down the road?

6. The database. It's the ultimate back end for every kind of online transaction. From 19-year-old IBM DB2 to the latest multimedia relational databases from Oracle Corp. and a score of other vendors, the database seems to be evolving into distributed, on-the-fly slices of Extensible Markup Language, custom-formatted for display on devices large and small.

7. The Web. It was something truly new under the sun in 1993, and no technology star has ever risen faster, not even the PC. Once agencies finished their year 2000 code fixes, they began scrambling to Web-enable their legacy applications, make their Web sites more accessible and manage their business processes by browser. Recently, however, some agencies have stepped backward to intranets for greater security and have scrubbed data from their public sites.

8. Cryptography and PKI. Encryption techniques, which date back to the ancient Babylonians, grew rapidly during and after World War II. Persons who wanted to exchange data privately had to share a single key before the development of public-key cryptography in the late 1970s. Now the most pervasive public-key infrastructure is so transparent that many people do not even know they are using it whenever they make a secure browser connection to a Web server. Secure Sockets Layer encryption uses public- and private-key pairs exchanged automatically by client browser and server.

9. Wireless phones and networks. About half of the U.S. population now carries cell phones, and the only growth in the telecommunications market is from wireless. But the potential security exposures are grave, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has warned agencies that they shouldn't set up IEEE 802.11b Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or any other kind of wireless connectivity without preparing for security breaches even worse than on wired networks. Meanwhile, however, interagency emergency responders are turning to wireless for interoperability on a national scale.

10. Ethernet and TCP/IP. In an era of unceasing change, some things have stayed the same'almost. Nearly 30 years ago, Ethernet got its name from midcentury packet-radio experiments in which lost packets went away 'into the ether.' Starting from about
3-Mbps rates, the networking standard has reached 10 Gbps, with 100 Gbps just around the corner. TCP/IP, a 24-year-old handshaking protocol, took packet routing global to become the Internet.

11. Presentation products. Microsoft PowerPoint, NetMeeting, electronic whiteboards, digital projectors and the like haven't yet eliminated face-to-face gatherings, as proponents used to predict. But they've certainly cut down on government travel while transforming subject-matter experts into magicians with laser wands.

12. Unix and Linux. Survivors of the Unix 'flavor wars' of the 1980s shake their heads at the Darwinian forces that have produced Linux and Mac OS X as the latest offshoots of the 31-year-old 'open' operating system. Appliance devices with custom-embedded functions, however, are making OS trademark battles increasingly irrelevant to users.

13. Graphical interfaces. Almost everyone disliked the old green-screen terminal and the command line. The X Window System, Mac OS and Microsoft Windows opened the way to mouse power, millions of colors and multiple open applications. Some experts believe that WIMP (Windows, icons, menus, pointers) navigation will give way to voice commands or finger touches within a few years.

14. The LCD. First came the handheld calculator display around 1970, then the notebook PC, followed by the wireless phone and the slim desktop PC monitor. Next month, hardware makers will boot up the thin, Microsoft Windows XP tablet computer that consists merely of a 10-inch LCD with a half-dozen I/O ports and a recharging cradle.

15. The modem. Without it, would we ever have had LANs? The little modulator/demodulator box with its blinking lights topped out at 56 Kbps in 1996, and its successors are tucked away as internal cards, but the dial-up modem is unlikely to disappear from PC hardware until Ethernet ports are as common as phone jacks.

16. Java. It gave programmers a wake-up jolt in 1995 and has since seeped into every category of computers'not to mention telephones and TV sets. Its early promise was 'write once, run anywhere' with modular, reusable components, or applets. A fast progression from Java to JavaScript, JavaBeans, Java Virtual Machines and Java2 Platform Enterprise Edition is now heading into Web Services'loosely coupled program-to-program communication over networks.

17. XML and SGML. Extensible Markup Language, a 6-year-old tagging formula descended from the Standard Generalized Markup Language used for almost three decades in large-scale federal publications, is fast replacing the more rigid EDIFACT and X12 transaction sets for electronic commerce. Dozens of agencies have groups working on the XML definitions that will make their work output easily searchable and reusable.

18. Smart cards. After more than a decade of groundwork, employees at the General Services Administration and the Defense and State departments are carrying cards to enter buildings and sign on to networks. Soon DOD smart cards are going to get smarter with built-in biometrics, probably for fingerprints.

19. Supercomputing. Linux clusters, a mid-1990s phenomenon, followed processor evolution from vector to scalar to massively parallel commodities. In the late 1990s, rating new supercomputers turned into a game with a new 'world's fastest' every few weeks. But in spite of the billions governments have spent on supercomputer weather models, they still aren't highly reliable.

20. CD-ROM and DVD-ROM. Twenty years ago, who would have thought an entire movie could fit on one small, aluminized plastic disk? That era's floppy diskettes, which held 160K, evolved into today's CDs that hold 650M. DVDs store up to 17G, and CD-rewritable drives have become the top choice for backing up PCs.

21. Digital media. Those responsible for storing the flood of agencies' digital records have likened it to catching a waterfall in a bucket. In GCN's lifetime, the common measure of high-end storage capacity has zoomed nine orders of magnitude, from the kilobyte to the terabyte. Plus, the National Archives and Records Administration recently told agencies to prioritize their record-keeping and not send NARA everything. It hasn't taken long for so-called paperless government to produce more records than in all of its previous paperbound history.


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