What if? An alternative history of tech

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos imagines a world where Apple licensed the Mac and wrestling is a corporate sport.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
5 min read
Just before we were about to enter high school, my brother and I told one of my father's friends about our plans to join the wrestling team.

"Golf or ski instead," he recommended. "You'll do those things the rest of your life."

We took the advice. But recently, I wondered: What if wrestling's place in the world were different?

Consider business conferences, for one. You'd see people walking around fancy hotels in protective headgear and Spandex overalls. "The agenda has now been changed. The Bantamweight Scramble will now be in the colonnade room," a voice over the PA system would inform conventioneers. Steve Ballmer or Linus Torvalds--who wouldn't want to see them settle it the old fashioned way?

The entire history of the tech industry, in fact, could have been vastly altered if the outcome of certain events or trends had changed. Below are a few examples of what might have been, had things been different. It's not exhaustive, and not definitive, so please send your own scenarios and criticisms for a follow-up.

What if Moore's Law had ended as expected?
Although Moore's Law, which states that chipmakers can double the number of transistors on a given chip every two years, is now predicted to peter out around 2021, many had thought it would end earlier because of limitations in lithography. Gordon Moore himself once believed that it could end with 1-micron chips (which arrived in 1991) and later said the finish would come with 250-nanometer manufacturing (which appeared in 1997).

In a lot of ways, the history of the tech industry is the story of people who didn't like their job.

If he'd been right, the progress that consumers expect from tech products--more performance, more capabilities, lower costs--would have slowed to a crawl. Cell phones would be the size of bricks and not contain cameras, while PC makers would be trying to craft the sub-$2,000 notebook. Google and Yahoo? They'd be Department of Defense projects.

Worse, most of us in the tech industry would be probably working somewhere else because the replacement cycle, which fuels revenue and funds jobs, would be much longer. People don't buy new PCs because the old ones wear out, but because the new stuff is faster.

"Silicon lasts too long. Everybody throws away perfectly good pieces of electronics gear to buy a newer version," wrote Dan Hutcheson of VLSI Research in a recent edition of his newsletter The Chip Insider.

Hopefully, the anticipated replacements for silicon will arrive in time to keep the momentum going.

What if Apple Computer had licensed the Mac OS?
If Apple had given PC makers the right to bundle the Mac operating system into computers, the theory goes, competition would have come to the OS market. Microsoft would not have ever wielded monopoly power, and security would have never been a problem.

Unfortunately, that's probably not how the script would have turned out. Apple had a wealth of competitive weapons, but it often lacked organization and vision. (Athens faced the same problem in the Peloponnesian War.) The Mac maker passed on America Online, but later developed its eWorld online service, after all. And some Apple alumni went on to Live Picture, Be and Cidco--not really an honor roll of corporate acumen.

Diplomacy has not always been a strong suit at Apple either. Computer dealers and software developers may not always love Microsoft, but many of them were put through pretty hard times by Apple (especially those dealers whom Apple eliminated from its education program).

Licensing its operating system would have given Apple a moderate revenue cushion. This might have forestalled the crisis at the company in the mid-1990s, prevented the marriage of convenience with Next, the return of Steve Jobs, the first iMac and then the iPod. The powerful sense among Apple fans that the company had been cheated of its destiny would have attenuated.

What if IBM had not allowed Microsoft to license?
Big Blue lost control of the PC world when it let Microsoft sell operating systems to third parties. The contract nuance led to the creation of Compaq and Packard Bell.

More importantly, it led to the arrival of Asian contract manufacturers like Acer, which in turn led to the growth of the tech industry on the continent outside of Japan. That in turn contributed to the rise of companies in China and India, which in turn is leading toward borderless economics.

In addition, if IBM hadn't acted, there would have been a lack of standardization in PCs that could have led to the arrival of a plethora of incompatible consumer and corporate computing devices.

So had IBM gone the other way, outsourcing wouldn't threaten your job as much as it does. But you'd also be reading this on a French Minitel.

What if Larry Ellison drove an RV?
Yachtsman, Japanese art aficionado, occasional lawsuit defendant---somehow, Oracle founder Larry Ellison doesn't strike many as a regular guy. Seemingly, the same personal ambition in its employees has fueled the progress of the software maker.

Google and Yahoo? They'd be Department of Defense projects.

This has made Oracle a success, but paradoxically, has led to intense competition from companies--Salesforce.com, Siebel Systems and, formerly, PeopleSoft--run by disgruntled ex-employees. A little more "Kumbaya" to keep colleagues happy and Ellison might have been able to achieve his lifelong dream of being the richest man in the world.

In a lot of ways, the history of the tech industry is the story of people who didn't like their job. Transistor pioneer William Shockley's somewhat abrasive manner is said to have driven the "Traitorous Eight" from Shockley Semiconductor to Fairchild Semiconductor. Management changes and not enough stock options then drove Fairchild employees to found National Semiconductor, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and the venture firm now named Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Similarly, Richard Stallman left a promising career at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to finish the GNU project. Without it, the legal framework for Linux--along with the (sometimes strident) push for changes to intellectual property laws--might never have existed.

What if Digital had succeeded?
Digital Equipment is the lost tribe of technology. It came up with the AltaVista search engine, the Alpha and StrongARM processors, and the PC lines Venturis and Celebris--easily two of the best space-age gladiator brand names ever. Its heritage can be seen in AMD's Athlon chip and the PlayStation 2, and its efforts helped paved the way for Microsoft to sell server software.

What if the mouse had not been invented?
The mouse, created by Doug Engelbart, is an interesting invention because it wasn't inevitable. Would its absence now make a huge difference? Initially I thought so, but someone in the office informed me that joysticks had already been launched when the mouse was introduced. And with joysticks, all that wrestling practice would have made it an easy adjustment.