Trite but right: Dull IT that made it big

These technologies might not attract the fervid fandom that Apple gear gets, but they all managed to find their spot and become popular despite being as dull as ditchwater
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1 of 9 Konstantin Lanzet/Wikimedia Commons

Intel's 16-bit 8086 chip

Success in the tech world seems, at first sight, to go hand-in-hand with exciting breakthroughs or cool gadgets — the iPhones and the Linuxes of the world. But what about those technologies that seemed dull as ditchwater when they first came out, but ended up as winners? ZDNet UK takes a look at some of the technologies that might not have seemed especially exciting to begin with, but that stayed the course.

The x86 instruction set
The x86 instruction set, launched in 1978, was developed for Intel's 16-bit 8086 chip (shown above). It was originally designed for embedded systems and the feeble single-user computers of the day. Its arrival was in part a response to the success of Zilog's Z80 computer.

From such humble beginnings the x86 instruction set has more or less taken over the PC market, including the previously PowerPC-oriented Mac family, and has even replaced RISC processors in many servers and workstations. It has been implemented by Intel competitors including Cyrix, AMD, Via and others, and operating systems including Mac OS X, Windows, DOS, Linux, BSD and Solaris run on it.

Among those who have tried to displace x86 include Intel itself, with chips such as the 8800, the 960, the 860 and the Itanium architecture. But continuous improvements to x86, including changes to the microarchitecture, circuitry and manufacturing processes, have made it hard to dislodge. Interestingly, x86 is rarely seen in the embedded products it was designed for.

2 of 9 Stéphane Magnenat/Wikimedia Commons


The mouse
It's called a 'mouse' because of the way the cord looked like a mouse's tail, but the name could just as easily refer to how easy it is to overlook the device.

Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute is credited with inventing the first mouse prototype in 1963, with the assistance of his colleague Bill English.  The ball-mouse came along in 1972, invented by Bill English at Xerox Parc, and the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) produced a ball-mouse variation with three buttons (pictured) as part of the Smaky project, which started in 1974.

The mouse failed to set the world on fire. In 1984, columnist John C Dvorak said about an Apple computer mouse: "There is no evidence that people want to use these things."

But the device began catching on with the release of the Apple Macintosh, and is now an essential part of desktop computer use. Nowadays, people can choose between trackpads, joysticks, optical mice, wireless mice, graphics tablets, 'footmice', 3D mice and more, like this mouse above. Logitech reported that it built its billionth mouse in November 2008.

On the other hand, more and more computers have touchscreens, letting us work with Word documents and Excel spreadsheets without the need of an intermediary. Maybe the days of the mouse are numbered after all?

3 of 9 Johann H Addicks/Wikimedia Commons

Amstrad PCW 8512

The Amstrad PCW 8256
When it launched in September 1985, the unglitzy Amstrad PCW 8256 cost less than one-quarter of what you'd shell out for a more-glamourous Apple Mac, Apricot or IBM system, once you'd added in the cost of the printer and word-processing program and all the other things you needed to get it to perform the basic operations of a typewriter. This was fantastic news to the buyers who flocked to Dixons, where the system was exclusively sold.

Lack of high-end features such as an operating system that would support fancier applications, or a disk drive that was the same as that used on other computers, did not stop the PCW (for 'personal computer word-processor') from becoming a star.

Eventually, the falling prices of more-capable competitors spelled doom for the PCW 8256 and its identical sister machine the PCW 8512. But by the time they were discontinued in 1998, the Daily Telegraph estimated eight million machines had been sold, with 100,000 still in use more than 10 years after they had originally been bought. Not bad for a device whose operating system, CP/M Plus, was already dusty at launch.

4 of 9 Metoc/Wikimedia Commons

Arctic cooling fan

The computer cooling fan
Despite its name, this piece of hardware is unlikely to attract fanboys. These days, however, few computers can afford to do without it.

Early personal computers didn't need cooling fans, but since the late 1980s, the increasing amount of heat generated by processors and other components have needed serious consideration. In some cases, the graphics processor alone on a modern PC requires its own fan.

The photo pictures a standard axial fan of the type used in many PCs. In spite of the growing use of gizmos like heat pipes, phase-change cooling or water cooling — a technique that came to the PC from the mainframe — the humble fan is more present than ever.

