Top 10 IT Heroes

Top 10 IT Heroes

A fortnight ago we reviewed the worst villains in computing history. But what would a villain be without a hero to battle with?

This week we count down the good guys. From brilliant programmers to tireless activists to some clever entrepreneurs, these are the people who have made computing easier, more efficient and just plain enjoyable.

A hero isn’t just a great geek, or someone who invented something wonderful. Instead it’s about continued, selfless service to an ideal of good IT. You won’t find Bill Gates on this list, or Steve Jobs for that matter. They have played massively important roles but aren’t cast of the right kind of stuff to make this list.

So here we have them, the best and the brightest IT heroes.

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President Clinton
Honourable mention: Bill Clinton

Shaun Nichols: When we were deciding on which Presidents to write about as 'IT Heroes,' I joked to Iain that the process was something like choosing which footballer would kick you in the groin.

The White House is notorious for being behind the times regarding tech, and the stodgy old men that occupy much of the high levels of government are rarely the type to be on the cutting edge of anything other than incontinence treatment.

Clinton, however, did a fair job of handling and taking advantage of the first internet boom in the late 1990s. His administration did more than any previous one to harness the power of the internet and get major government organizations online and open to the public.

Most importantly, Clinton decided early on to keep the government out of ecommerce. He vowed that the federal government would not over-regulate or over-tax internet sales, a rare decision from a Democrat and one which ultimately helped the first dotcom boom really take off.

Iain Thomson: The Clinton administration had many faults but not understanding technology was not one of them.

Clinton was aided by Al Gore, a man who certainly did understand the internet and its possibilities. While it’s widely believed Gore said that he invented the internet this is not the case, but he was instrumental in bringing the internet to the attention of government.

Clinton took this knowledge and ran with it, making ecommerce attractive with tax breaks and aiding location based services by ordering that the GPS signal be taken off Selective Availability, in other words making it usefully accurate.

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Ronald Reagan
Honourable mention: Ronald Reagan

Iain Thomson: Let me just say that this is not part of the general deification of Reagan that seems to be going on at the moment. The Gipper had many faults, as well as some good points, but in IT terms he did something very good indeed and deserves the credit.

In 1983, with the Cold War at its peak, Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed off course en route from Anchorage to Seoul and disappeared. After some questioning the Soviets admitted that yes, they had shot it down as it was on a spying mission. 296 passengers and crew were killed for a simple navigational error.

Reagan was more than a little shocked by this and, in a stroke of genius, ordered the US military to open up its nascent global positioning system (GPS) up for civilian use so that such accidents could be avoided in the future. It’s a decision we all give thanks for today, particularly when we’re lost.

Shaun Nichols: As a 20-something journalist from San Francisco, you can safely assume that I'm at odds with Reagan on more than a few issues. He does, however, deserve credit for kick-starting the GPS market. Though he likely didn't see it coming, Reagan set the stage for a new branch of the consumer electronics industry to emerge.

One thing that can always be counted on to boost IT investment is an extended military campaign, and if there was one group you could count on to press for more military spending in the Cold-War era, it was the Republican Party. The push for newer and better military tools eventually filtered down into the IT industry. I guess if you want to claim that Al Gore 'invented' the internet, then you also have to concede that Ronald Reagan 'invented' GPS.

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Clive Sinclair
10. Sir Clive Sinclair

Shaun Nichols: In one of his novels, William Gibson suggests that Britain’s huge reserve of programmers grew because the Nintendo never really caught on in the 1980s, leaving youth to learn how to program their own machines rather than play on ready-built game cartridges.

Sir Clive Sinclair may have something to do with that. The UK most certainly was friendlier to programmable computers in the 1980s while kids in the US were simply plugging into game consoles, but a lot of it was due to Sinclair and his colleagues marketing affordable home computers than it was the marketing failures of Atari or Nintendo.

In 1979, Apple was supposedly kicking off the home computing revolution by offering an affordable computer, the Apple II. On the other side of the globe, however, Clive Sinclair was selling the ZX80, a ready-built home computer that cost just £100 fully assembled, marking the first home computer that was truly affordable to all.

