Computers touch all most every aspect of our lives today. We take the way they work for granted and the unsung heroes who built the technology, protocols, philosophies, and circuit boards, patched them all together - and sometimes willed amazingness out of nothing. Not in this podcast. Welcome to the History of Computing. Let's get our nerd on!
MySpace And My First Friend, Tom
Before Facebook, there was MySpace. People logged into a web page every day to write to friends, show off photos, and play music. Some of the things we still do on social networks. The world had been shifting to personal use of computers since the early days when time sharing systems were used in universities. Then came the Bulletin Board Systems of the 80s. But those were somewhat difficult to use and prone to be taken over by people like the ones who went on to found DefCon and hacking collectives. Then in the 1990s computers and networks started to get easier to use. We got tools like AOL Instant Messenger and a Microsoft knockoff called Messenger. It’s different ‘cause it doesn’t say Instant. The rise of the World Wide Web meant that people could build their own websites in online communities. We got these online communities like Geocities in 1994, where users could build their own little web page. Some were notes from classes at universities; others how to be better at dressing goth. They tried to sort people by communities they called cities, and then each member got an address number in their community. They grew fast and even went public before being acquired by Yahoo! in 1999. Tripod showed up the year after Geocities came out and got acquired by Yahoo! competitor Lycos in 1998, signaling that portal services in a pre-modern search engine world would be getting into more content to show ads to eyeballs. Angelfire was another that started in 1996 and ended up in the Lycos portfolio as well. More people had more pages and that meant more eyeballs to show ads to. No knowledge of HTML was really required but it did help to know some.
The GeoCities idea about communities was a good one. Turns out people liked hanging out with others like themselves online. People liked reading thoughts and ideas and seeing photos if they ever bothered to finish downloading. But forget to bookmark a page and it could be lost in the cyberbits or whatever happened to pages when we weren’t looking at them.
The concept of six agrees of Kevin Bacon had been rolling around a bit, so Andrew Weinreich got the idea to do something similar to Angelfire and the next year created SixDegrees.com. It was easy to evolve the concept to bookmark pages by making connections on the site. Except to get people into the site and signing up the model appeared to be the flip side: enter real world friends and family and they were invited to join up. Accepted contacts could then post on each others bulletin boards or send messages to one another. We could also see who our connections were connected to, thus allowing us to say “oh I met that person at a party.” Within a few years the web of contacts model was so successful that it had a few million users and was sold for over $100 million. By 2000 it was shut down but had proven there was a model there that could work.
Xanga came along the next year as a weblog and social networking site but never made it to the level of success. Classmates.com is still out there as well, having been founded in 1995 to build a web of contacts for finding those friends from high school we lost contact with. Then came Friendster and MySpace in 2003. Friendster came out of the gate faster but faded away quicker. These took the concepts of SixDegrees.com where users invited friends and family but went a little further, allowing people to post on one another boards.
MySpace was co-founded by Chris DeWolfe, Uber Whitcomb, Josh Berman, and Tom Anderson while working at an incu
Gateway 2000, and Sioux City
Theophile Bruguier was a fur trader who moved south out of Monreal after a stint as an attorney in Quebec before his fiancé died. He became friends with Chief War Eagle of the Yankton Sioux. We call him Chief, but he left the Santee rather than have a bloody fight over who would be the next chief. The Santee were being pushed down from the Great Lakes area of Minnesota and Wisconsin by the growing Ojibwe and were pushing further and further south. There are two main divisions of the Sioux people: the Dakota and the Lakota. There are two main ethnic groups of the Dakota, the Eastern, sometimes called the Santee and the Western, or the Yankton. After the issues with the his native Santee, he was welcomed by the Yankton, where he had two wives and seven children.
Chief War Eagle then spent time with the white people moving into the area in greater and greater numbers. They even went to war and he acted as a messenger for them in the War of 1812 and then became a messenger for the American Fur Company and a guide along the Missouri. After the war, he was elected a chief and helped negotiate peace treaties. He married two of his daughters off to Theophile Bruguier, who he sailed the Missouri with on trips between St Louis and Fort Pierre in the Dakota territory.
