On the progress of computers

The Technology

As some of you may know, I’m something of a tech whore.  To some people that means I’m a geek, to others a savior. Which, seems to depend on whether they’re in need of computer help or not, but that’s really neither here nor there.

Back in 1965 a bigwig at Intel named Gordon Moore made the observation that the amount of transistors that could be crammed onto a computer chip doubled every 24 months or so. Now, as you well know, ‘doubling’ anything over an over again leads to incredible numbers in no time.  Very few things in our world actually work exponentially; well that’s not quite true, it happens in biology which is why a single cell can become a baby in 9 months, and in acceleration due to gravity in a vacuum, and in population growth if you remove limits on food, but I digress.  The point is that as far as human technology goes, integrated circuits are special.  This is part of the reason that it’s hard to compare them to anything else.

I could sit here and list numbers all day about how much storage/processing/memory prices have taken a nose dive with charts and everything. Or explain that you could now carry the works of the library of congress on a $99 key ring that will make you breakfast if you’re very nice to it.  But I think you’ve heard all that before, so I’ll spare you.  Except to say that it’s easy to get jaded by the numbers and forget how amazingly cool it all is if you do think about it.  For example, the high-end iPod now holds about 15,000 songs, which is about 1500 CD’s which would weigh about 270 pounds if you wanted to carry them around with you. The iPod weighs, wait for it, 5.5 ounces.

I remember an ad from a computer magazine when I was a kid, so let’s say it was 1988. Two page spread, and on the left side was a hippo in a sling being hung from a scale (and incidentally not looking too happy about it).  Beneath was a quote from Popular Mechanics magazine from 1962 that said something to the effect of “In the future, computers will weigh less than one and a half tons” while on the opposite page was a little blond kid sitting cross-legged with a notebook computer on his lap and it said, “The new NEC 1400, 8.5lbs”. My guess is that the processor in the iPod could run circles around that machine and it weighs 5.5 ounces.


The Whiners

In about 6 weeks, Microsoft is going to finish the next version of Windows, called Vista. Being a geek, I’ve been keeping up with the news about it with the bated breath required.  And honestly it’s got some pretty neat stuff going on under the hood and with the design of the upholstery. The kind of stuff that makes even non-geeks go,  “Hey, that’s pretty cool”.

Now, I follow this stuff at websites such as neowin.net, winsupersite.com, and others. I mention this only so you could go see how annoying the people are who hang out in such places; Yours truly excluded.  A number of people lately have been bad talking this new Windows Vista.  Making claims like “it uses twice the hard drive space of windows XP”, or “You’ve got to have a new computer just to run it”.   Well, ya, that’s the whole point.  Why have the power if you’re not going to use it?  Windows XP came out 5 years ago, which is an eon in the history of computers. That it only requires twice the specs to run well is actually pretty impressive, as the speed and power of your average machine are probably 5 times what they were. It’s designed to use all the speed and storage and goodness the the latest and greatest the minds at Intel and AMD can muster.  And they’ll always find neat things to do with it.

There are those who will argue that Word runs fine on their 6 year old box, so why buy a new one?  Well that might be true, but the role of computers is changing and the goals have shifted.


The Experience

First off, people should expect more from their computers.  Many of the problems that plagued the experience 8 years ago are history.  For example, I push my computers as hard as anyone I know, and I can’t remember the last time windows XP crashed on me, and they same can be said of Mac OS X as well.  The overall stability issue is pretty much licked.

It was only a few years ago that computers could only show 256 colors and video was what they kindly referred to as “postage stamp size”.  That grandmothers are emailing photos from their digital camera and that people watch DVDs on their way to work on the train in the morning can attest to the improvement in these areas.

There is also a move to more animated and interactive interfaces which many people see as only as a waste.  If you use a recent Mac right now, or Windows Vista in a couple of months you’ll see what I’m talking about.  However this is more than just eye candy. There are visual cues, and subtle psychological foundations behind this stuff. These companies spend billions every year trying to create a virtual environment for you to work better in.  In many ways it’s about making the computer seem so transparent that it gets out of the way and let’s you forget that the tools in your hand. About getting so wrapped up in what you’re doing that time just flows.  It’s about efficiency.


The efficiency of the modern workforce as grown unbelievably in the past 15 years or so and most of that growth is due to the computers that are nearly ubiquitous on desks around the world.  Just imagine actually filing papers in actually folders that are in the real world and not on your virtual desktop. By hand no less. 

