How The Term "IT" Came About

by Sam C. Chan

June 30, 2006

Here is a not-so-well-known historical tale about the term Information Technology (IT). Its use is such commonplace nowadays that most people never gave it a second thought, and believe it has always been around.

In the 60s and 70s, anything to do with the computers is referred to as the Data Processing (DP) department. The term DP still conjures up images of 132-column green bar fan-fold forms, teletype printers hammering away, banks of refrigerator-sized minicomputers and room-sized mainframes with panels of flashing lights; and expressionless operators wearing white gowns, thick glasses and pocket protectors. That was the era when only major government agencies and major corporations could afford the computer equipment and the team of specialists. Interestingly, the job title "DP Specialist" often meant data entry clerk, typing into a CRT terminal, or generating punch cards (which was at the time, the primary form of storage).

Microcomputers transformed from purely hobbyist toys to serious business tools within a very short time from 1976 to 1981. That covers the range from Apple ][, to Commodore PET, to TRS-80 and numerous other CP/M-based machines (including the Osborne 1), to the "revolutionary" IBM-PC, which was generally regarded as the first serious business tool in its class. The subsequent PC compatible market gave birth to an explosion of powerful yet relatively inexpensive hardware.

In the early 80s, with the advent of viable microcomputer-based solutions, small enterprises, as well as individual departments within major corporations and government started to establish their own computing operations to solve problems. In the business sector, the terms Decision Support Systems (DSS) and later, Management Information Systems (MIS) were coined, mostly for marketing purposes, by companies touting their new generation data processing solutions. This was the era where the computing-related  workers went from being "scientist-like" to more business-oriented. The shift was clearly reflected in both their personality traits and predominant attire. Now, the line "MIS Director" on your business card would earn you the flirting rights with the most attractive crowd at any cocktail party.

As prices continued to drop and personal computers became ubiquitous at the workplace, they evolved to be something more about the rank-and-file workers and their mundane business activities, and less about the top brasses in the board room charting corporate strategies. Inevitably, the word "management" in MIS was eventually dropped, and it was then known as simply Information System (IS). At last, the once venerable computer system is now a standard issue apparatus for information workers everywhere.

Then came the 90s... when the Asian sector firmly established itself among the major global movers and shakers of the computing industry. They started replacing the term IS with Information Technology (IT) to give it the appropriate emphasis on "technology." A subtle motivation was to account for the fact that the industry is no longer focusing on the computer itself. Rather, it's the overall application of technologies in all aspects of life, with various gadgets and more importantly, new processes and services being introduced.

The Europeans soon followed suit, and later the term caught on in the United States within academia at first, then the IT industry itself, and finallysociety at large. So, it has now been a decade since the term "IT department" has been in circulation, here in the U.S., and it has become part of the everyday vocabulary in the last few years.

DP --> DSS --> MIS --> IS --> IT

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