Friday, August 12, 2011

Reflections on 30 years of the PC

Today is the 30th anniversary of the release announcement for the IBM PC. At the time, this was a key breakthrough in standardization of software for individuals and companies, as the platform allowed clones with the same Intel 8080 processor to have the same functionality at much lower cost.

Making the computer into a commodity changed the world, although it almost stifled innovation because money could be made on software without any vision at all. We are incredibly lucky that Apple survived the Lisa to produce the Mac with a mouse and a full GUI interface or we might still be waiting for devices like the iPad.

A long flashback digression. Although I had been programming and using computers for more than a decade at that time (my first access had been to a Honeywell system while in HS, where a teacher ran decks for us when it wasn't being used by the school system), they weren't suitable for writing. Good word processing systems that could handle special characters and equations were extremely expensive and limited to the business world. Our department got a home built using 8" floppy disks running the CP/M system with WordStar. WordStar could handle bold, italics, and greek letters along with superscripts and subscripts, which was like a dream come true when Word was still a dream and WordPerfect was not yet on the market. It still amazes me how many features of WordStar exist in HTML and the hot keys that somehow also appear in Word. (Learning basic HTML was trivial to someone who had used WordStar, since it was essentially a markup language for documents.) Later we bought a PC clone for home use, but the real revolution was when our department got a Mac and Adobe Illustrator as well as Photoshop. This was so far beyond the PC world as to boggle the mind. It is often forgotten how important the Apple consumer world was to the adoption of Adobe products like Pagemaker when PC users were still taping pictures into empty rectangles on a printout. Since our work machines ran one of the flavors of UNIX windows systems and I could use a Mac for fancier graphics, I was never as beholden to the M$ version as some. Now that I have an iPad it irritates me no end that I can't click on a link by touching the screen of a PC or laptop. For me, the iPad's only limitation is that I haven't adapted to either the glass keyboard or the nice portable keyboard for rapid touch typing. Hence the remark below. End of unnecessary digression.

As I commented over at Dean Dad's today, hand-held devices are changing the way we look at computers and what they do for us and how they hold us back.

IMHO, the most important choice today is your keyboard.

For example, M$ bloatware means even really fast hardware takes forever to boot compared to a MacBook, not to mention an iPad. This is a big deal in a classroom, where just booting up the computer can take a substantial part of the between-class time if you find it locked or off. [All of our classroom machines go into a single-user locked mode if left unattended, for security reasons. The only way out is a power-button reboot that takes several minutes.] It is truly remarkable how slow the Vista operating system is, almost as remarkable as how M$ has never admitted it was an utter failure. (I love that if you go to a Windows Vista page, it says you should buy Windows 7.)

A big change from the early days, mostly because of the internet and World Wide Web standardized interfaces, many computers are used only to "consume" information. Examples are the web sites Dean Dad was asking about, or e-mail, or various enterprise systems like our CMS, internal grading or advising systems, and college databases. Most of these involve minimal typing so they work great with a tablet like the iPad. I definitely see this as the future.

But sometimes you need a portable keyboard as nice as the one I am typing on now.

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