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80,259 News Articles

Computerworld 25 years: Second draft of history

Stephen Bell, whose byline appeared on the first issue of Computerworld, considers the last two and a half decades reporting on IT

It was a different world in 1986. There was no internet to speak of -- it only existed in universities and research establishments. The government-owned Post Office had an absolute monopoly on telecommunications. I wrote of someone ingeniously pointing a microwave beam out of the window to communicate (only just legally) with another part of the same company in an adjacent building.

That company was Databank, the bureau (an early form of cloud provider) that then ran the computing for four banks.

Government computing similarly had been under the strict control of the State Services Commission's Computing Services Division -- in 1986 it became GCS Ltd - which mainly ran the at four large bureaux, chosen seemingly to give equal dominance to four big hardware manufacturers of the time; IBM, ICL, Burroughs in Wellington and Univac running the controversial law-enforcement computer centre at Wanganui.

Those last two "big iron" providers had just merged to form Unisys, as was reported in one of our first issues.

New Zealand had exited the strictly controlled regime of the National Party under Robert Muldoon and was experiencing a newly liberal -- too deregulated for some -- Labour government.

Into this nation on the brink of change, Computerworld New Zealand was born.

Late 1986 saw not only a career move but a technology landmark for me; I was equipped with an Apple Macintosh, and worked for the first time with a GUI. I'd seen GUIs in the early 80s, initially on Xerox PARC machines, when I wrote an article for another publication, headlined: "The mouse crawls up the icon: is this the future of computing?" History -- including domination by Microsoft Windows and many Apple fightbacks -- proved me right.

Four months after Computerworld began, the telecommunications business of the Post Office was split off as the state-owned enterprise Telecom.

In 1990, Telecom was sold, among public disquiet, to a consortium of two US phone companies, Ameritech and Bell Atlantic.

Competition began ramping up -- what was originally known as the Alternative Telecommunications Company soon became Clear Communications (now TelstraClear). Problems surrounding interconnection, free local coverage and the Kiwishare bedevilled the industry for the next decade.

In 1994, international computer services organisation EDS took over GCS, having already swallowed up Databank earlier in the year.

Around the time EDS arrived, the government was waking up to the potential of the internet for spreading dangerous information. MP Trevor Rogers launched the Technology and Crimes Bill, which initially threatened to cut New Zealand's links to any organisation where even one employee had disseminated objectionable material, but subsided to a requirement to put filtering software on any computer in a home with children. The recent Retake the Net barcamp shows net-filtering still arouses strong opposition.

Fighting Rogers's bill was the prime motivation behind the Network Society, of which I was one of five founders, alongside famed rocket-man and Aardvark site proprietor Bruce Simpson. The bill died a quiet death and the Network Society was absorbed into the new Internet Society, which took over management of the .nz domain. Government interests had been quietly instrumental in the formation of what is now InternetNZ.

I was on the council of the society for the first three years and have continued as a member and journalistic observer. They keep me honest; I'm often asked pointedly which "hat" I'm wearing when I raise questions at a meeting.

The most memorable piece of InternetNZ's history I covered was the 2000 AGM -- did it really go on for 12 hours? This encompassed a coup replacing half of the ruling council, setting reform of the domain-name registry on the road, and lengthy discussion of a defamation lawsuit brought against member Alan Brown by the CEO of the old-style centralised domain registry. The society ended up contributing financially to both sides of the action.

The ICT industry has struggled to construct a single organisation to represent its views, particularly to government. An umbrella group to bring together the views of the NZ Computer Society, InternetNZ, TUANZ, Itanz -- representing hardware-makers' interests -- and others, was still struggling with conflict and fine detail when then minister David Cunliffe peremptorily withdrew funding in 2007, killing the effort.

Cunliffe issued a heavily redacted document on his reasons and a staffer didn't follow the redactions properly. Computerworld reconstructed the full document and published some of the juicy bits.

Another long gestation (very lucrative, I'm sure, for the consultants involved) culminated in the Digital Development Council and Digital Development Forum, which was killed in its turn by the National-led government of 2008.

A group of companies led by Microsoft did its own thing and survived as the NZICT Group. Latterly, NZRise has arisen as a more locally focused lobby.

Governments have always wrestled with accommodating new technology under the law. In 1993, largely in response to fears of the digital "Big Brother" in Wanganui, the Privacy Act was passed and the office of Privacy Commissioner established.

NZ "e-commerce" companies battled as late as 1997 to have cryptography software imported legally; the US government was trying to hold onto it as a potential weapon of war.

The Crimes Amendment Bill No 6 dragged its slow way through Parliament between 1999 and 2003 and gave the country its first specific offences governing unauthorised and mischievous use of computers.

EDS's reputation suffered a government-related knock in 1999, when it became involved in the delays and budget blowouts attending the Landonline project.

Originally earmarked at $65 million, the project ballooned to at least $141 million, EDS had the luckless task of converting paper records to electronic form and incurred penalty payments when this process was delayed.

In 2000, the State Services Commission formed the e-government unit. It started well, with a confidential inter-agency email system and the authentication project that became igovt. A subsequent project, GoProcure, which was to have put all government procurement through one online system, had to be canned when many agencies refused to join, even under threats of compulsion. A Government Shared Network met a similar fate. Both initiatives have re-emerged in a more successful form.

Those are some of the highlights of 25 years for me. For the record, I haven't been working for Computerworld all that time; I spent 1990 to 2000 as a freelancer (with a brief, unsatisfying venture into PR), but returned to the fold (and to a very different publication) for the expenses, holiday pay and relief from self-employed ACC bills -- and, of course, to use Computerworld's reputation to get me into intriguing corners of the industry I may not have otherwise penetrated.

* This is the first in a series this week marking Computerworld's 25 year birthday. Tomorrow Randal Jackson looks back.


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