The innovators who made modern computing happen - Embedded.com

The innovators who made modern computing happen

Focusing mainly, but not exclusively, on the period starting in the 1960s, the author covers the key developments of the era in chapters on all the elements involved in computer design: software, transistors, microchips, video games, the Internet, personal computing, online, and the Web.

The Innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution(Source: Simon & Schuster)

The Innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution (Source: Simon & Schuster)

In these discussions Isaacson profiles the personalities who created our current digital revolution including Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page. He explores how their minds worked and what made them so inventive, but the book is also about the collaboration and teamwork that made them “masters of innovation.”

Overall, “The Innovators” will appeal to anyone who wants to learn about the major players who made it all possible. But you may not agree with Isaacson's choices or the conclusions he draws about innovation — I didn’t. But that is precisely why you should read it.

Isaacson devotes about 100 pages of this 450-page book to Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft; Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce of Intel occupy another 50 pages. He covers other innovators with varying degrees of completeness, giving me the impression that he allotted space in his book according to how important he felt the people were, which makes sense, I suppose. Although he touches on the innovations of a number of people I was impressed with when I met them during that period (among them Douglas Englebart, Marc Andreeson, Ted Hoff and Stanley Mazor, and Garry Kildall), Isaacson doesn’t give them the detailed coverage I think they deserve.

Douglas Englebart, for example, is responsible for much that is associated with not only personal computers, but mobile phones and smartphones as well: the computer mouse, the graphical user interface, on-screen images and icons, multiple windows on a screen, email, instant messaging, hypertext linking, digital publishing, blog-like journals, Wiki-like collaboration, document sharing, document formatting and Skype-like video conferencing.

Douglas Englebart, a mouse, and the mouse that made popular computing happen.(Source: John Storey for TIME)

Douglas Englebart, a mouse, and the mouse that made popular computing happen. (Source: John Storey for TIME)

Andreeson wrote the open source and government-funded Mosaic Web browser from which all modern browsers are derived, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer. He went on to found Netscape Inc. to create a commercial version of Mosaic, which dominated the early days of Internet-connected desktops before Microsoft woke up and took that market back with its Internet Explorer based on Andreeson's original Mosaic.

Hoff and Mazor designed Intel's first commercial microprocessor, the 4004. The 4004 and its successors — such as the 8008, 8080, and the x86 architecture — transformed Intel from mainly a memory manufacturer into the processor powerhouse it is today.

I'm puzzled by the people left out of “Innovators.” Obviously he had to make choices, but I came away with the feeling that he focused mainly on the winners as the best place to delve into the nature of innovation. Though some of these left-out innovators were on the losing end of some of marketing and product clashes, their experiences could have taught us a lot about innovation as well. Was it something that was missing that made them fail, or was it just the luck of the draw?

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