A friend of mine uses her laptop for hours each day.  Has carried it with her everywhere she goes for 4 years now and thus her machine is a little beat up and haggard, but she won’t replace it because she feels that she paid good money for this machine and it should last at least 5 years.  But computer aren’t build like that, I reminded her; because they improve so fast, they’re built for obsolencence. If she spent $1000 on that laptop, yes that’s a big amount of money for most people, but if she used it every day for 4 years, that works out to only 68 cents a day.  People spend more than that on a crappy cup of coffee on the street and think nothing of it.  A new one would not only be faster, have more storage space, be lighter, more reliable, and last longer on a battery charge; it would also most certainly pay for itself with increased productivity in no time.  Not to mention the improvement that all of the above would do to her experience of using the machine day in and day out.

Plus, in many ways, holding onto technology is sometimes in itself inefficient.  I actually sold that friend her 4 year old laptop when I was getting a new one and in those 4 years I have gone through at least 6 laptops to her 1 (that I can remember)(Oh, and about 5 desktop machines).  I’m a special case, of course, because my job requires me to have fast machines, to spend money on computers for tax reasons, and I’m a geek, however it really hasn’t cost me that much because as my friend Jeremy says, I “flip” technology.  I sell my 5 month old laptop for a bit less than I paid for it and then buy the new one by kicking in a couple of hundred bucks.  That way, I always have the latest and greatest without paying over and over again. It’s a racket that’s treated me well.

Look, I’ve talked my fair share of friends into upgrading over the years and not one of them has regretted it.  Usually what I get is something along the lines of, “My god, I should have done this sooner.  Honestly, it’s changed my life.”


What’s possible?

I should talk a little bit about why the latest and greatest is a good idea. 

I was in Italy a couple of months ago and took some photos with my Canon digital camera which has a 13 mega-pixel sensor (camera sensors are growing much like computer chips have) and when I got home I sent a few of my photos to get printed as posters and they’re just beautiful, even close up.  Cost for the posters?  $15 each.  Was this kind of quality possible for your average Joe 5 years ago? Or even 2 years ago?  No way.

Or take last week’s 52 project as an example (week 41), where I wrote, arranged and recorded a cheesy big band tune in my apt in about 10 hours.  All of the instruments were played in my computer in real time, and to my ears the end product sounds pretty believable.  A big band in my apt, that wasn’t possible a few years ago either.

I spend a lot of time using Skype to video chat with my friend Andrea in London. I’ve already got the broadband connection, so talking to Andrea face to face, so to speak, costs me exactly $0.  And let me be the first to tell you that being able to see the person you’re talking to is a much different experience than talking to them on the phone. 

Incidentally, while Andrea was visiting in June she bought an Apple MacBook which she’ll freely admit has changed her life.  She talks to friends, updates her website, books gigs, catalogs her digital photos, etc.  Recently she said, “I didn’t realize that the quality of my life could really be enhanced, and then I got my MacBook”.


The new era

In my opinion we’re now entering a new post-modern era of technology.  Where low cost and ubiquity render it transparent in our lives.  No one can argue against the fact that computers have changed the world since the early 1980’s.  In many ways it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. In fact, for people under the age of 25 or so it probably is impossible.  But it’s time for the average person to really start to take advantage of the progress that’s been made. The point of a modern computer with all its bells and whistles is that it must conform to you, not you to it. The change is a subtle one which is not immediately apparent, but whos realization grows along with your digital life (for lack of a better turn of phrase).  Just as the lastest version of your web browser doesn’t seem much better than the last, go backwards 3 generations and you’ll quickly realize the how far things have come.

Maybe you’ve seen those new HP notebook ads, “The computer is personal again”, where they show a famous person from the neck down talking about all the things they do with their HP notebook (if you haven’t, there is a link to the videos at http://www.hp.com/personalagain/).  Business details, creative ideas, travel plans, entertainment, etc.  Essentially their whole lives in a 5 pound package.

A nice machine really can be the ultimate companion; they really can improve your quality of life. Don’t take Andrea’s word for it.  If you’re a Mac user, go get a shiny new intel Mac, or if you’re a Windows user, wait a until December when Vista is available and treat yourself. I guarantee you won’t regret it.