alan little’s weblog

technology winners and losers

5th January 2004 permanent link

Tim Bray has a couple of interesting pieces on technologies that have been influential Winners and Losers in computing over the last couple of decades. I agree with all of Tim’s choices, and have thought of a few more possibilities:

Ethernet and TCP/IP (Winners) versus Token Ring and X.400 (Losers) in networking.

USB (Winner) is unglamorous, but has been hugely influential as the first technology that actually made connecting accessory devices up to PCs painless and reliable. This despite being clearly technically inferior to Firewire – which I wouldn’t list as a Loser, it’s widely used and I think unlikely to go away for quite a while, but it is and will remain less ubiquitous than USB.

I’m not too sure about listing perl and python – both as candidate Winners, obviously. Tim mentions open source as one of his Winners. I think perl and python may be important enough to justify not just lumping them under that heading. Somebody (I forget who, it may even have been Tim) cited them recently as the most important examples of open source being capable of producing major innovation, and they are prime exemplars of worse is better and less is more in design philosophy (no prizes for guessing which I’m referring to as which). However, one could argue that C (cited as a winner by Tim) is an earlier and more influential example of both philosophies; and that Lisp is pretty significant prior art in terms of a very powerful high level language. And although it’s undeniably nice, it’s by no means clear to me that python has the infrastructure to be a major long term influence.

(I remember reading books about Object-Oriented Databases, Tim’s first Loser, around 1990 and thinking “wow, this stuff is clearly better than relational”. Which turned out not to be the case.)

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