By JOHN F. McMULLEN
We’ve come a long way since the initial development of the Internet – file transfer, e-mail, the World Wide Web, the graphic browser, instant messaging, social media, the cloud, and, hopefully, there is much more to come. Yet it is well to remember that these wonderful features never would have come into existence, were it not for the funding and work of the Federal Government, Research Labs, and major colleges with sub-contracts often to corporations.
The Internet, as well as the US Space program, had its origins in the “Cold War” between the United States and the then USSR and more specifically, the “Space Race,” as a result of the Soviet Union’s launching of the first satellite, “Sputnik,” into orbit. It was this sole act that awakened the US from the post-World War II certitude that it was the far-and-away science leader of the world; after all, it had developed the Atomic Bomb and built the first working electronic computer, the “ENIAC.”
Actually, it was the Space Race that spawned both the Internet and the “Microcomputer Age.” The need for miniaturization of materials to go into space capsules led to the development of microprocessors, which came to the public’s attention in the form of calculators, digital watches, and eventually, microcomputers.
The Internet took longer to reach the attention of the general public. First conceived as a method of electronically linking college research labs over a completely “fault-tolerant” system, one that could “route around” equipment failures, the Internet soon morphed into a system that could be used by college students to connect all around the country while professors and researchers spent time “loading up” this new system with data and trying to figure out how to index and access the exponentially growing data as it became more and more massive.
The computer operating system used by the majority of Internet hosts was the “UNIX” system developed at Bell Labs, which was made available for free to colleges and universities requesting it (other variations of UNIX, such as AIX, Mac OSX, Solaris, and Linux are still dominant in the Internet World).
After a number of attempts at finding a solution to the orderly cataloging and retrieval problem, a consultant at the Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland, “CERN,” Tim Berners-Lee, developed a system of “marking” information to categorize it under a methodology that he called “The World Wide Web”.
The “Web” as it came to be known had interest to the computer professionals and academics who used the Internet but it was the addition of the first “Graphic Web Browser,” “Mosaic” that brought consumers to the Internet and forced computer professionals to adopt, generally against their will, the “Graphic User Interface” (“GUI”), that we use today. Mosaic was developed at the “National Center for Supercomputing Applications” (“NCSA”) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by a team led by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina.
Other important tools of importance in the growth of the electronic world that we know today came from Xerox’s Palo-Alto Research Center (commonly known as “Xerox PARC”). The Ethernet protocol which is the standard for “Local Area Networks” (“LAN”s -- the networks of computers within an organization which are then connected to the Internet) and the first “Object Oriented Programming” language (“OOP” which eventually gave birth to “Java,” a very important programming language for web developers) were only two of the major contributions of Xerox PARC in the history of technology development; the Graphic User Interface, itself was developed at Xerox PARC.
Is a picture developing here? I hope it is! The real innovative basis for the communications system which we today call the Internet came from not-for-profit activities in research centers – DOD, SRI, Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, CERN, NCSA – and the work done in those places laid the groundwork for the commercial successes of Apple, Microsoft, AOL, Amazon, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
These companies and others like them represent what I see as the best of capitalism as they have each developed innovative products, sometimes in competition with each other, which they hoped would excite potential customers and allow them to make a profit. Sometimes they have been greatly successful – other times, they had difficulty keeping up – but they were always trying to provide the best technology product that they could.
This is not the case in other industries today. Well-known firms have been purchased by Wall Street groups that have no interest in providing a better or newer product but rather do whatever it can to increase the value of its investment no matter what the impact on customers, employees, communities, etc.
Warren Buffett’s firm, Berkshire-Hathaway, really pioneered a similar approach but its stated methodology was always to improve the management of the firm and then sell it at a profit. It was never criticized for planning for a deterioration of the purchased firm’s product. Unfortunately, Berkshire-Hathaway’s success has led many other firms into this line of business and their records have not always been steller.
While Walmart has often been the subject of criticism by many for its outsourcing to foreign countries and its overall treatment of employees (many minimum wage employees at the poverty line – many on public assistance – many without health benefits), it was always clear that its goal was to bring the lowest priced goods to consumers – and consumers flock to the stores.
What wasn’t clear to the public until this week was that Burger King’s goal in business was not to make the best reasonably priced hamburger or to challenge McDonald’s in the marketplace. Rather, as we found out through its projected merger with Tim Horton’s Restaurants, its goal is to do whatever is necessary to increase the value of its temporary owners’ equity, even at the expense of the nation that has provided its home since its inception,
Ex-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of this deal, writing on his Facebook page “Burger King is in merger talks with Canada-based Tim Horton’s restaurant chain (known for its coffee and donuts) in order to become a Canadian company and thereby lower its U.S. taxes. BK’s profits have been flat, mainly because its mostly lower-income customers don’t have enough money to boost sales. So the pending deal is welcome news to investors, who today sent its stock up nearly 20 percent. B”
This is the second public running from US taxes ploy, called “tax inversion,” that we have seen in the last few weeks. The Walgreen chain of drugstores was close to a move out of the US but public outcry caused a reversal of its plans.
Although I see the concern over these moves by the equity firms controlling Walgreens and Burger King, I am less concerned about drug stores and hamburgers than about technology innovation. The sale by IBM of its laptop business to Lenovo helped make the Chinese firm the world’s largest personal computer vendor by units sold in 2013 – a position that IBM could not have reached. IBM, unlike the Burger Kings of our economy, has stayed in the technology business and continues to be managed by a technology executive (a caution, however – IBM is said to have more employees in India than in the US).
There are certainly many strategies that firms may follow as they grow and attempt to compete and that is understandable in a capitalist economy. It seems to me, however, that the technology industry is different. I feel strongly that we have a national interest both in keeping the technology firms in the US and in keeping them under the management of those whose prime interest is in keeping the firm as a major player in the technology field (the person need not be a technologist but must be committed to the industry).
As we pass the Labor Day weekend, it seems to me that we should look to find ways to reignite the views that long-term profits were more important that short-term ones and customer satisfaction about products is more important than Wall Street’s evaluation of the balance sheet.
It also seems to me that we need a consortium of “hardheaded idealists” from industry, labor, academia, and government with input from the leading technology companies and the Futurist think-tanks to attempt to re-create the Space Race mentality that is so sorely missed today!
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, and BlogTalkRadio broadcasts at www.johnmac13.comhttp://www.johnmac13.com/.
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