The place where Theophile settled was where the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers meet. Two water ways for trade made his cabin a perfect place to trade, and the chief died a couple of years later and was buried in what we now call War Eagle Park, a beautiful hike above Sioux City. His city. Around the same time, the Sioux throughout the Minnesota River were moved to South Dakota to live on reservations, having lost their lands and war broke out in the 1860s.
Back at the Bruguier land, more French moved into the area after Bruguier opened a trading post and was one of the 17 white people that voted in the first Woodbury County election, once Wahkaw County was changed to Woodbury to honor Levi Woodbury, a former Supreme Court Justice.
Bruguier sold some of his land to Joseph Leonais in 1852. He sold it to a land surveyor, Dr. John Cook, who founded Sioux City in 1854. By 1860, with the westward expansion of the US, the population had already risen to 400. Steamboats, railroads, livestock yards, and by 1880 they were over 7,000 souls, growing to 6 times that by the time Bruguier died in 1896. Seemingly more comfortable with those of the First Nations, his body is interred with Chief War Eagle and his first two wives on the bluffs overlooking Sioux City, totally unrecognizable by then.
The goods this new industry brought had to cross the rivers. Before there were bridges to cross the sometimes angry rivers, ranchers had to ferry cattle across. Sometimes cattle fell off the barges and once they were moving, they couldn’t stop for a single head of cattle. Ted Waitt’s ancestors rescued cattle and sold them, eventually homesteading their own ranch. And that ranch is where Ted started Gateway Computers in 1985 with his friend Mike Hammond.
Michael Dell started Dell computers in 1984 and grew the company on the backs of a strong mail order business. He went from selling repair services and upgrades to selling full systems. He wasn’t the only one to build a company based on a mail and phone order business model in the 1980s and 1990s. Before the internet that was the most modern way to transact business.
Ted Waitt went to the University of Iowa in Iowa City a couple of years before Michael Dell went to the University of Texas. He started out in marketing and then spent a couple of years working for a reseller and repair store in Des Moines before he decided to start his own company.
Gateway began life in 1985 as the Texas Instruments PC Network, or TIPC Network for short. They sold stuff for Texas Instruments computers like modems, printers, and other peripherals. The TI-99/4A had been released in 1979 and was discontinued a year before. It was a niche hobby
The WYSIWYG Web
Whistling Our Way To Windows XP
Microsoft had confusion in the Windows 2000 marketing and disappointment with Millennium Edition, which was built on a kernel that had run its course. It was time to phase out the older 95, 98, and Millennium code. So in 2001, Microsoft introduced Windows NT 5.1, known as Windows XP (eXperience). XP came in a Home or Professional edition.
Microsoft built a new interface they called Whistler for XP. It was sleeker and took more use of the graphics processors of the day. Jim Allchin was the Vice President in charge of the software group by then and helped spearhead development. XP had even more security options, which were simplified in the home edition. They did a lot of work to improve the compatibility between hardware and software and added the option for fast user switching so users didn’t have to log off completely and close all of their applications when someone else needed to use the computer. They also improved on the digital media experience and added new libraries to incorporate DirectX for various games.
Professional edition also added options that were more business focused. This included the ability to join a network and Remote Desktop without the need of a third party product to take control of the keyboard, video, and mouse of a remote computer. Users could use their XP Home Edition computer to log into work, if the network administrator could forward the port necessary. XP Professional also came with the ability to support multiple processors, send faxes, an encrypted file system, more granular control of files and other objects (including GPOs), roaming profiles (centrally managed through Active Directory using those GPOs), multiple language support, IntelliMirror (an oft forgotten centralized management solution that included RIS and sysprep for mass deployments), an option to do an Automated System Recovery, or ASR restore of a computer. Professional also came with the ability to act as a web server, not that anyone should run one on a home operating system. XP Professional was also 64-bit given the right processor.
XP Home Edition could be upgraded to from Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Millineum, and XP Professional could be upgraded to from any operating system since Windows 98 was released., including NT 4 and Windows 2000 Professional. And users could upgrade from Home to Professional for an additional $100.
