2001: A sci-tech odyssey begins

22 Nov 2021

Image: © Lev/Stock.adobe.com

Two tech giants are rising, a suspect cough is in the news and Silicon Republic goes online to share sci-tech stories with an Irish accent.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

Ireland was beset by efforts to contain a potential pandemic. Major public events were cancelled or postponed. Precautionary measures were in place for travellers and there were disinfectant spots everywhere.

The year was 2001.

Back then, it was the spread of foot-and-mouth disease that we were trying to stop and, thankfully, these efforts proved largely successful.

The Boy Who Lived took to the silver screen months after a living AI was depicted in Steven Spielberg’s AI Artificial Intelligence, a film first conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick. But one of the biggest entertainment stories of the year involved a suspicious cough.

And a moment that arguably changed the world arrived on 11 September. More than 2,900 people were killed in the infamous attacks on the US and, as this story gripped a global audience, many turned to emerging online sources for news reports, rolling updates and to share in the collective grief, loss and horror.

A new media was emerging, and the seeds were sown for the state of digital surveillance in which we now find ourselves.

In the beginning…

This is the environment into which Silicon Republic was born. After many months of late nights, the site went online for the first time in November 2001. Thus began 20 years of delivering breaking technology news and reports from the frontline of a knowledge-driven island on the edge of Europe.

“America had its Silicon Valley. Ireland needed to become a Silicon Republic, with its own unique take on science and technology,” said Silicon Republic co-founder and publisher Darren Mc Auliffe.

“We wanted a global publication with an Irish accent, but what that voice would represent was the key to shaping our features and campaigns,” Mc Auliffe wrote in his origin story for the site you are now visiting.

“From the start we decided to champion the people from all backgrounds and to make it a key focus for our team to report on Ireland’s policies and investment in digital infrastructure, research capabilities and building the skills and mentality necessary to create and sustain a knowledge economy.”

The making of two tech giants

At the dawn of the millennium, the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s had burst and stock in tech companies took a nosedive. The splashback hit hard into 2001 as more and more start-ups in Silicon Valley hit stop.

Survivors such as Cisco, Amazon and Qualcomm emerged bruised but not beaten. And 2001 marked many milestone moments for two companies that would come to dominate tech in the coming years.

The year began with the release of iTunes, the media player that emerged from Apple’s acquisition of Mac-optimised SoundJam MP the previous year. This was followed in October by the unveiling of the first ever iPod, a device that would shake up both the music and tech industries.

And Apple didn’t stop there. Its influence on retail began with a newly designed space to sell its devices, which was as carefully engineered as any of the brand’s flagship products. The two Apple Stores that first opened in the summer of 2001 ushered more than 7,000 people through their doors, generating close to $600,000 in sales.

In computing, the 10th major version of Apple’s operating system for Mac computers entered the scene with the consumer release of Mac OS X. While this next-generation OS helped Apple gain market share, it would forever play a distant second to Windows.

Microsoft released its own Windows XP in 2001 which, like Mac OS X, was considered a step up in stability and reliability. It was such a tremendous success, in fact, that its persistence became a common computing problem. Up to 13 years later, 95pc of the world’s ATMs were still running this turn-of-the century OS, just as Microsoft was planning to end support.

Microsoft was also making new moves in 2001 with a Windows-based video game console originally built with parts scavenged from Dell computers. The Xbox was released in the US in November and quickly sold out of its North American production run.

As Big Tech became a concerning concept, Microsoft’s monopoly was coming under scrutiny. In 2000, a US judge ordered a break-up of the company under antitrust rules, but the country’s Justice Department rolled back after an appeals court overturned the decision in 2001. Instead, a settlement was agreed which had little impact on Microsoft’s powerful market position.

Ballmer’s boo-boo

One Microsoft rival at the time called company founder Bill Gates “an OS dinosaur”, but it was the company leader that Red Hat’s Keith Lynch remembers as being out of touch.

The head of Red Hat Ireland recollected, “Back in 2001, Steve Ballmer, the then-Microsoft CEO, stated that: ‘Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.’

“Microsoft today admits that Steve was wrong and, along with Red Hat, is now one of the largest open-source supporters and contributors,” Lynch added.

As well as marking 20 years of Silicon Republic, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of both the Linux kernel and GPLv2, the GNU General Public License. These two critical components built a foundation for the success of Linux and, in a wider sense, open-source software.

But, as Ballmer’s comments prove, the open-source movement was shunned as something potentially dangerous and destructive. Fast-forward to today, however, and Linux is powering everything from servers to smartphones to spaceships.

“It’s hard to imagine many organisations, including large global enterprises, being as successful as they are today if they had been required to build out the core software and frameworks that their products are built and delivered upon,” said Lynch.

New adventures in space

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson might be making headlines in this sector as of 2021, but space tourism has been with us for two decades. The first ever space tourist was American engineer and entrepreneur Dennis Tito. In April 2001 he took off on a self-funded eight-day trip to space as a crew member on a visiting mission to the International Space Station.

Another landmark in 2001’s space odyssey came for the NEAR Shoemaker, which became the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid.

And this year was a last gasp for Mir as the Russian space station was deorbited, falling into the South Pacific Ocean on 23 March. The end of an era took less than six hours. Mir had been in low-Earth orbit since 1986.

In other news

10 January: The merger that made AOL Time Warner is approved by the US Federal Trade Commission.

15 January: Wikipedia is launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger.

15-16 February: Two projects studying the human genome – one publicly and one privately funded – publish their initial sequencing and analysis in Nature and Science one day apart.

10 March: Alyssa Carson, the teenager on a mission to Mars, is born.

17 May: Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila introduce us to the semantic web in an article in Scientific American.

2 July: Computer programmer Bram Cohen releases the first version of the peer-to-peer BitTorrent protocol he designed.

12 July: A US judge orders Napster to rid the platform of copyright-infringing material or go offline forever.

5 September: An organ in a German church begins a performance of John Cage’s As Slow As Possible. It won’t end until 2640.

9 September: Unix time, which is commonly used in operating systems and file formats, marks its billennium and the beginning of 10-digit decimal time stamps.

23 November: The Budapest Convention – the world’s first international cybercrime treaty – opens for signatures. Ireland signed up on 28 February 2002. It has yet to be ratified.

27 November: For the first time, the Hubble Space Telescope detects a planetary atmosphere outside our solar system, on Osiris.

2 December: Enron files for the largest bankruptcy in US history (a record that won’t even last a year).

11 December: China joins the World Trade Organization.

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