Opinion: The machine that changed my world
November 9, 1999
November 9, 1999
by Stephen Manes
(IDG) -- This is my last chance to pontificate on the computer business before the year 2000 arrives, so a look backward is in order. Where we end up in the coming decades may well be wonderful, but the distance we've come in my lifetime is dazzling enough.
The first time I ever interacted with a computer was 35 years ago in high school; the machine was a Control Data model at Carnegie Tech that took up a huge room but possessed less processing power than what's inside the 3-pound subnotebook I'm using to write this.
User interface? Type ALGOL code on an infernal keypunch machine to program a deck of 80-character punch cards. (There was even a name for the confetti punched out of the cards: chad.) Input? Shove the cards containing your pathetic little program through an opening to a guy behind a window. Output? Check back days later to collect a couple of wide, folded sheets of paper revealing that your program couldn't run because you'd left out a semicolon somewhere.
Memory and storage were so precious that programmers did everything they could to pare down their code. Who would have guessed that their byte-saving two-digit year fields would come back to haunt the world as the Y2K bug?
The Interactive Age
But "Who would have guessed?" has been the theme of computing ever since my first frustrating encounters. When time-sharing machines came of age and teletypes supplanted punched cards, the age of interactive computing began. You could write a program, run it, and debug it without having to deal with that guy behind the window. The program could ask users for input, process it, and answer with almost no delay. Who would have guessed that interactivity would be so powerful?
In 1982, my first IBM PC came with a green-on-black monitor, two 320KB floppy drives, 64KB of memory, a quasi16-bit processor that plodded along at 4.77 MHz, and no hard drive. It cost more than the car I owned -- and that's without counting the $2000 dot matrix printer, which churned out pages with the soothing rhythm of a machine gun.
It was a bargain. That PC and commercial software changed my life in more ways than I can count. Word processing freed my writing from the constraints of pen, typewriter, and White-Out. A spreadsheet made managing my financial life easy. Database software helped me organize my tax records. A 2400-bps (no kilos here) modem moved my documents across the country faster than FedEx.
Hard drives, CD-ROMs, fonts, color graphics, and public e-mail all came later, along with ever-increasing speed. Today's PCs run more than a hundred times faster, carry a thousand times more memory, and cost less than half as much (not even allowing for inflation).
Yet the differences between my first computer and current models are nothing compared with the improvement from the world of "before PC" to "after." The hard drive may make storage simpler, fonts may make pages prettier, ink jets may make printing quieter, but my most important uses of the computer today remain much the same as they were in 1983. The major exception: the World Wide Web, the ultimate who-would-have-guessed surprise.
What hasn't changed is software's complexity, unreliability, and ability to suck up cycles. Don't expect information appliances to unshackle us; my new TV and VCR seem to have as many functions as Microsoft Word, but without the help system. As Alan Cooper points out in his excellent book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, everything digital tends to devolve into a computer, with the same poor design. When it comes to usability, the industry's mantra is "It won't be easy."
We can make sensible guesses about the coming marvels of the digital millennium, but it's harder to predict which ones will become indispensable and which will be merely interesting fads. If you suspect they will be the same kinds of surprises as the Y2K bug or the Web, you've probably guessed right.
PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is the cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on public television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.
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