Insights and opinions on Information Technology from George Tomko, a veteran CIO turned renegade consultant.


UNIX at 40: We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969…

As I was putting the finishing touches on a recent blog post that I had intended to publish about the 40th anniversary of UNIX, my PC became unresponsive. Looking at the screen, there was the familiar Vista “swoosh” spinning around, the text editor window clouded-up and the words “not-responding” showed on the program’s title bar. All attempts to “wake it up” failed and, other programs became non-responsive as well.


I decided to let the PC run for a while to see if it could work out its problems on its own. My iPod was close by and I selected some music to help me kill the time.

I wound up selecting one of the greatest music albums ever released: Hotel California, by the Eagles, in 1977. Its greatness is backed-up by all conceivable measures: total album sales, #1 singles, critical and popular acclaim, and, most of all, the test of time. New bands “cover” the songs in their live shows and recordings. Radio airplay of the original recording is still significant and the members of the Eagles reprise these and other songs for enthusiastic audiences in live shows throughout each year.

Listening to the title track, “Hotel California”, one of the great lines is

We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.

It struck a chord (no pun intended) and I started thinking that this is an appropriate sentiment for the (current) year 2009.

A lot was happening back in 1969. We put a man on the moon. We were in the most violent period of the Vietnam War. We were closing out a decade that brought about dramatic social change.

While all of this was going on, information technology was also undergoing tremendous change. Intel was formed in 1968. The internet was being born as ARPANET. And, 2 developers from Bell Labs took their dream of a new operating system to reality as UNIX. So, essentially, we had the birth of Moore’s Law, the creation of the Internet and the beginning of the era of open source. Quite a burst of creations that underpin almost everything we use today.

So, here I was, listening to Hotel California for maybe the 10 thousandth time in my life. It hit me that, what the band members were lamenting, in their context, was what I was starting to lament in my context.

Have we taken the “gifts” of 1969 — processing power, boundless storage, ubiquitous communications and collaboration — and managed them well? Are we doing all that we can to hand an even greater set of treasures to generations that will follow?

I think that the answer is “No”. The space is dominated by large multinational enterprises. Who would have thought that Oracle would ever own Java? Desktops and web browsing are still dominated by Microsoft.

The Internet is something short of a “bad neighborhood”. We still use keyboards rather than our voices.

In short, we are squandering our capabilities on marginal and incremental things. We call certain technologies “disruptive”, because they require the installed base to change. We have releases and patches and hot packs. We talk about things like clouds as if we invented the sky.

Wikipedia says that the song tells the tale of a weary traveler who becomes trapped in a nightmarish luxury hotel that at first appeared inviting and tempting. Hmmm.

The Eagles finish the song. My iPod dutifully selects the next track from the playlist. I am now, appropriately, tapping my pencil to Devil’s Haircut by Beck.

Something’s wrong ’cause my mind is fading

And everywhere I look

There’s a dead end waiting

Suddenly, for a moment, there is an incredible thought that maybe the best approach is to START OVER!

But, as another lyric from Hotel California goes:

you can check out anytime you like,

but you can never leave

Pondering this thought for a moment, I simply rebooted.

12 minutes later, after all the programs, drivers, virus definitions, firewall rules, boot record scans, diagnostics, and network log-ins were complete, I was back to writing.