Dennis Ritchie

Originally published in The Clarion | October 26, 2011

The death of prominent individuals can create a multitude of impressions on groups of people. The recent passing of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs sent a plethora of emotions across mankind, not only in the IT world but across millions of consumers who are fans of his products. The loss of Jobs was indeed sad, I personally was overcome with chills when the news of his death was announced on television. Only days after the passing of Jobs, another prominent figure in the world of IT lost his life, and odds are good you heard nothing of it. Unlike Jobs, Dennis Ritchie’s name was unknown to most of us. He didn’t have gadgets in the hands of millions, his face was not the poster of any multi-billion dollar corporation. Yet without the work of Dennis Ritchie, products from companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google most likely would never have been developed.

Many people in the IT world have gone so far to say that Dennis Ritchie was in fact more important to the technological landscape than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Ritchie’s crowning achievement was the creation of the C programming language and the Unix operating system. Without C and Unix, Bill Gates would have had a very difficult time composing the Windows operating system and the software that runs on top of it. Without C and Unix, the Mac OSX operating system would have never been. Without C and Unix, my favorite Linux operating system could not have been developed. Take a moment and consider these facts. Where would we be today without these three operating systems? Where would we be without software applications to use on our personal computers, servers and gadgets? It is simply impossible for me to consider such a scenario.

To put Ritchie’s contributions into even more perspective, the C programming language is the basis for virtually every other language that followed it. Languages including Perl, Python, PHP, Java and JavaScript were conceptualized and developed off of C. Each and every website that you enjoy visiting has traces of C in it. The servers that you use for DNS lookups, eMail, IP addressing and online banking exist thanks to C and Unix. Your home and office broadband router exists thanks to C and Unix, as do your smartphones, tablets and other gadgetry. Without C and Unix, our world would be a very different place to say the least.

Dennis Ritchie’s name will never be commonplace, yet it is fair to say his contributions to IT are as important as any other single individual’s in the history of computing. I am confident he didn’t die a multi-billionaire. He possessed only a flicker of fame compared to those in the IT mainstream. For some people though, money and fame are unimportant and it is often these people who most dramatically influence the world in which we live. Thank you for your hard work Dennis Ritchie and may you rest in peace.

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A Connected Nation

Originally published in The Clarion | October 19, 2011

I am sure many of you will agree with me that surveys and the statistics taken from them are about as unreliable as collected data can get. Those who conduct the survey are wizards at not only targeting a specific audience but phrasing questions in a way to get a specific answer. Political surveys are probably by-far the worst, but these facts hold true in most any case. As time permits, I not only enjoy but rely on reading and evaluating technological articles to see what is going on beyond the four walls of my office. Quite often I run across an article that includes data taken from a survey, and each time I make myself pay very close attention to not only how the survey was conducted but who the surveyor and respondents were.

An article I recently read really caught my attention, so much so I have re-read it multiple times as the results are simply staggering in my mind. Thankfully, the data collected wasn’t some random survey but actual statistics – yes there is an enormous difference between the two. The survey was conducted by the CTIA – The Wireless Association. Sure there were motives in conducting the survey, but a little research showed that such surveys are conducted by the CTIA regularly. Even after learning that they have strong motives for their studies, the numbers are still quite staggering. According to their latest survey, there are 327.6 million wireless connections in the United States. That number is equal to 103% of the US population. Read those numbers again – in simple verbiage, every man, woman and child in the United States has one wireless connection and 3% of us have two. Staggering.

After some careful thought, several facts came to mind. I know of several people who have (and carry on a daily basis) two cellphones. Once is provided by their employer, the other is their personal phone. With this in mind, the numbers begin making a little more sense. Add to this the fact that children are getting cellphones at younger and younger ages. I can accept that, although I may not agree with it. Where it gets quirky is when I think of the people I know who do not have any type of cellular device. I can think of plenty of adults and scores of kids that I know personally who do not have such.

Non-phone devices that use the cellular technologies are surely contributing to these numbers, the iPad is just one item that comes to mind. Sure there are millions of such devices out there but I would have never thought a high percentage of them would be used on the cellular networks. Apparently I am wrong once again. The CTIA predicts that the demand for cellular connectivity will increase more than fifty times over the next five years. Such a number is too large for my feeble mind to fathom, I will let you try to grasp that prediction yourself.

