"Back that truck up"

One of the bigger issues preventing rapid software adaptation to hardware change is our general failure to understand how what came before affects our perceptions about what comes after - and if most of what we think we know about the IT past is wrong, what does that say about our ability to look forward?

The quotation is from Tim Taylor, star of TV's long defunct sitcom: Glimpses of Heidi, but suits my purpose here, which is to discuss our tendency to remember things in terms of what's important to us rather in terms of what really happened.

A big part of the dominant wintel mythology, for example, is based on three beliefs, all of them wrong:

  1. that the people behind Intel invented the microprocessor during the early seventies;

    In reality the first microprocessors were built years earlier Ray Holt and his colleagues at AiResearch for the F-14 flight controller. Their work ended up at American Microsysystems and the staff involved, when American decided there was no future in microprocessors (!), ended up founding the MC68XX line at Motorola.

  2. that Microsoft's first commercial OS offering was MS-DOS.

    It wasn't: they paid Toronto's HCR to put together Xenix and sold that for over a year before paying Tim Patterson at Seattle Computer products to put together the quick and dirty CP/M rip out that became first PC-DOS and then MS-DOS.

  3. that the original PC introduced in 1981 represented the state of the art at the time.

    It didn't. In fact it under-performed IBM's own 5220(!) from 1971/2 and used an eight bit downgrade of Intel's 16bit 8086 -a chip that itself so under performed Zilog's Z series that only Exxon's timely intervention saved Intel for IBM - and all at a time when quite a few companies were building Unix desktops around Motorola's line of 16/32bit processors and co-processors.

The use of mythic history as an IT sales tool is not, of course, limited to wintel -quick: who started Red Hat Linux and where did he work at the time? if you think it was Bob Young and he ran a software distributor, you're wrong: it was Marc Ewing and he worked as a developer for IBM.

Revisionism gets even more interesting when we let our natural inability to see backwards mislead us in terms of where we see ourselves going. People are starting to understand, for example, that most of today's programming reflexes don't port well to the hottest new hardware - IBM's cell and Sun's CMT/SMP machines. Great, but why does the future for programming look like it's going backwards?

More precisely, where are the new ideas? Tim Bray, the widefinder project originator I mentioned yesterday, seems to think the future might look like Erlang - put together by Armstrong, Virding et al at the Ericsson Computer Science Laboratory during the mid to late eighties. I can't see either LISP or APL becoming any more popular today than they were in the sixties, but both fit the new hardware paradigms like custom made gloves - and while I really like what I think I understand about Sun's Fortress language, it too seems much more about delivering on old ideas than about creating a new intellectual framework for working with either SMP or grid style parallelism.

Of course, you can argue that old ideas rule: for example, much of the intellectual capital embedded in today's latest and greatest enterprise resource management packages comes from work on game theory done by Morgenstern and von Neuman - in 1928.

It's just nonsense to claim that there are no new ideas - but as a practical matter we seem to recognize the value of ideas only if they correspond to our, usually incorrect, understanding of what came before them. As a result a lot of old ideas look new - not because they are, but because we've lost track of what came before, and after, them - so I think the lesson in all this is that if you've got a new idea for 2008, your success in getting it accepted will largely depend on your ability to place it in an historical context acceptable to your audience.

And on that depressing note: Merry Christmas! (best -ofs until next Friday's attempt to "top ten" 2007.)

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