6 technologies that reshaped government

In FCW’s first two decades, innovations paved the way for better information sharing

Advances in technology over the past 20 years brought government computer users closer to a world in which they can share information across agencies and departments and access it from almost anywhere at any time. Would we be able to search the Internet and interact with government agencies online if there weren’t advances in microprocessor chip design that boosted PC performance while reducing the cost of desktop and laptop computer systems? Probably not.

Improvements in microchips and five other technologies in 20 years have transformed the way government agencies and employees work and conduct business.

1. x86 architecture: Making the PC a commodity
The x86 or 8086 microprocessor architecture runs like a thread through many of the other technologies on the list. Developed by Intel in the late 1970s, the x86 has dominated the desktop and portable computers and small-server markets since the 1980s. The 80386, the first processor in the family to sport a 32-bit architecture, powered many PCs from 1986 to 1994 and beyond. 

The military was an early adopter of x86 processors, embedding them in special purpose systems, said Scott Overson, Intel’s director of public-sector marketing. DOD and civilian agencies moved workloads off existing mainframes to client/server systems throughout the mid-1980s to late 1990s.

Twenty years ago, an 80386 processor ran at 20 MHz and contained 275,000 transistors, Overson said. An 80386-powered PC cost more than $10,000. Today, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor runs at 2.66 GHz and contains 291 million transistors. Desktop PCs with this processor cost less than $1,000. The technology has experienced a 1,000-fold increase in density and performance and a tenfold decrease in price, Overson added.

2. Microsoft Windows: Power to the People
Microsoft introduced its Windows operating system in 1985, but it was the revolutionary 3.0 version, which had the graphical user interface that made PCs easier to use. With Windows 3.1, the company introduced the mouse, which allowed users to navigate and manipulate data on the computer with one hand. Users could perform several tasks simultaneously because Windows ran multiple applications at once.

The powerful GUI helped move computing out of the data center to the user, said Curt Kolcun, vice president of Microsoft Federal.

The federal government was the first large Microsoft customer to move to the Windows operating system, Kolcun said. The Air Force chose the operating system for its Desktop II contract in the early 1990s, later standardizing the service on the platform. Government agencies helped influence the development of early versions of Windows, making it the de facto standard for desktop computing, Kolcun added.

Microsoft expanded its reach into the workstation and server market with the introduction of the Windows NT operating system in 1993. Four years after NT’s debut, the operating system was making serious inroads into DOD against the Unix operating system. 

3. Ethernet: Taking over the LAN  
Ethernet might not be the most elegant networking technology. But it has emerged as the most widely used local-area network technology in the past 16 years, resisting challenges from token ring and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM).

Government and private-sector companies started deploying Ethernet in 1987, said Dan Kent, director of systems engineering at Cisco Federal. But Ethernet finally took off in the mid-1990s when it migrated from coaxial to a 10BaseT cable infrastructure, running in the same environment as voice communications, Kent said. The move to a twisted-pair network that involved point-to-point links connected by hubs and switches helped reduce installation costs, boost network reliability and enable better management and troubleshooting.

By the new millennium, bandwidth-hungry agencies, such as the Army, were replacing ATM networks with Gigabit Ethernet over IP for ease of use and manageability and to accommodate data-intensive applications, such as videoconferencing and distance learning.

4. Internet: Access to the world
The Internet evolved from a unique network for DOD agencies and services to communicate with one another into a research network for universities and U.S. labs and a fundamental communications tool for the world. The Internet — a collection of connected computer networks linked by copper wires, fiber-optic cables and wireless connections — evolved during the 1990s from a high-cost, government-only function into a broadly accessible capability for the average citizen, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. 

The evolution of core technology such as the x86 architecture, Ethernet and TCP/IP, and fiber optics gave the Internet a much higher speed backbone to transmit content, experts say. Then the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s boosted the use of the Internet, said Mike Corrigan, a senior consultant at Suss Consulting and the first chairman of the Internet Engineering Task Force. The Web is a collection of connected documents known as Web pages linked by hyperlinks and URLs. “The first decade [of the Internet], we didn’t have the World Wide Web,” Corrigan said.

5. E-mail messaging: Electronic delivery
The development of the World Wide Web also spurred the mass use of e-mail as a messaging tool, said Howard Ady, director of governmentwide acquisition contracts and the General Services Administration schedules program at BearingPoint. He previously worked as a chief information officer and chief financial officer at various government agencies.

By the mid-1990s, agencies were grappling with issues such as e-mail use
policies, interagency message system interoperability and better security for e-mail gateways. Agency purchases were evidence of the growing use of e-mail as a communications tool. For instance, in the mid-1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency deployed some 26,000 Lotus Notes e-mail addresses, and the Army Battle Command System added about 20,000 new users to the Defense Message System version of Lotus Notes running on Sun Microsystems’ Solaris Platform.

However, because federal agencies are communicating major policy decisions by e-mail, they must capture those messages as public records. Agency officials must figure out how long to keep those messages and what do with them, said J. Timothy Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management and a Federal Computer Week columnist. 

6. PDF: Info at your fingertips 
It’s not hard to recognize the benefits of being able to view information from any application on any computer and then share it with others worldwide. That’s the transformative power of the PDF.

What really sparked the use of Adobe Systems’ Acrobat PDF software in the government sector was the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to put tax forms in PDF files in 1993, said Pam Deziel, director of platform product marketing at Adobe. Deziel was at Adobe when it launched Acrobat Version 1.0. 

The release of free Acrobat software and reader the next year enabled more people to use the files that the IRS had created, said Paul Showalter, a senior analyst at the IRS’ publishing division. Another milestone was the introduction of fillable forms, which allowed users to complete forms on screen, he said.

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