Quirky Tech Tales from 2013

The battle for Dell
Dell Inc. joined the list of the largest private companies in the U.S., debuting at No. 3. Of course, while most companies on the list move up the standings by organic or acquisition growth, Dell got the high rank by taking an already-huge publicly traded company private in a $25-billion shareholder buyout. Of course, the process wasn’t painless; company founder Michael Dell endured an eight-month running gun battle with maverick investor Carl Icahn, who challenged the Dell board’s vision, ethics and leadership. Dell bit his lip through the entire process, while Icahn, trying to mount his own takeover bid, sued, slammed and tweeted anti-Dell poetry.


Google barges
What are those things? Google Inc. has, since 2010, been building bay-bound barges in the San Francisco area, most recently beginning work on a four-storey structure in the bay. Google’s secrecy over the structure brought out the conspiracy theorists; building the barge offshore meant Google didn’t have to reveal its purpose to city planners. Data centre? Research lab? Floating retail store? Party boat? In November, Google e-mailed a number of news outlets, saying it envisioned the barge as “an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.” Work on the barges is on hiatus until the spring.


Declaration of peace … and war
In September, it appeared there was a thaw in icy relations between Salesforce.com and Oracle Corp., along with their respective leaders, Marc Benioff and Larry Ellison, one of the original investors in the cloud-based CRM software-as-a-service company. The two had inked a nine-year deal to keep Salesforce.com’s service offerings on Oracle Exadata hardware, and Benioff later referred to Ellison as his “mentor” in an interview. Less than three months later at the DReamforce user conference, Benioff was announcing a new strategic partnership with HP to offer private cloud “superpods.” Cloud-watchers felt it was such a break from years of multi-tenancy evangelism that it could only be a shot at Ellison, while others saw a step down the inevitable path to on-premise offerings.


Telecommuting: Two steps back
Back in 2012, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was roundly criticized for throttling the search giant’s work-from-home program, while at the same time having a nursery built near her office to spend time with her newborn. Fast-forward to the fall, when Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Meg Whitman pulled a page from the Mayer playbook, issuing an all-hands-on-deck memo to staff at the struggling technology company as part of the company’s overall turnaround strategy. “The effort is part of the company’s cultural shift and will help create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation,” Whitman wrote.


Military insecurity
In November, the Daily Mail reported that, according to papers written by a long-time Minuteman missile launch officer with the U.S. Strategic Air Command, the launch code for every SAC missile was set to 00000000 … for 25 years. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered that every ICBM be fitted with a Permissive Action Link (PAL), essentially a combination lock to prevent unauthorized firing of the missiles. Not only did it take until 1977 to outfit every missile (now there’s some impressive IT foot-dragging), in the meantime, the highest echelons of the SAC ordered not only an all-aughts combination, but that launch officers check to ensure they hadn’t accidentally been set to another combination.


Military insecurity, Pt. 2
TIME magazine may have named new Pope Francis the person of the year, but there’s a strong argument to be made for former National Security Administration (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden – who has sought asylum in Russia, where he now works as a Web designer – stunned the world by leaking thousands of documents detailing the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance of its own citizens, citizens of other countries and even other national leaders. Equally stunning was the sophisticated method he used to obtain information he had no business having access to: He asked perhaps as many as two dozen fellow employees for their user names and passwords.


McAfee: Bringin’ the crazy
Former security software tycoon John McAfee was a one-man news sideshow this year, with a Jason Bourne-calibre tale of poisoned dogs, murdered neighbours and escape from Belizean authorities raiding his island idyll. (At one point, he says, he buried himself in the sand to escape detection, with a box over his head so he could breathe.) Once safe in the U.S. (Seattle area), McAfee demonstrated his disdain for the state of the security software industry by filming an instructive video on how to uninstall security software, involving coke, strippers and handguns. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got for us next, sir.


Information technology, by its nature, attracts a crowd that’s by turns creative, analytical and strictly process-oriented. And that quirkiness seems to find its way into the industry news headlines themselves, whether its Google’s bid to build a floating interactive education centre in San Francisco Bay, or former security software tycoon John McAfee running from the Belizean authorities. Here are a few favourites from 2013.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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