5 of 9 Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons

Citrix headquarters

Time to take a look at a tech manufacturer rather than a product. Citrix isn't one of those companies that has a famous headquarters location on the West Coast and glamorous products. The brilliant idea on which it was founded — by former IBM developer Ed Iacobucci, in 1989 — was OS/2 with multi-user support. IBM hadn't been interested in this, and no one else was either, especially after Microsoft announced it would no longer support OS/2.

Citrix carried on looking for success and eventually found it in the form of Netware Access Server, a remote-access application it bought from Novell in 1993. The product, which Citrix further developed and renamed WinView, provided a desktop and applications from the server to multiple users.

WinView became a success, and Citrix has followed it up with more products that are very useful but not necessarily the height of excitement. Somehow that seems to fit with the climate of Fort Lauderdale, where Citrix is headquartered, a Florida city better known as a yacht manufacturing hub than a high-tech magnet.

6 of 9 Boffy/Wikimedia Commons

IBM PC 5150 with a green monochrome CRT monitor

The CRT monitor
The CRT — that big, dumb box sitting on top of your computer. You might even be staring into one now. The one pictured above is an IBM PC 5150 with a green monochrome CRT monitor, the 5151, dating from 1981. Where do these things come from? Why are they still here? Shouldn't we all be using flexible, paper-thin, wall-sized displays or holograms by now? Why do we still need a big vacuum tube in a box shooting electrons at us? It all sounds so Victorian.

This technology in fact goes back to 1897, when German physicist Ferdinand Braun created the first version of the cathode-ray tube. While vacuum tube-based technology has disappeared from most electronics, it has stuck around a disturbingly long time in the computer monitor department.

One reason the CRT refuses to fully die is that it actually has some advantages that are pretty difficult to replicate on flat-panel displays, like colour accuracy, the lack of input lag and a wide viewing angle.

Production of CRTs is falling fast now, with LCDs surpassing them in 2007. However, they are still standard in visual industries like photography and graphics, and some gamers also prefer them, so perhaps they will stick around for a while yet.

7 of 9 IBM Research

IBM 704

The mainframe
It's true, the mainframe was once sexy: back in the 1950s, the epoch of behemoths like the IBM 704 (pictured). Over the years, though, the glamour has worn off. Surely they should have all have been replaced by svelte Linux blade servers by now?

Yet the mainframe is still with us, with IBM even making an effort to sex them up with product names like 'zSeries'. Big organisations just seem to feel safer with some kind of massive hardware installation humming along and taking care of their bulk data processing, enterprise resource planning and financial transaction processing needs. Countries like China seem especially keen to buy in "big iron". IBM has even run Linux on its mainframes since 1999.

8 of 9 US Army Red River Arsenal

IBM 350 disk storage unit

The magnetic hard-disk drive
Does anyone really get excited over storage? The hard-disk drive arrived as a component of an IBM system called the IBM 305 Ramac (Random Access Memory Accounting) in September 1956. That product, the IBM 350 disk storage unit (pictured), was a massive, cabinet-sized machine, but was able to maintain records on a real-time basis.

Since then disk capacity has increased from 3.75MB to greater than 1TB. Size has decreased from the volume of a double-wide refrigerator to that of a pack of cards, while prices per megabyte have plummeted. Areal density has doubled every two to four years since the magnetic hard disk's invention. All of this has kept the hard-disk drive in contention, despite the arrival of its main competitor, the solid-state disk.

9 of 9 David Monniaux/Wikimedia Commons


Another unsung but key technology is Ethernet, which was developed at Xerox Parc between 1973 and 1975, with Robert Metcalfe, David Boggs, Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson listed as its inventors.

The original idea was for computers to broadcast their communications across a network, with coaxial cable acting as the transmission medium. This meant that, at first, all the computers on the network received any messages sent by any of the others.

Metcalfe later convinced Digital Equipment Corporation, Intel and Xerox to promote Ethernet as a standard, and the technology caught on in the early 1980s. Since then, through the many changes in computing and networking technology — including the spread of the internet — Ethernet has continued to evolve.

These changes have included higher bandwidth, better media access control methods, and adjustments to the physical medium, including the introduction of twisted-pair Ethernet. The technology is now ubiquitous to the point that most manufacturers now build support for it directly into PC motherboards.

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