Computing, round and round we go

This article is motivated by my observations of computing trends over the years and triggered by recent trends showcased at CES 2012.

Sometimes I wonder about the industry moving in a circle, hopping from one thing to another, and finally back to the same thing as in the first instance.

Computing started with a mainframe shared by many users. Then the coming of the personal computer ushered in the era of personal and dedicated computing where I alone was master of the machine in front of me, no longer having to share it with others. The desktop PC was a highly functional standalone computing machine, with as much computing power as the low-end mainframe of the past.

Then came the Internet/Web where the PC saw tremendous utility as the portal to cyberspace but at the same time able to do tremendous standalone work (e.g. business applications, graphics packages, multi-media processing).

Then others in the industry promoted the "thin client" (cheap device) to access cloud computing in a distributed computing architecture. There were similar parallels in the Unix world where the X Window System allowed multi-client access from diskless "dumb terminals" to a shared machine.

With the advent of the smartphone, each generation seeing an increase in computing power (consistent with Moore's Law), it is now a struggle to build the most powerful mobile "smart terminal" to cyberspace, with all the advantages of distributed computing. And each smartphone platform with its own O/S and its particular hardware aspects (e.g. screen size/resolution) is off to the races to produce the greatest number (not necessarily the most useful) "native" applications humanity has yet to see.

Yet others in the industry are touting smartphone "web apps" as the way to bridge disparate O/S platforms and devices. I suppose the next step is to build a "dumb smartphone" to access cyberspace (as in the thin client and cloud computing model).

Historical Perspective:

  • The "computer" for me started with the calculator available in the Sears catalog for $150. It had basic scientific functions. I got it for Christmas that year. It was less powerful than today's $5 calculator available everywhere.
  • Computing for me started as writing programs for an IBM mainframe using punch cards fed to a punch card reader with my program results printed on a printer. The user-accessible "computer room" contained a card reader and printer for shared use. The actual computer was in a much larger room.

We often see new products introduced to the market which are essentially the "new old". Although there are new technologies being introduced, many devices and gadgets appearing at CES 2012 are re-spins of prior utilities or products, albeit with improvements technologically and otherwise.

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