Microsoft also fixed a few features. One that had plagued users was that they had to gracefully unmount a drive before removing it; Microsoft got in front of this when they removed the warning that a drive was disconnected improperly and had the software take care of that preemptively. They removed some features users didn’t really use like NetMeeting and Phone Dialer and removed some of the themes options. The 3D Maze was also sadly removed. Other options just cleaned up the interface or merged technologies that had become similar, like Deluxe CD player and DVD player were removed in lieu of just using Windows Media Player. And chatty network protocols that caused problems like NetBEUI and AppleTalk were removed from the defaults, as was the legacy Microsoft OS/2 subsystem.
In general, Microsoft moved from two operating system code bases to one. Although with the introduction of Windows CE, they arguably had no net-savings. However, to the consumer and enterprise buyer, it was a simpler licensing scheme. Those enterprise buyers were more and more important to Microsoft. Larger and larger fleets gave them buying power and the line items with resellers showed it with an explosion in the number of options for licensing packs and tiers. But feature-wise Microsoft had spent the Microsoft NT and Windows 2000-era training thousands of engineers on how to manage large fleets of Windows machines as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE) and other credentials. Deployments grew and by the time XP was released, Microsoft had the lions’ share of the market for desktop operating
Windows NT 5 becomes Windows 2000
Microsoft Windows 2000 was the successor to Windows NT 4.0, which had been released in 1997. Windows 2000 didn’t have a code name (supposedly because Jim Allchin didn’t like codenames), although its service packs did; Service Pack 1 and Windows 2000 64-bit were codenamed "Asteroid" and "Janus," respectively. 2000 began as NT 5.0 but Microsoft announced the name change in 1998, in a signal with when customer might expect the OS.
Some of the enhancements were just to match the look and feel of the consumer Windows 98 counterpart. For example, the logo in the boot screens was cleaned up and they added new icons. Some found Windows 2000 to be more reliable, others claimed it didn’t have enough new features. But what it might have lacked in features from a cursory glance, Windows 2000 made up for in stability, scalability, and reliability.
This time around, Microsoft had input from some of their larger partners. They released the operating system to partners in 1999, after releasing three release candidates or developer previews earlier that year. They needed to, if only so third parties could understand what items needed to be sold to customers. There were enough editions now, that it wasn’t uncommon for resellers to have to call the licensing desk at a distributor (similar to a wholesaler for packaged goods) in order to figure out what line items the reseller needed to put on a bid, or estimate.
Reporters hailed it as the most stable product ever produced by Microsoft. It was also the most secure version. 2000 brought Group Policies forward from NT and enhanced what could be controlled from a central system. The old single line domain concept for managing domains was enhanced to become what Microsoft called Active Directory, a modern directory service that located resources in a database and allowed for finely grained controls of those resources. Windows 2000 also introduced NTFS 3, an Encrypted File System that was built on top of layers of APIs, each with their own controls.
Still, Windows 98 was the most popular operating system in the world by then and it was harder to move people to it than initially expected. Microsoft released Windows 98 Second Edition in 1999 and then Windows Millennium Edition, or Me, in 2000. Millennium was a flop and helped move more people into 2000, even though 2000 was marketed as a business or enterprise operating system.
Windows 2000 Professional was the workstation workhorse. Active Directory and other server services ran on Windows 2000 Server Edition. They also released Advanced Server and Datacenter Server for even more advanced environments, with Datacenter able to support up to 32 CPUs. Professional borrowed many features from both NT and 98 Second Edition, including the Outlook Express email client, expanded file system support, WebDAV support, Windows Media Player, WDM (Windows Driver Model), the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) for making it easier to manage those GPOs, support for new mass storage devices like Firewire, hibernation and passwords to wake up from hibernation, the System File Checker, new debugging options, better event logs, Windows Desktop Update (which gave us “Patch Tuesday”), a new Windows Installer, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), Plug and Play hardware (installing new hardware in Windows NT was a bit more like doing so in Unix than Windows 95), and all the transitions and animations of the Windows shell like an Explorer integrated with Internet Explorer.
