Sunday, February 20, 2011

The history of the computer from Karl's perspective

By the time I graduated high school, I had not yet seen a computer. My classmates might call me out on that, but even if I had seen one, I wouldn't know it if I tripped over it. That was 1978.

I never saw my first computer until 1983, four years into my military career. It wasn't even a computer really - it was a Teletype Corporation Model 40 telecommunications terminal (pictured). It was built with an architecture that would basically become the forerunner of the modern PC. I was troubleshooting this thing by chasing bits through registers in the CPU for crying out loud! This terminal contained a CPU spread out across two circuit boards, a circuit board containing just RAM memory, a video card, in I/O card.... The terminal had a typeface-on-a-belt impact printer, cassette tape drives for storage (no hard disk drive), a keyboard and a monochrome monitor. My next run in with a computer was in 1984, when I took journeyman technologist training, which included learning how to program an 8080 processor kit. I was looking around at my classmates to see if I was the only one totally not interested in this 'programming'. I was not.

My first desk-at-work related experience with computers was interesting. We had computers, but they were still not very affordable, so to access one you either had to be an officer, otherwise you went to a room set up as a resource centre to use a dozen or so shared systems with the rest of the organization. Our military was known for wringing decades of use out of the equipment we had obtained and computers weren't much different - at first. While our comms gear could be 1960s vintage (still in use in the 1980s), our computers were at least 5 years old. The first ones I had ever interacted with were IBM AT systems with 10MB removable hard drives. Because we were sharing the systems and security was the prime issue, we weren't allowed to store our files on the hard drive, instead we put all of our files on 5.25" floppy disks. This would have been the first time most of my colleagues had ever used a computer and we learned fast how to exploit the system's foibles and weaknesses. It took people a while to realize that when composing a document on the computer, even though you were saving the finished file on your floppy, a temporary copy was also being stored on the hard drive by the word processor. So needless to say, a lot of people got a thrill out of being able to read other peoples' documents. Over the next few years, the military started buying more computers as the price and size of the new ones fell. Soon, almost everyone had a PC at their desk, or at least access to one was much better.

We were weaned on DOS and Word Perfect 4.2 for DOS. Then along came various versions of Windows. Word Perfect was a fantastic word processing program throughout its evolution. Everybody liked it. Its biggest and most powerful feature was reveal codes. This feature let you see the formatting code behind the words, making editing and cleaning up the formatting of a document a total breeze. By the time Windows 95 arrived on the scene we inexplicably switched from Word Perfect to MS Office's Word software. No more reveal codes. We didn't like it at all. We wondered why the switch was made but soon found out through the grapevine what had happened. When the military went to make the bulk buy of Windows 95 for the thousands of computers in its inventory, Microsoft weaseled a deal to give them Windows for free if they'd agree to buy Office at a reduced price. Hard to argue with free. This is the kind of business practise that Microsoft would become famous for.

My introduction to the 'modern' PC happened around 1986, when colleagues started buying the new PC. The preferred systems at that time were 'clone' machines (not made by a particular brand name) where one could pick and choose the various parts. Processors were 80286 and there was often less than 1MB of RAM. That's not a typo - one megabyte. The operating system was MS-DOS and in order to maximize your computer experience, you needed to know how to do things like optimize and configure memory management using the DOS files autoexec.bat and config.sys. The hours we would put into optimizing those files, either manually or with the help of memory management utilities. Conventional memory, expanded memory, extended memory - oh my! BIOS settings... be glad we don't muck around in there anymore (save for the overclockers... losers)!

What amazes me most about the evolution of my relationship with computers is how the most intricate yet important things that consumed us as serious users managed to become non-issues almost overnight.

RAM was expensive back in the day. Upgrading a system to include more RAM (say, doubling from 1MB to 2MB) or buying a system with lots of RAM to start with was not a cheap task. Now, RAM is much less expensive and most systems come with more than enough for the average person. We don't worry about managing RAM like in the old days because there's no shortage of it in a modern computer anymore (and Windows manages it for us).

Video adapters were like the nitrous oxide canisters of the computer, you were always looking for the fastest chip set and the most video memory to open up the bottleneck between the CPU and your monitor. Now, even standard on-board (on the motherboard) graphics chip sets are offering performance levels unheard of before.

High quality monitors used to go for $1000+. Now you can rock a great monitor for less than $275.

We used to waste many hours toiling over proper hardware drivers for all of the computer's components and these always needed updating. How times have changed. I've updated one solitary device driver on my PC in a period of 7 years.

Peripherals have become so disposable that manufacturers don't even bother making drivers for many peripherals when the next major OS release comes out. I've had to abandon scanners, printers and Wi-Fi adapters thanks to recent Windows releases. I think they call this planned obsolescence.

There was a time when one of the predicted paths computers were going to take was the modular brick architecture. This would have manifested itself in the sense that the CPU would be in one brick, the video hardware in another, the hard drive(s) and CD/DVD drives each in their own bricks. All the parts would connect using a fast bus (like PCI-E) and would be replaced independently of the other parts. We almost got there with the advent of external USB hard drives and a few external sound cards, but now, the structure of computers seems to be headed in one direction.

Small. Everything done by touch. The iPad has revolutionized computing and we haven't even realized it yet because it caught us napping. With the iPad's release, the Kindle and other e-book readers became obsolete overnight. Why would you buy an e-book reader when you could get a device that can practically replace your entire desktop (and laptop) computer? My iPad came with me on my last vacation as my link to the world and my method of getting information about my surroundings. No keyboard or mouse - it's all touch. I'm playing this car racing game on my iPad and as I'm doing so, I come to the realization that all of the extra crap I used to have to worry about to enjoy my gaming experience has been rendered moot. I don't need a steering wheel - the iPad IS the steering wheel. My GPS device sleeps away in a cupboard while Google maps shows me how to get from point A to B and even tells me what buses/trains to take and when. I open a talking children's book app and it reads a classic story to my grand-daughter. When she touches the objects in the scene, it tells her what they are.

What's to come? I have a prediction. Interaction through eye movement. Our devices already have cameras. I believe that within a few years, we'll be seeing (pun intended) devices with the ability to track what we're looking at on the screen and execute tasks based on the manner of our gaze.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My computer history began in college, we didn't actually TOUCH the computer in 1975 because it was the size of a small class room and ran on punch cards and IBM programming language 1.

Next actually computer was a small PC wit like 64 K memory and had Word Star loaded on it, since that was what was available, I liked it.

Next update was DOS and various upgrades of Microscoft etc.

I remember watching a class made grip the mouse so hard that she developed blisters.

I love my Kindle, flirting with idea of Ipad but not quite yet.