9:03 am
Tue February 24, 2004

The Future of Computers

Remember when computers took up a whole room? Wally does.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Wally's commentary.]

They started out as giant devices designed to calculate the trajectory of artillery shells and maintain the records of the Census Bureau. Today they're all around us, in our homes and schools and offices and even in the park.

In the beginning computers were huge, specialized and few. Even Thomas Watson, the man who made IBM IBM said that he figured the worldwide market for computers might be numbered in the dozens.

By 1970, there were a few more computers around than that, but they were still monstrous devices that required special air conditioning and special care. A programming priesthood developed to provide that care and to protect the computers from the great unwashed multitudes like you and me.

The first of what would become personal computers started appearing in the 1970s. They were kit computers then, like the Imsai 8080. Some were made by firms that made radio kits, like Heathkit and Zenith.

Then, over the last thirty years, a number of things began to happen at once. Advances in silicon chips made it easier and cheaper to put more and more powerful computers in smaller and smaller packages. The pioneers of the personal computer, folks like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates developed computers and systems that made it possible for us to have our own computers, no priesthood required.

Big computer companies like IBM caught the wave and came out with their own personal computers. Computer networking got easier and easier. Networking let you string computers together so that they could make use of each other's resources.

The scientists were off monkeying around with something called the Internet during the 70s and 80s, but some of us were discovering the magic of finding information by hooking your computer up to another computer through the phone to services like BRS After Dark and The Source.

Compuserve and GEnie took that concept big time. Soon they were overtaken by the 600 pound gorilla of great unwashed networking, America Online. And then the Internet went public.

In October, 1994 a company called Spry introduced a program called Internet in a Box. That marked the first time that you could trot down to your local computer store and buy everything you needed to connect to the Net. The worlds of computers and the Net had finally come together.

In the last ten years computers have gotten more powerful and it's gotten easier and easier to connect to the Internet, literally the "net of nets." Almost all of our schools have gotten connected, along with about two thirds of American households. Just about all of us use computers and have access to the Net, either at home or at work.

So, what's next? I'm not dead certain, but I have a few ideas about the forces that will be shaping the ways that computes and networks will be part of our lives ten years from now.

By then almost all of us will have access to a high speed connection that is always on. That kind of connection changes the way you work because you have ready access to the information that's out there on the Net whenever you want it.

Wireless will be the normal way we get connected. That will let us work wherever and however we choose. You may work at the park, like those wireless ads suggest, but I'll be working standing up, the way I prefer, without dragging a bunch of cords behind me.

In ten years I expect the "normal" computer to be a laptop or a tablet pc, even though desktops will still be all over. But, face it, you won't be lugging a desktop computer out to the park.

I'm not sure what the result of those forces will be, but if you hang around ten years with me we can find out together.