The IT Time Travel Machine: 1992

Friday Oct 6th 2006 by James Maguire
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Looking back at our 1992 reader’s poll for “Products of the Year” is quite amusing – but it also offers a cautionary tale for today’s tech professionals.

The publication you’re now reading, Datamation, has been around – believe it or not – for almost 50 years. Before it was a Web site, Datamation was a magazine. The first issue was published in 1957.

To understand how far back that was, our premiere issue launched one year before Frank Rosenblatt built his famed Perceptron Mark I. This primitive computer included an artificial retina, which, after Rosenblatt tinkered with it, could distinguish between horizontal and vertical bars of light. Pretty wild stuff.

Datamation has stayed on the cutting edge of technology ever since, chronicling everything from IBM mainframes to upstarts like Bill Gates. Long before we were covering Web services and wireless LANs, we were the first word on floppy disks (which debuted in 1971) and RISC-based workstations (Sun introduced one in 1987).

Now, as our 50th anniversary approaches, we’re looking back at past issues of Datamation to see how far the tech world has come. The archived issues make one thing very clear: the closer you get to the present day, the more complex IT becomes.

Consequently, readers need Datamation more than ever to help them stay current. (Okay, that was a sales pitch, but you don’t keep publishing for 50 years without a little hype.)

As we thumbed through back issues, the year 1992 caught our eye. Why ‘92? Because many of the today's top players were lining up for the market battles that still affect us in 2006. And because the successes and failures (especially the failures) of’92 provide guidance for present day IT professionals.

So, if you’re game, let’s crank up the time travel machine and see what life was like in IT not that long ago…

Next page: Datamation’s 1992 Products of the Year: PCs, workstations, software, and hardware.

Datamation’s Products of the Year: 1992

Each year, Datamation asked over 1,000 technology managers to select their Products of the Year choices in a variety of categories. Voting was slow: managers had to mail in their responses via the U.S. Postal Service. This meant readers had to wait until February 1993 to learn the top picks for 1992. Life moved at a leisurely pace back then.

And the winners for Datamation’s 1992 Products of the Year were:

PCs & Workstations:

First Place: IBM RS/6000 POWERstation 220

Second Place: Dell Powerline 450 DE

Third Place: Compaq Deskpro 50M

As of 2006, you can buy a 1992-vintage POWERstation 220 on eBay for around $200. But in its day, the 220 was quite the hot rod. It zipped along at 33 MHz, sported a 1.44 MB floppy drive, and included a video controller that could handle 256 colors at a resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels.

Portables:

First Place: Apple PowerBook 170

Second Place: Dell 325 NC

Third Place: Compaq LTE Lite 25 model 60

Although Apple’s laptop won top honors in ‘92, the company soon suffered a major setback. It had filed a lawsuit against Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, alleging that the Windows GUI was essentially a copy of the Mac GUI, but the court ruled against Apple in 1992 and again in 1993. Apple’s market share, already slipping, began a rapid descent.

PC Software:

First Place: IBM OS/2 2.0

Second Place: Microsoft Windows 3.1

Third Place: Microsoft Excel 4.0

While many users felt that OS/2 was a superior operating system to Windows (Datamation readers apparently loved it) it was consigned to failure. Big Blue developed it with an eye toward the corporate market, focusing far less on the home market. OS/2 wasn’t game friendly and wasn’t fully DOS compatible – two of Windows’s strengths. In short, IBM wasn’t catering to the larger market.

Although IBM released OS/2 2.0 the same year that Microsoft released Windows 3.1, Windows sold almost ten times as many units as OS/2 in 1992.

The failure of IBM’s proprietary OS is a cautionary tale for IT managers: even if you put out a quality product, you can still tumble into the dustbin of tech history. (Hint: a technology's success is determined more by market forces than by its inherent quality.)

Large System Software:

First Place: IBM DB2 2.3

Second Place: Oracle CASE 5.0

Third Place: SAS System for Information Delivery 6.07

Who says technology changes? IBM and Oracle were fierce competitors in the database market in 1992, and they continue to be in 2006. (Actually, while IBM’s DB2 product is a database, Oracle’s CASE was a design tool for databases and other applications – the products weren’t direct competitors.)