Some of these features were abused. We got Code Red, Nimbda, and other malware that became high profile attacks against vulnerable binaries. These were unprecedented in terms of how quickly a flaw in the code could get abused en masse. Hundreds of thousands of computers could be infected in a matter of days with a well crafted exploit. Even some of the server services were exploited such as the IIS, or Internet Information Services server. Microsoft responded with securi
The R Programming Language
R is the 18th level of the Latin alphabet. It represents the rhotic consonant, or the r sound. It goes back to the Greek Rho, the Phoenician Resh before that and the Egyptian rêš, which is the same name the Egyptians had for head, before that. R appears in about 7 and a half percent of the words in the English dictionary.
And R is probably the best language out there for programming around various statistical and machine learning tasks. We may use tools like Tensorflow imported to languages like python to prototype but R is incredibly performant for all the maths. And so it has become an essential piece of software for data scientists.
The R programming language was created in 1993 by two statisticians Robert Gentleman, and Ross Ihaka at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. It has since been ported to practically every operating system and is available at r-project.org. Initially called "S," the name changed to "R" to avoid a trademark issue with a commercial software package that we’ll discuss in a bit. R was primarily written in C but used Fortran and since even R itself.
And there have been statistical packages since the very first computers were used for math.
IBM in fact packaged up BMDP when they first started working on the idea at UCLA Health Computing Facility. That was 1957. Then came SPSS out of the University of Chicago in 1968. And the same year, John Sall and others gave us SAS, or Statistical Analysis System) out of North Carolina State University. And those evolved from those early days through into the 80s with the advent of object oriented everything and thus got not only windowing interfaces but also extensibility, code sharing, and as we moved into the 90s, acquisition’s. BMDP was acquired by SPSS who was then acquired by IBM and the products were getting more expensive but not getting a ton of key updates for the same scientific and medical communities.
And so we saw the upstarts in the 80s, Data Desk and JMP and others. Tools built for windowing operating systems and in object oriented languages. We got the ability to interactively manipulate data, zoom in and spin three dimensional representations of data, and all kinds of pretty aspects. But they were not a programmers tool.
S was begun in the seventies at Bell Labs and was supposed to be a statistical MATLAB, a language specifically designed for number crunching. And the statistical techniques were far beyond where SPSS and SAS had stopped. And with the breakup of Ma Bell, parts of Bell became Lucent, which sold S to Insightful Corporation who released S-PLUS and would later get bought by TIBCO. Keep in mind, Bell was testing line quality and statistics and going back to World War II employed some of the top scientists in those fields, ones who would later create large chunks of the quality movement and implementations like Six Sigma. Once S went to a standalone software company basically, it became less about the statistics and more about porting to different computers to make more money.
Private equity and portfolio conglomerates are, by nature, after improving the multiples on a line of business. But sometimes more statisticians in various feels might feel left behind. And this is where R comes into the picture. R gained popularity among statisticians because it made it easier to write complicated statistical algorithms without learning an entire programming language. Its popularity has grown significantly since then. R has been described as a cross between MATLAB and SPSS, but much faster.
R was initially designed to be a language that could handle statistical analysis and other types of data mining, an offshoot of which we now call machine learning. R is also an open-source language and as with a number of other languages has plenty of packages available through a package repository - which they call CRAN (Comprehensive R Archive Network). This allows R to be used in fields outside of statistics and data science or
Found the podcast after bingeing Halt and Catch Fire
I found this podcast after binge watching Halt and Catch Fire. The podcast helps me fill in the blanks of the story of the information age. I remember some of it from coming up in the 80s, but I realized I don’t know much of the full story. This podcast is well produced and well researched. The episodes are not overly indulgent on run time as many podcasts are these days. I appreciate the 12 to 60 minute times. Keep at it. Thank you.
Feels complete but concise
I’ve really been enjoying the variety of topics covered, and I feel like the host gives a great intro to each. I got interested in computer history because of the show Halt and Catch Fire, and now I’ve learned about a broader range of topics.
And concise to boot. The presenter offers an excellent balance of tech and business, and puts everything nicely in the context of what came before and after. We’re lucky to have you.