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IT Innovation

Originally published in The Clarion | October 12, 2011

Innovation drives technology. Without innovation, we would not have any of the technological luxuries and tools that we both enjoy and rely on each and every day. Steve Jobs, entrepreneur and co-founder of Apple, Inc. once said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”. In the world of technology, nothing could be more true. Companies who excel in innovation stand the tests of time, those that don’t slip into oblivion. As the old idiom says, the cream rises to the top. Over the history of technology, I cannot think of any product, service or application that has remained successfully static. Computer hardware, software, cellular devices and technological services must continually evolve in order to succeed. Landfills around the world are full of discarded gadgetry that were deemed archaic thanks to innovation.

Time has proven tough for some of the pioneers in the realm of Information Technology. While very successful in their time, countless companies have either folded or been acquired by newer corporations largely in part due to their lack of innovation. America Online, Compuserve, Palm and Napster are just a few companies that come to mind that once seemed to rule the world of IT but have since seemingly disappeared. The competitive world of technology is a tough one. There always seems to be a new start-up just around the corner waiting to take their piece of the IT pie. On the other hand, some corporations have largely stood the test of time, some falling to the bottom of the barrel only to rebound and find themselves back at the top – all thanks to innovation.

Apple, Inc. is a perfect example of a company that was highly successful, fell to within inches of oblivion, and rebounded to a state of superiority. Today, Apple, Inc. is by-far the leader of the pack among technological giants with approximately 50% more value than the runner-up IBM. Yes, IBM is now the second-largest technological corporation in the world after surpassing Microsoft in late September. When I think of IBM, I think of their glory days decades ago when everything seemed to be “IBM Compatible”. That term seems to have disappeared over the last decade, yet IBM is obviously doing something right. In 2011 alone, IBM’s value has grown 22% compared to an 8.8% drop over the same period of time by Microsoft.

Several factors have contributed to IBM’s recent successes, all of which are due to their ability to look forward and use innovation to prevail in tough economic times. Looking at the numbers, it is not difficult to see that companies like Apple, Inc. and IBM are today’s leaders in innovation while companies like Microsoft have apparently assumed a role of follower. With continued instability in the IT marketplace, time will show those who are truly able to innovate and those who attempt to succeed only by mimicking the leaders.

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Our Children’s Future

Originally published in The Clarion | October 05, 2011

Whitney Houston said it best – I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. – in her 1985 hit song Greatest Love of All. As time goes by and we all grow older, the importance of our children to the future of our great nation becomes more and more apparent. The time to help ensure our nation’s future is a good one is now. Kids of all ages need to be exposed to the math, science, language, technology and other related skills that will enable them to compete worldwide. It is not difficult to see that our nation has shifted from a predominantly manufacturing to a services marketplace. With this change comes more and more reliance on core fundamentals, especially in the fields of math, science, engineering and technology.

I recently read an interesting news story that both surprised and encouraged me. The story from ABC News was about the upcoming season of the long-time kids show Sesame Street. According to the article, for the first time in its 42-year history, this popular show will now include math, science, technology and engineering in each of its episodes. Sure all of the popular animated characters will still remain, and I feel the likes of Big Bird and the Cookie Monster will do a fantastic job at introducing children to these important fields of study.

The introduction of these various fields to children couldn’t come soon enough. According to a 2009 student assessment, 15-year-olds in the United States placed 23rd in science and 30th in math out of sixty-five industrialized nations. To me, these numbers are not only staggering but depressing. It’s no secret that countries in both Asia and the Middle East have done an unbelievably fantastic job of educating their students over the last several decades. I feel there is a lot for us to learn from these nations whose teenagers are coming to our universities, ranking at the top of their classes and getting the best jobs out of school. This isn’t rocket science folks, but unfortunately it is very real. If we don’t swiftly change paths and methods in how we’re educating our children, our nation is in for a very real rude awakening.

Now for the call to action. Sure most of us are not science and technology wizards, but that’s ok. Simple things like helping a child find a science or math related book to read, and helping them both read and understand it, can go a very long way. Teaching youngsters about computers and electronics – just the basics – could spark an interest at an early age that will lead them to a successful career years down the road. It’s their future that is at stake, let’s see if we can help ensure it’s a good one.

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