20 technologies that disrupted an industry

Of the many new technologies that hit the market, only a few change the way we do business.

Over the last 20 years, new technologies have crowded onto the scene, one quickly superceding another, creating new ways of networking, bringing the Internet ? and with it the world ? to the farthest corners of the globe, changing forever the way the world communicates.

These 20 technologies, more than any others, have changed the way our government works.


The PC

Sure, personal computers have been around for more than 20 years, but it has been only over the last two decades that the ubiquitous boxes have become the key tool for nearly every task in government, from waging war to processing income tax returns.

Notebook PCs

Whether lugged on the road for a Powerpoint presentation or mounted in a Humvee to monitor an unmanned aerial vehicle, portable computers help extend the reach of government. The first Compaq portable introduced in 1983 weighed a hefty 28 pounds. IBM's first ThinkPad, released in 1992, had a 10.4-inch color TFT screen and a TrackPoint pointing device, weighed 5.7 lb, and had 120M of memory.


From the Intel i386 to the AMD Opteron, performance has soared, paving the way for intensive computer applications. In 1989, Intel's 486 processor was the equivalent of about 1 million transistors. Today's Itanium 2 processor is pushing 1 billion transistors.

Motorola StarTAC

At its introduction in 1996, Motorola's 3.1 ounce StarTAC was billed as a "wearable cellular telephone" and "the world's smallest and lightest." The basic clamshell design is still used by phone manufacturers. More importantly, the lightweight portable phone has been a significant driver in the concept of mobility and "work from anywhere."


Walk the halls of Congress or any federal building and you'll see people thumb-typing away on Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry handhelds. Some, like Microsoft's Bill Gates, see portable computing as IT's future. The BlackBerry's rise from two-way pager in 1996 to today's all-in-one phone, e-mail, Web browser and organizer support that prediction.


Groupware and Lotus Notes

Although it's likely past its prime, this was the software that arguably launched online collaboration into the mainstream. The original vision of Notes included online discussion, e-mail and document databases. As networking became more capable, Notes became known as groupware.

Windows 95

Remember the lines at computer stores to buy Windows 95 as soon as it hit the shelves? Security and operating issues have dogged the operating system over the years, but it's impossible to argue its dominance on desktops. Windows 95 introduced the graphical interface that would remain familiar to users of succeeding versions of Windows. And the Windows 95 Plus! Pack introduced the world to Internet Explorer.

Microsoft Office

WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 were first, but for the last two decades Microsoft's Office suite has been the hands-down winner in productivity software on desktops at federal agencies and just about everywhere else. Will open-source applications and Web applications eventually unseat Office? Watch this space.

Adobe Portable Document Format

The first version of Adobe Acrobat was released in 1993, setting the standard for exchanging electronic documents. Adobe Reader and Flash Player software combined are installed on more than 600 million PCs and other devices worldwide. Adobe Reader software is distributed in 26 languages on 10 major platforms. Adobe PDF documents comprise nearly 10 percent of the content on the Web.

Geographic Information Systems

Before Google Earth became the hip way to swoop down and see any geographical place on the planet, there was GIS. Installed in federal, state, tribal and local government, it lets people relate different information in a spatial context and reach conclusions about the relationship.


Well-entrenched in many areas of government, Linux looms large in the open source software movement. Some argue open source has too many security vulnerabilities, while others counter that a community of programmers constantly fixing bugs makes it the safest operating system.

Virtual Reality

Its development accelerated in recent years by gaming technology, virtual reality has been a boon to the drive to produce specialized training tools. More than any other federal entity, the Pentagon has embraced the technology as an efficient way to teach and reinforce skills. Look for continued evolution and government dollars spent on simulation technology.

Network and Communications

IP Router

Sun Microsystems Inc.'s assertion that the network is the computer is hard to argue with. But the hardware that's enabled networking, whether in an office, a campus or around the world, is the router. The devices have let people share and collaborate over great distances. Cisco Systems Inc. was founded in 1984 largely on Internet Protocol networking technologies development.

Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol

Although TCP/IP has its roots in 1970s Defense Department research, it changed the rest of the world only in the last 10 years. The Internet and mobility is all about communication and TCP/IP enables transmission of information packets over the Web.

Fiber Optics

Whether on the battlefield in surveillance video, or in an office building working with a massive database, bandwidth is one of IT's most valuable commodities. For years, its lack blocked delivery of many bandwidth-hungry applications. For now, however, fiber optics has to some degree removed that obstacle.

802.11 Wireless Technology

It has enabled mobility and made public information personal. Alan Cohen from Cisco's Mobility Solutions calls it the "great flattener" because of its ability to let individuals connect so easily. Security concerns have slowed government adoption, but now the technology seems poised for an explosive advance.

The Web

Mosaic Web browser

In this era of Web-based applications it's hard to believe it was just 13 years ago that the first popular graphical browser was released. Developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Mosaic had native support for accessing documents and data via the Web, gopher and Anonymous file transfer protocol and Usenet News protocols. It had full HTML display, support for inlined, i.e., displayed in the text, GIF images in HTML hypertext documents and support for GIF, JPEG, MPEG formats as well as QuickTime.

Mainstream Encryption

Military leaders since before the time of the Great Pyramids knew the value of protecting data. For the information age, encryption unlocked the potential for e-government and online government services. It will continue to be the key to fulfilling the promise of the Internet and wireless devices.

Apache Web Server

There wouldn't be an Internet without Web pages to serve up to users. According to several surveys, the open-source Apache software runs on more government Web servers than any other. It is easily one of the most popular open-source offerings ever produced.

Internet Search

When Google search was still a beta release in 1998, the site daily logged about 10,000 search queries. A year later, the site was logging more than 3 million queries a day. Which search engine doesn't matter, it is the search capability itself that led to the expansion and success of the Internet. As increasing numbers of applications become Web-enabled, search's influence is sure to remain strong.

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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