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Communications of the ACM

Staying connected

Happy Anniversary, CACM

When I started writing the "Staying Connected" column in 1999, the U.S. Telecommunications Act had existed for just three years. The column's mission was to inform about the changes in the telecom arena and to serve as an acknowledgment that telecommunications and computers had irrevocably collided.

At that time, telecom companies were fighting over the customer and the bill, and to get their particular brand out front, they wanted to offer local service. The walls had crumbled between the distinctions of what services each provider could and would offer. The traditional long-distance companies, for instance, were trying to offer up not just long-distance voice, but all communication services, like local, wireless, Internet and even cable TV, in one bundle with one all-encompassing bill. Cable companies, which had a direct path to the consumer, attracted attention for the traditional voice companies. U.S. wireless subscribership was ascending, a strong 69 million, but was still merely a drop in the bucket compared to today's 233 million.

It was also during this year, in 1999, that the Internet came of age, at least according to the International Telecommunication Union. At the beginning of 1999, the number of Internet subscribers worldwide totaled approximately 150 million, but by the end of the year that number had reached over 250 million, according to ITU data. But even with all those logging on, most in the U.S.—97% say some reports—were gaining access via dial-up connections. America Online, which was yet to merge with Time Warner, had brought the Internet to the general public to the tune of 18 million subscribers.

The past decade has proven the telecom arena industrious and resilient. The Gartner Group reported that the telecom market's capitalization dropped by about $1 trillion following the dot-com crash in early 2000, but this reduction brought only slight change to list of leading carriers. (Ten of the top 13 carriers in 1999 were still up there five years later, Gartner reported.) In order to get into other business sectors and stay alive, telecom companies would either build out networks or acquire competitors, feeding into the merger frenzy. (Remember when Michael Armstrong, head of AT&T, spent more than $100 billion in acquisitions—mainly for cable properties—to "bring this communications revolution to American families"?)

During these tumultuous years for telecom it wasn't just the services they were providing that changed dramatically. Traditional carriers had to reinvent the business model toward one of enabling communication to where a person is rather than to a place he might be. Gargantuan companies had to compete with sleeker, more innovative players. Telecom players were forced to acquire smaller companies that could broaden their reach, broaden their menu of services. Soon they were trumpeting the triple and quadruple play—voice, video, data, and mobility.

Telecom's metamorphosis in that short time is, of course, part of a bigger more steady change the industry has undergone over the past 50 years. It is especially relevant as we look back at CACM and celebrate the publication's own anniversary. Interwoven with the progress and evolution of telecommunications is the progress and evolution of the computer. This intermingling between the two disciplines will only grow stronger. The role computers have played not only in telecom's development but in society's maturity brings us back to ACM and this publication.

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The Columbia Connection

The origins of ACM sound almost quaint in retrospect, but the momentum one meeting created would help foster world change. Some 60 years ago, a bunch of folks interested in computing ideas expressed a desire to get together and exchange discoveries with their peers. It might be application techniques or standards that would be discussed or debated, but the way accomplished mathematician and CACM author Franz Alt described it in a column, it was more like just 78 people coming together at New York City's Columbia University trying to grapple with new findings and hoping they'd meet other people as interested in the computing field, and in furthering the computer field, as they were.

Wonder if there was an awareness of the kind of frontier that lay ahead of those people as they filed into that prestigious building way back in 1947. They came up with a name for their organization, Eastern Association for Computing Machinery, and set about advancing the cause of computing. Of course, Eastern would later be dropped from the title and the group of interested folks from both the academic and professional worlds of computing would grow from 78 to today's more than 80,000 members.

Only a year before the organization was formed, in 1946, the ENIAC or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, which derived from a military need to help soldiers determine settings on weapons, was developed. The deciphering was based on complex calculations that proved too time consuming for humans. While strategizing for the war, the calculator was being tinkered with at the University of Pennsylvania. The finished product stood bloated with 19,000 vacuum tubes, tipped the scales at more than 30 tons, and used almost 200 kilowatts of electrical power each day, according to reports.

"By today's standards for electronic computers the ENIAC was a grotesque monster," wrote Martin Weik of the Ballistic Research Laboratories at Aberdeen Proving Ground back in 1961. Still, the ENIAC became the prototype for most other modern computers. A 1958 report titled Defense Spending and the U.S. Economy that came from the operations research office of the John Hopkins University tagged it "the first modern electronic computer."

In the early 1950s, again from a military need, IBM developed and distributed its own "defense calculator." In 1953, 19 of these IBM machines, later renamed the "701" were sold, according to Chronology of Digital Computing Machines. Two of these units went to the defense department.

Within that next decade, academic science projects, also originating in part from defense contracts, would attract the attention of researchers. Plans for ARPA, or Advanced Research Projects Agency, had been laid. Some of the primary researchers involved learned of other scientists' compatible work at an ACM conference held in 1967, according to reports. These projects would evolve into what we know now as the Internet.

The ACM had understood the need to record and review literature that bubbled from these computing pioneers in those early days, and a journal was born. This evolved into Communications of the ACM debuting in 1958. That 1958 is a lifetime ago in computer-speak only reminds us of the more innocent era this publication was born into. The average home in the U.S., after all, cost a paltry $12,220 and a gallon of gas was 24 cents.

Through the years, CACM held a forum for computer folks who were looking for advice on how to bridge the divide between researchers in the labs and those who were implementing programming, and the other bridge between the developers and the end users.

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Research Plus

Communications of the ACM has chronicled the astonishing developments in the computer industry. In the pages of CACM, the progress and change and possibility are dissected and explored. Click through the archives of this publication, and you'll find celebrities for the tech-obsessed, like Leonard Kleinrock co-writing "A Study of Line Overhead in the Arpanet" in the 1970s, or a tribute for the late Jonathan Postel, who helped create and run the Internet and direct the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

But while the academic and professional research that CACM showcased was renowned and revered, the publication was also able to serve unofficially as a watercooler, a paper version of a newsgroup, not just programmers trying to figure out language or scholars debating standards, but in real-world issues. Through the years, CACM held a forum for computer folks who were looking for advice on how to bridge the divide between researchers in the labs and those who were implementing programming, and the other bridge between the developers and the end users.

There are so many thought-provoking pieces in CACM history, articles that looked at the big picture of a changing world, even as the images were still unfolding. In the early 1980s president David Brandin asked if our society will be vulnerable as a result of our growing dependence on computers and communication systems, an issue that is as relevant today as ever. In an exchange in "Letters to the Editor" decades before, the fragile and controversial sides of developing artificial intelligence are exposed and shine a light on the same issues the technology community, and culture at large, will have to address going forward.

There are broader questions raised in these pages too, ones that have more to do with conscience than science. For instance, Maurice Wilkes, in 1996, provides the argument for moving toward a more diverse, non-U.S.-centric international Internet. And in "The Net Progress and Opportunity," Larry Press implores the spread of the Internet to less wealthy nations. "As a major professional society ACM should also consider its role," he wrote in 1992.

CACM has been able to capture and present both science and commentary in a thought-provoking, educational way for 50 years. What has made the organization and the publication so enduring is its promotion of the free exchange of ideas. So Happy Anniversary, CACM. And congratulations on providing a forum where an ever-broadening community can discuss ideas that will ripple into yet more business sectors as the years go by.

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Meg McGinity Shannon ( is a technology writer based on Long Island, NY.

©2008 ACM  0001-0782/08/0100  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2008 ACM, Inc.


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