But although some of the players are the same, the database world has changed radically since 1992. Among the many changes: Oracle is now the top vendor. According to 2006 figures from Gartner Dataquest, the market share of overall vendor revenues from database products (including support as well as license fees) are as follows: Oracle: 41.3%, IBM: 24.9%, Microsoft: 15.7%.

A still larger change – destined to shape the future of data storage – is the rise of the open source database, led by Ingress, MySQL and Postgres. In terms of revenue, "If you look at relational databases, open source vendors account for only .7%," says Gartner analyst Donald Feinberg. (Feinberg, by the way, fondly recalls reading Datatmation in the late 1960s.)

But this small revenue percentage must be put in context, he says. “There’s not a lot of people using open source – yet – in production” he says. But the revenue growth in open source databases from 2004 to 2005 was 47%, he points out. Moreover, “I expect the same type of percentages to continue, because more and more people are using them as they get more mature.”

On a side note, Feinberg recalls that a big database in 1992 might have been 200 GB – and such a whopping data load required an IBM mainframe to handle it. Now, of course, many desktop hard drives more hold 200 GB.

Next page: Network hardware, software, and mainframes

Network Hardware:

First Place: Hayes Smartmodem Optima 9600

Second Place: Intel SatisFAXtion Modem/400

Third Place: SAS System for Information Delivery 6.07

The notion that a 9600-baud modem is “network hardware” might be quaint, but it makes sense. The modem can rightfully be called the lynchpin of modern enterprise IT, in that it allowed communication between computers across telephone lines. The office in Omaha could send data to the office in Chicago, allowing national companies to have truly national data flow.

Oddly, the 9600-baud Hayes modem won the 1992 reader’s poll even though it wasn’t the fastest modem available. The 14.4 kbps modem had been introduced in 1991 (Hayes even made one) but apparently Datamation readers hadn’t rushed out to buy them – IT budgets were tight even then.

Minor note: The name “SatisFAXtion” might be one of the worst product monikers ever.

Network Software:

First Place: Artisoft’s LANtastic 4.1

Second Place: Sybase SQL Server 4.8

Third Place: Digital’s DECmcc Management Station for ULTRIX

Artisoft’s moment in the sun was brief, but in 1992 it was a company to watch. Long before Napster gave peer-to-peer networking a bad name, Artisoft’s LANtastic was a must-have P2P app for enterprise IT departments. It allowed companies to easily set up a P2P LAN operating system for DOS, Windows and OS/2.

“Before LANTastic, you had to set up a dedicated server to run your network from,” says David Strom, a technology consultant who worked with Artisoft products. “Their innovation was enabling you to use anyone’s workstation as a file and print server, so you could create a network on the fly very quickly.”

Plenty of companies built extensive networks using LANtastic. In the early ‘90s, the software was so hot that Artisoft released French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese versions.

Then came the bad news. Microsoft upgraded its core operating system to include networking capability – a major blow for LANtastic. The P2P software is still available (Artisoft was acquired by SpartaCom in 2000) but it’s not likely to win anymore top honors.

Moral of the story: if you’re a small fry in a market niche that big sharks want to get into, you need a new market.

Midrange/Mainframe:

First Place: IBM AS/400 E Series

Second Place: IBM ES/9000 Model 900

Third Place: NCR System 3000 model 3550

The only surprise here is that IBM didn’t win all three places. And if the vote for top mainframe were held in 2006, Big Blue would be just as dominant.

But winning the vote for best mainframe has lost much of its relevance. “If you took a poll today, the question would change,” notes Gartner’s Feinberg. As every IT manager knows, today’s datacenters are run by servers. IBM remains a top player in a field crowded by HP, Sun, and Dell.

While the mainframes of yesterday were bulky dinosaurs, today a box with far more processing power looks puny by comparison. Says Feinberg, with a laugh: “The $100,000 server has probably got a footprint on the floor that’s two feet by two feet, and it’s probably four feet high.”

For the next installment of “IT Time Travel”: market skepticism prior the release of Windows NT, and the breathless hype that launched the first Pentium chip.

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