Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Next Big Thing

When the IBM PC was first released in August 1981, by IBM—or more correctly, by the small development team led by Don Estridge at IBM’s “Entry Systems Division” in Boca Raton, Florida—there were many groundbreaking characteristics to this new computer. This was not the first IBM small computer. It was actually the third.

What really made the IBM PC different from previous IBM small (actually "tiny") computers was that it was the first one built from off the shelf parts (called open architecture) and marketed by outside distributors (Sears Roebuck and Computerland). The Intel chip was chosen because IBM had already obtained the rights to manufacture the Intel chips. IBM had used the Intel 8086 for use in its Displaywriter Intelligent Typewriter in exchange for giving Intel the rights to IBM's bubble memory technology.

The price was relatively low for an IBM product and in the same price area as most personal computers of that time; at around $1,500, maybe a little bit more, but it was obviously worth the extra expense in the quality of the design and construction. It is a little known fact that IBM had considered buying Atari, a company that produced a very good design in the late 70’s, but IBM decided to design their own, and thus project “Acorn” was born. (IBM always used codenames for development projects and changed the names annually to fool the myriad of “IBM Watchers.”)

The code name for the new computer was "Acorn". Twelve engineers, led by William C. Lowe, assembled in Boca Raton to design and build the Acorn. On August 12, 1981, IBM released this new computer calling it the “IBM PC.” The "PC" stood for "personal computer" making IBM responsible for popularizing the term "PC".

The first IBM PC ran on a 4.77 MHz Intel 8088 microprocessor. The PC came equipped with 16 kilobytes of memory, expandable to 256k. It came with one or two 160k floppy drives and optional monitors. There was an attachment card and monochrome—actually green—display that was such a pleasure to view in those days before high definition and another attachment card that would power all the popular monitors available at that time. IBM also produced a good color monitor, and it was possible to attach both the mono and the color monitor and run in dual display mode.

A new extended ASCII character set increased the standard 7-bit code to an 8-bit character code was designed for the computer and several of the new characters were intended to draw rectangular figures making even the monochrome display slightly graphic. In addition, the computer included a speaker and a programmable sound chip that soon was being used to make crude but recognizable music under the instruction of the thousands of hobbyists and professionals that started the great PC ecosystem of available programs.

What really made the PC the “next big thing” was the inclusion of some groundbreaking software in the offerings available from the moment of announce. IBM had versions of the popular VisiCalc and also a good word processor as well as numerous development tools and programming languages. All this software was packaged in attractive boxes with complete documentation. That was a change at a time in the industry when most software sold consisted of only a floppy disk in a zip lock bag and maybe a few pages of mimeographed instructions.

IBM really produced a professional package, a system that would be of interest to businesses as well as home users. Soon VisiCalc was in competition with a new spreadsheet produced by a startup Boston company called Lotus, and the 1-2-3 program raised the ante for quality commercial programs and productivity aids. Professional database programs appeared and networking and the Internet and ...

As the saying goes, the rest is history.

Ever since the IBM PC and VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 and all that came after it, the PC industry has always moved forward on the momentum from the “next big thing.” The technical press and computer users as well as entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are always searching for the “next big thing.” Like a surfer watching for the next wave that will provide a “bitchin’ ride,” the entire industry jumps from one new and creative idea and product to the next, and is always looking over their shoulder trying to decide what ripple in the water will be that next big wave for them to catch.

Unless you are living in a cave or under a rock, you know that the "cloud" and cloud computing are hot items now. Apple's announcement of the iCloud, Microsoft’s Sky Drive, Drop Box, the perennial Amazon Web Services, and many other news items reinforce how the cloud has captured imagination and media buzz. 

What do I think about the cloud's true potential? To be honest, I don't know yet, one way or the other.

Here's why I am ambivalent: every year, there is a topic or trend (or two or three) which the pundits and media say is the "next big thing." The hype machine goes into overdrive and we hear and see it everywhere. Sometimes it is so; more often it is not. But what bothers me is that this next big thing—whatever it is—is somehow proposed to be the solution to all problems, whatever the problem actually is. One year it's Twitter, before that we had Wikis. We've also had multicore processors, tablet computers, and social media. The list of hot items that will solve all your problems goes on and on.

Somehow, all problems map to this hot solution, and you can project onto it whatever you are looking for, as it leads you along (or you are led by it). Just be patient, they say: once this next big thing is properly implemented, then it will really, truly be the ideal solution for whatever ails you. People who a few months ago couldn't spell the word "cloud" are now touting its inestimable virtues and benefits. I suspect the cloud and cloud computing will become another useful option and tool, one which engineers and businesses will choose when appropriate and suitable. It will not erase all previous storage/computing schemes. It will have its own set of virtues, vices, and tradeoffs which users will weigh as they decide if it matches their needs and priorities.

Now we see whole computers (Chromebook) built around this cloud concept and low cost components. At least they were low cost until Google introduces the Pixel, a Chromebook with a price tag like a Mac Air. So, is Chromebooks the next big thing? Or will we soon all be connecting to a giant mainframe located somewhere in central Idaho with our smart terminal? For those that remember the IBM 3277 and 3279 (and for those that don’t there’s always Google Search—another “next big thing"), it is just Déjà vu all over again.

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