Though the company’s name was soon overshadowed in the market by the likes of Apple and Commodore, Sinclair as a man wasn’t. He later moved on to research and advocate electric cars, and remains a proponent of both green transportation and educational programs.

Add a few inches on the waist and a penchant for dancing and Sir Clive Sinclair is, more or less, the Woz of England.

Iain Thomson: I can still remember the day when our ZX81 arrived. By modern standards it was abysmal: the worst keyboard in the history of computing, 0.8kb internal memory and a16kb RAM pack that kept falling out. But at the time it was a marvel and I can remember the thrill of writing my first working code. It’s possible that without the ZX81 someone else would be writing this tribute and I’d be wasting my life in accountancy.

Sinclair is an eccentric to be sure, but he’s also a genius at electronics and quite the dab hand when it comes to new ideas. Where he falls down is in thinking that everyone else will think the same way he does. The ZX81 came with virtually no software because he thought people would be happier writing their own.

Although he’s now derided for the Sinclair C5 electric car, which was a bit of a lemon is truth be told, he’s still beavering away at new inventions and we hope we’ll see ore innovations in IT from him in the future.

9. Adblock

Iain Thomson: When Shaun suggested Adblock I have to say I had my doubts. Without advertising the internet would lose a hell of a lot of its content. I refused to use the Adblock software for just that reason for ages.

But the ads kept on getting more and more intrusive and full of irritating little tricks to get you to look. Quite frankly I was getting a little sick of opening a page and suddenly having unwanted music blaring from some manufactured boyband. It was annoying, particularly if you like to wear headphones while working.

Once it was installed it was a revelation, pages looked cleaner and loaded much faster. Michael McDonald’s invention is indeed a worthwhile one.

Shaun Nichols: If advertisers would have more respect for the users and their experience, a tool such as AdBlock would not be needed.

Unfortunately, online advertising turned into a competition for user attention, regardless of whether that attention was good or bad. Advertisements became loud, flashy obnoxious objects that greatly deteriorated the browsing experience.

That's not to say I don't advocate some responsibility and appreciation for the web advertising industry and those of us who rely on it for our livelihood. When I come to a site that I like, I will almost always disable Adblock and give the advertisements a look, and I would advise all users to show similar appreciation for their favourite sites.

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Palo Alto headquarters
8. Jack Goldman, Dr. George Pake and Bob Taylor

Shaun Nichols: Chances are most geeks don’t know who one, or all, of these men are. Almost everyone, however, knows about the project they all shared: the Xerox Palo Alto Research Facility.

Goldman had the idea for the new research facility. Pake was the man he hired to run it, and Taylor was in charge of the computer science labs in the heyday of PARC’s efforts.

The result was breakthrough research and development in everything from laser printers to graphical user interfaces. Even more, management at Parc allowed for the freedom and open-mindedness that has since become the calling-card for nearly every big company to come out of Silicon Valley.

It’s fairly safe to say that much of the computing world in its current form would not exist had these three men not founded that little research center in California.

Iain Thomson: I think these men are heroes not so much for coming up with the idea of PARC, but that they managed to secure the funding for it in the first place and then ran it so well. PARC has become a template for ideas factories around the world.

They recognised that if you want really good ideas you don’t get them by sitting them in cubicles and bullying them to come up with something with impossible targets. People think best when they are relaxed and can refine their concepts by sensible debate and ideas-sharing among like minded people.

The innovations from PARC are manifold, and Apple in particular has benefited immensely from them. Truly they are heroes of IT.

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Mitch Kapor
7. Mitch Kapor

Iain Thomson: First off let me say Mitch is not on this list for Lotus 123. Important though that software was it takes more than a fancy software package to get on this list.

It’s what he did after 123 that counts. Many software moguls, having cashed out, sit on their cash and find new ways to spend it (I’m looking at you Paul Allen) or plough it into new companies. Mitch did something else; he made a difference.

