posted by Nicholas Blachford on Tue 13th Jul 2004 21:56 UTC
IconAfter personal computers arrived in the 1970's they went through a series of revolutionary changes delivered by a series of different platforms. It's been over a decade since we've seen anything truly revolutionary, will we see a revolution again? I believe we could not only see revolution again, we could build it today.

In this series I shall describe how, starting with existing hardware and software technologies we could put together a new platform radically different from anything on the market. I for one firmly believe we can build a completely new platform today which is faster, friendlier, more robust, more secure and more advanced than anything else on the the market today.

What is Revolutionary?
Very rarely did any of the new PC platforms introduce anything genuinely new. Rather they added technologies which were already around in research or available in more expensive systems. Many of the technologies we think of as "modern" were first thought of decades ago.

Hardware threading (aka "HyperThreading") is new in the desktop world but was first introduced in computers by Semore Cray [Cray] in the CDC 6600 in 1964 - 40 years ago. Indeed much of the architecture in modern microprocessors first appeared in Cray designs in the 60's.

At the same time Douglas Engelbart [Mouse] and colleagues were working on technologies such as networking, video conferencing, windows, hyper-links and the mouse, all parts of the modern computing experience.

The new platforms in the 80's would take these technologies and combine them in ways never done before and this would create something never seen before and capable of feats previous systems couldn't keep up with.

Here's some of the personal computers / systems I consider revolutionary:

Apple I / II - 1977
They may not have been the first but Steve Wozniak's engineering skill combined with Steve Jobs marketing savvy brought the personal computer to the world's attention.

Macintosh 1983
The first mass market computer with a GUI. It started with Jef Raskin's vision for a easy to use, low cost computer but changed radically under Steve Job's direction in the final product.

Amiga - 1985
Jay Miner combined video game hardware with a 68K processor, that powerful hardware was then combined with an operating system with a GUI and multitasking. It took a decade for the rest of the world to catch up.

Archimedes - 1987
British company Acorn developed it's own RISC CPU called the "Acorn RISC Machine" or ARM, they were the first to introduce the technology to the low priced desktop in the Archimedes. The ARM CPU now outsells x86 several times over and all desktop CPUs now follow RISC principles.

NeXT - 1988
Steve Jobs came back again, this time with a workstation, he put a GUI on top of the industrial strength Unix and combined it with cutting edge hardware. NeXT now lives on inside OS X.

BeOS - 1994
They started with the desire to create an Amiga-like multimedia system. The hardware had multiple CPUs and DSPs but it died after AT&T decided to stop making their chips. The Be Operating System was years ahead of anything on the market and many of it's features still have yet to make it to the mainstream.

It's been a long time since we've seen anything revolutionary but innovation hasn't stopped altogether, there is one revolutionary platform due in the not too distant future.

200x - Sony/Toshiba/IBM Cell
Not yet available commercially but the Cell project described in the patent [Cell] combines a network of fast vector processors along with a distribution system for computations.

When these platforms arrived everything was done in-house, and I mean everything: Hardware, Casing, OS, Applications, Development environment and Compiler. Nobody does all of that today and nobody has since 1994s BeBox when Be inc. had to create an entire system from the OS core to the media player and app-lets which ran on top.

Today on the desktop things are very different. Due to the popularity of Unix clones and especially Linux there is a whole ecosystem of software from kernels to codecs, applications to app-lets which can be used in projects. If you wanted to create a new platform today you need only pick, choose and customise.

A New Platform
I am going to describe how to build a new platform but based on off-the-shelf parts and an existing open source OS. As the previous platforms have already shown, by combining advanced existing technologies we can create something completely new.

Many of the ideas already exist spread across the existing platforms but not in one place. Often the need for backwards compatibility prevents changes from being made to existing systems so useful new or even old ideas don't get added. Even though it's based on existing technology a fresh start will allow any changes desired to be made so we can take advantage of research and use new ideas.

Table of contents
  1. "Next Gen, Page 1/3"
  2. "Next Gen, Page 2/3"
  3. "Next Gen, Page 3/3"
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