The advantages of the Cheap Revolution are so compelling that nothing is likely to thwart this shift–and this time customers themselves are leading the pack. The history of high tech is marked by three big waves. First came mainframes, which ruled in the 1950s and 1960s. They began to give way in the 1970s to the second wave: less costly midrange minicomputers. By the late 1980s minicomputers were being pushed out by the third wave: networks of pcs and Unix-based servers. Each iteration wiped out past leaders and created new giants. Amdahl all but vanished when mainframes collapsed; midrange makers Digital Equipment Corp. and Data General rose to take its place. Then Digital and Data General were wiped out by the likes of Compaq, Dell and Microsoft in pcs and Sun Microsystems in Unix servers.
Now comes the fourth wave, as computing costs ratchet down yet again. Sun Micro and other purveyors of proprietary designs were immune to the threat for years because off-the-shelf chips from Intel and amd weren’t yet strong enough to compete head-on. But today’s PC microprocessors, lashed together by the dozens, cheaply outgun the specialized chip engines that powered Sun, SGI and others. Linux, the MySQL database and other low-cost open-source software, first created by amateurs, have evolved at Internet speed and are now polished enough to rival products from Microsoft and Oracle. Systems assembled with these elements cost 90% less than last-generation systems, yet can run faster and are more reliable.