He used some of the cash to set up the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore. The EFF is now the of your online rights and an important force in keeping and companies honest and above board. We have a lot to thank the EFF for.

Secondly he also ploughed money into the Mozilla Foundation, which produces the fabulous browser Firefox. Firefox forced Microsoft to restart development of the browser and is an important tool in making open source software more accessible to all.

OK, it hasn’t all been good – his involvement in Second Life creators Linden Labs is something I personally wish he’d stayed out of but al in all he is a true IT hero.

Shaun Nichols: If you're one of those people that advocates net neutrality, dislikes heavy-handed use of the DMCA for video takedowns, or doesn't like having to deal with overbearing DRM protections, then you owe a debt to Mitch Kapor and the EFF.

The group has not only been fighting for the rights of web consumers, but they've also made extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act to put more government data out on the web and keep those in power accountable to citizens.

Then there's Mozilla. After the death of Netscape it seemed like we were all destined to be stuck with IE and its shortcomings for a long time. While Kapor doesn't deserve as much credit for fixing that situation as the numerous developers who wrote and organized Firefox and other Mozilla projects, he most certainly deserves recognition for backing the project.

Mitch Kapor is a nice example of how even philanthropists need to be savvy investors. By putting his money into ambitous, yet practical efforts, Kapor was able to connect himself to some of the most successful non-profit projects in recent memory.

Old school BASIC code in operation
Old school BASIC code in operation
6. John George Kemeny and Thomas Eugene Kurtz

Shaun Nichols: The 1960s were a time of upheaval and rethinking new ideals everywhere. Kearney and Kurtz may not have recorded ‘Sgt. Pepper’ or marched for civil rights, but their work in the 1960s had similarly radical effects on the computing industry.

In 1964 the two Dartmouth professors got a radical notion; operating a computer shouldn't require years and years of advanced science and math training. They had the outrageous idea that regular people should be able to tell a computer what to do.

In order to open computing to regular people, however, Kemeny and Kurtz would have to develop a system which efficiently controlled a system while still using terminology that didn’t extensive computer science study to understand. Their solution was to create a new programming language which they named 'Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code,' also known as 'BASIC.'

As computers shrunk down and moved from science labs into offices and living rooms, BASIC was an invaluable tool which allowed millions to use the new machines. If you learned how to program a computer any time in the last 40 years, chances are BASIC was one of the first languages you were taught. Some four decades later, BASIC is still a popular language for teaching new programmers how to write code.

Iain Thomson: BASIC, it does exactly what it says on the tin. BASIC is a simple code to learn – with a bit of book-hitting you can have code running by day one.

By making a computer language that was so easy to learn the inventors opened up the world of computing to a generation and helped spawn the behemoth that is the IT industry of today.

Bill Gates got his first paying gig writing BASIC programs for the Altair and has done pretty well since. It also featured on the Apple II and Steve Jobs hasn’t suffered for the decision.

Napster - Man of the year?
Napster - Man of the year?
5. Shawn Fanning

Iain Thomson: Back in late 1990s Shawn Fanning was a typical college student with a problem. Search for music online wasn't much fun and he couldn't find stuff to listen to.

So he invented Napster, which used a new technology called peer to peer that allowed for easy file sharing over the internet. The rest is, as they say, history.

Now I know some of you will be thinking that Fanning is a criminal who took money from starving artist's mouths. It's true that he did more than most to make piracy popular but you have to see the context of his actions and it's not why he's on the list.

At the time record companies were having a high old time of it. CDs manufacturing prices had fallen dramatically over the decade and the labels had conveniently forgotten their promises made at the CD's launch about cutting prices once the technology matured.

They'd also perfected the habit of putting one or two good songs on an album, filling the rest with dross and selling it to punters. They were also well aware of the possibilities of selling music online - EMI had a report on it in the mid-1990s but decided that it would be too much hassle and things were fine as they were.

Napster changed a lot of that. Firstly you could listen to the album and see if it was worth the price before buying. Musicians and the record companies had to pick up their act and actually produce albums that were worth the money.

Secondly Fanning popularised peer to peer, a terrifically useful technology that allows companies and individuals to share legitimate files easily.

Finally, on a personal note, Fanning's invention introduced me to a lot of new music and allowed me to find some recordings that have never and will never be released. Technically yes, I stole three Kings of Convenience tracks but as I have since bought both of their albums, one of remixes by Royksopp and paid to see them live then I think they had their money's worth.

Shaun Nichols: Surely for the RIAA Fanning is the polar opposite of a hero. But then again, the RIAA also made it to the top spot on our list of IT villains.

For everyone else, he's not only a hero but also a pioneer who helped set the stage for the online music market that has since surpassed brick and mortar stores in terms of sales.

Like Iain and countless others, I've spent far more money because of music downloading than I've spent. Consider that I've rarely turned on the radio to hear any programme other than sporting events. If I buy an album, it is because I either saw a band live or heard their music online. I also can't remember how much money I've spent on music over that time, but it's well into the range of thousands of dollars.

Then there's the popularization of peer-to-peer sharing which often gets overlooked. Every day P2P is used for perfectly legal and beneficial purposes, and much of the credit for that should go to Fanning.

The world's first antivirus toolkit
The world's first antivirus toolkit
4. Dr Alan Solomon

Shaun Nichols: In 1988, Alan Solomon got tired of manually having to removing viruses from computers on site. To make the job easier, he decided to create a series of tools to help detect and safely remove computer viruses.

He called his product Dr. Solomon's Antivirus Toolkit and made a few hundred copies for sale. These humble beginnings marked the birth of the antivirus software industry.

These days, you simply do not go out on the internet without and A/V suite, and the market for AV software is among the most lucrative in the entire IT world. Solomon's company has long since been bought out, but you can still see the good doctor's name on AV products today.

Iain Thomson: Dr Solomon literally wrote the book on viruses (the immediately titled PC Viruses if you're interested) and was key to the setting up and efficient running of both CARO (the Computer Antivirus Research Organization) and EICAR (the European Institute for Computer Antivirus Research).

He also took the lead in making sure that antivirus coders around the world shared information, something that was revolutionary. Rather than hoarding virus signatures and leaving everyone else to suffer, antivirus companies are almost unique in that they immediately tell their rivals if something is up. Without this innovative system we'd all be suffering a lot more virus outbreaks and they'd be much harder to fix.

For years Dr Solly's as it was known was the gold standard of antivirus technology. McAfee certainly paid him a pretty penny for it when he got taken over.

But he makes it onto the list in my book because his skill touched so many of us. Getting a virus was about the worst thing that could happen to you in the early days of computing (short of the computer actually dying on you) and the relief of getting a system cleaned up was palpable.

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Linus Torvalds
3. Linus Torvalds

Iain Thomson: Where to start with Linus? He's a hero to the open source movement, his invention Linux has spawned entire industries (and an army of fanboys who nearly match Apple geeks in their fervour) and has done so quietly and without a fuss.

I've met a couple of people who tell me Torvalds is a pillock who missed his chance. He could have made millions if he'd ignored the open source route and made a lot of money licensing out the operating system. These people are fools however, there's more to life than money.

Maybe it's something to do with the Finnish mentality, maybe it's just Linus personally, but there's something very heroic about making something wonderful and just giving it away for free, then devoting your life to making it better. He doesn't need seven homes, 15 cars and hot and cold running chambermaids to validate his existence.

Shaun Nichols: Every time we construct a list of great individuals, be they IT heroes or awesome geeks, we end up with the same two or three people at the top. Perhaps this is because a hero is someone who not only does the smart thing, but also the morally just thing.

First, Torvalds was a brilliant and dedicated programmer. He wrote his own version of a Unix kernel, after all. This was of course a major coup and a blow to the huge, faceless OS vendors. Then, he really stuck it to the man by turning his creation into an open source project, allowing everyone to take part in its creation and evolution.

But, like our other top heroes, Torvalds' was separated most by his dedication to the cause. He didn't just walk away from Linux or try to cash in for big bucks, he stayed with the project and even took time to teach beginner computing classes (also a wise move in that it allowed him to meet his future wife.)

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Richard Stallman
2. Richard Stallman

Shaun Nichols: Some of our top IT heroes excelled in writing great code. Others did an exceptional job of managing institutions and programs, and yet others were known for their ability to guide new ideas in the industry. did all three.

Stallman cut his teeth in the 1970's at a time when 'hacker' wasn't a bad word and programmers shared code amongst themselves and worked together to solve problems. As the IT industry began to explode, however, companies began to view their code as valuable assets and started to block others from using their intellectual property.

This miffed Stallman, and prompted the MIT professor to kick of a project known as GNU, which sought to build and maintain a computing platform where anyone could lift up the hood and tinker with the underlying source code. That, in turn, led to the creation of the GNU General Public License and the Free Software Foundation, two of the most important components in today's open source software world.

These days, just about every computer runs a program or component which uses a form of the GPL, and Stallman's vision of an open source platform has come to life as Linux.

Iain Thomson: Stallman is that most dangerous of creatures; a zealot. He found a cause he believes in so strongly that he has devoted his life to it. He even has the old testament prophet look about him.

Maybe it's fortunate that a knee injury forestalled a promising career in folk dancing (no, really). Otherwise we'd have hoards of morris dancers thronging the streets and the night air would be full of the tinkling of bells and the crack of willow sticks. Thankfully for the world he chose software for his zealotry.

Thankfully for the world his cause was just and his skills are many. Commercial companies can hate him because he's espousing a way of life that would see them weaned off fat profits but they still use his code, and he's fine with that, so long as they obey his rules. When they don't he is happy to hold their toes until they play by the rules.

Despite the rumours that he sleeps with a katana under the bed to battle Microsoft ninja assassins Stallman still lives an unassuming life and continues to work on his cause. He's not going to stop until we all use free software or he loses his saving throw with the great programmer in the sky.

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Woz (bottom right) with Steve Jobs in the good ol' days
1. Woz

Iain Thomson: In the great family of IT Woz is the kindly uncle figure, overseeing it all with a cheery grin and unkempt clothes and helping out with things that need doing.

What can you say about a painfully shy man who invented a computer just so people would talk to him at a computer club, who wrote an entire operating system longhand and was so scrupulously honest that he offered the initial Apple designs to his employer because he had worked on it in office hours (HP turned him down). He even gets stellar scores on Tetris, his favourite computer game.

However, having made lots of money he then lived in modest style. Yes there are certain extravagances, Segway polo for one, but he's spent colossal amounts of time teaching children how to use computers and providing technical support for his local community. I mean, how cool is that, to have Woz getting your back for computer problems.

On a final note anyone who saw his performances on Dancing with the Stars can have little doubt that Woz is cast in a heroic mold. Despite injuries, and a stunning complete lack of ability, he soldiered on with the brightest smile of the competition, although that may have had something to do with getting his arms around the delectable Karina Smirnoff.

Shaun Nichols: I've said this before and I'll say it again. Woz is the sort of successful geek we all like to imagine that we'd become (perhaps minus the ex-wives.)

First, he created a truly brilliant and revolutionary product in the Apple I and Apple II computers. Then, he stayed with the company and managed his money wisely enough to build the type of fortune that allows one to retire at an early age with very few worries.

But then, like our other heroes, Woz kept doing great things. He went back to school to finish his degree, then he went into teaching. Even today he continues to be highly involved in charities and educational programmes for underprivileged kids, and online he'd remained a staunch advocate for free and open sharing of information.

In the end, Woz gets the top spot because he personifies what an IT hero truly is. Not just an admirable scientist and inventor, but also an admirable person. He's a kind, honest man of good character that we all can not only admire, but also truly relate to.

And yes, there's the small matter of being a goofy old nerd that still gets to cozy up with gorgeous Ukranian dancers that keeps Woz in our favor.

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