Linked by Howard Fosdick on Mon 27th Aug 2012 13:53 UTC
Editorial The dream of inexpensive computing for everyone has been with us since the first computers. Along the way it has taken some unexpected turns. This article summarizes key trends and a few of the surprises.
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Everything can be a computer
by Chrispynutt on Mon 27th Aug 2012 16:08 UTC
Member since:

Within reason everything can be a computer.

All that it takes is for SOCs or processors to become cheap enough and low powered enough to move into that space.

We started off with computers that were the size of buildings that only a government at war could require.
However we still have super computers on that scale today.

Then we moved down to servers the size of rooms. Which only a large company could afford. Again this is still the case today.

Then we moved to individual desktop computers, but only businesses could afford. Today we call them workstations.

We then got a our day to day personal computers. They reduced in size and increased in availability. Again they are still prevalent today.

Then we had laptops which took the power of a PC and tried to make it portable. Now todays ultra light i5 laptop can have more CPU power than a Core 2 Quad from only a few years ago.

We had PDAs that merged with feature phones to become Smart Phones.

We have tablets that fill the gap between phone and computer.

We have small hobbiest machines, but also tiny little embeded machines that run Windows CE in the background with out people noticing. I am 90% that the coffee maker in the company kitchen is a Win CE device by its alert noise.

We have Kontiki that is runing on 8-bit SOCs that are in traffic lights and other mundane systems.

There is a stream of computing power that flows further and further down.

When everything is a computer all we have are form factors and 'computing' building blocks. Some companies make building blocks well for one use and another better for a different use. We don't critise mining companies for not selling wood. I am sure they would like the business, but who wouldn't want more business.

Reply Score: 2

RE: Everything can be a computer
by hhas on Mon 27th Aug 2012 23:35 in reply to "Everything can be a computer"
hhas Member since:

The article's emphasis was on 'personal computing' rather than every possible application of compact/low-power/special-purpose computing, so I can see why the author didn't get into embedded applications.

That said, you're very nearly onto an extremely significant point: the trend is definitely away from owning one big general-purpose box to owning a heterogeneous collection of small, specialised devices. Which starts to look more like the traditional embedded ecosystem in its general philosophy, only with one huge exception: ubiquitous integration. The real trick is going to be in getting all these user-oriented devices to integrate seamlessly and securely, so users can mix-n-match services and access their data from multiple devices at any time.

On a purely hardware level I can imagine, say, Apple producing a smart TV that can also do casual gaming a-la iPhone, waiting a couple years till that's well established and then releasing a snap-on box that boosts it up to full-blown console level, making it both a desirable 3D gaming platform just as the traditional console makers are falling asleep at the wheel again, and providing enough functionality to do general computing (e.g. run a copy of Word) as well, allowing it to do triple duty as an iMac-like PC as well. And neither device would require much internal storage, because users can either keep all their data in iCloud and/or on a local turn-key Apple 'iHub' NAS (a much more flexible successor to their rather old-fashioned Time Capsule back-up system). And then all this stuff is going to happily chat with your iPhones and iPads, and even MacBooks if you still bother to own those. And even that only scratches the surface of what might appear in future.

Essentially, personal computing is now entering a post-scarcity age... at least where hardware is concerned. Consumers can now afford to buy a specialised device for each class of tasks they regularly perform. Each device will still retain some general-purpose capability (e.g. you can type a letter on an iPad or smart TV; mostly it'll just be slower if you don't purchase a keyboard as well), but for its optimised purpose each one will really shine - certainly much brighter than the traditional general-purpose PC which does a bit of everything reasonably but nothing brilliantly.

The real challenge will be on the software side - getting every device talking to every other device with zero hassle and zero configuration/management costs for the user will be no small practical feat. The basic concepts needed already exist in isolation, but fusing them into a completely successful mass-market solution will be a non-trivial task.

Hopefully this is something the author will explore in future articles; looking forward to them already.

(Full disclosure: While not really a true nerd/geek, I do still keep my very first ZX81 up on my cupboard shelf.;)

Reply Parent Score: 2

zima Member since:

Seems like that "ubiquitous integration [...] mix-n-match services" doesn't really work out in your envisioned future scenario, limited only to buying into Apple ecosystem ;p

(and generally, it might be a rather western perspective of things to come - so not really the most common one)

BTW, in a few short years we should see the next generation of consoles ...and actually, one present console maker seems to be much closer to that "ubiquitous integration" vision than anybody - Xbox360 works with any TV (not only Apple snap-on box + Apple TV), can stream media from a PC on home network (or even, IIRC, play contents of plugged-in iPod?), access many 3rd party services / streaming TV, and use various touchscreen devices (NOT limited to those with an MS OS: ...working with any iOS or Android device one might already have) as a sort of remote, game/app controller, or 2nd screen showing stuff related to a TV show.

PS. You might keep that ZX81 around, but when was the last time you switched it on? ;p

Edited 2012-08-28 09:56 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 4

bassbeast Member since:

Actually what I'm seeing is everyone and their dog and their dog's squeaky toy have one or more x86 systems now and the things last so long there is just no point in buying another one before they break.

I mean what is the average user doing that won't work just fine on that Phenom I X4 desktop or core duo laptop? Nothing, not a thing and those are 6 year old chips.

So what I'm seeing is people buying these other machines to go WITH, not replace, the machines they already have. A perfect example of the "average user" is someone like my dad. 2 desktops (one at work, one at home) plus a smartphone and until he ran over the dang cord and cooked it a laptop, which he is planning to get a tablet and use that instead of the smartphone for the web because "the screen is too dang tiny". His GF has 2 desktops he had me build her (one in the living room for her, one in the den for guests and grandkids) and a netbook that she prefers over her smartphone, again screen size.

As you can see computers? Tons of them, more cycles than they know what to do with, but things like tablets fit different niches so those like dad will get one for sitting on the couch and checking his email while the commercial is on. Heck this is why I always keep a couple of late model P4s at the shop, that way even the poorest person can easily have a PC if they want one. Computers are everywhere and all these new forms are just filling niches that x86 didn't fit into well, that's all.

Oh and I agree with the author, netbooks aren't going anywhere as customers love the size and easy of carry. The 10 inchers might go though, as I see more and more heading for the 12 inch which seems to be the sweet spot for ultra portable netbooks.

Reply Parent Score: 2

RE: Everything can be a computer
by zima on Tue 28th Aug 2012 07:37 in reply to "Everything can be a computer"
zima Member since:

We started off with computers that were the size of buildings that only a government at war could require.

Not really exclusively such. Building-scale computers were very limited in spread, and showing up a bit later than the very beginnings: Z3 or Colossus were between the size of a wall unit (or few wardrobes) and a small room (plus at least Z3 looks like it could be made by a dedicated individual backed by some patron - and indeed, that's basically how Z2 was made).

Many other machines from that time were similar, the wardrobes-room size seems like it was more typical generally, also in the ~50s. I suppose the most-publicised ENIAC really fitted the "building" (and cost) perception, hence established it in public imagination over the decades...

Overall, history wasn't so "linear" like you painted it, in the march towards "embedded" - don't forget that the first x86 CPUs (or generally the first microprocessors) were meant more exactly for such scenarios (and, ironically, first ARMs were for desktop machines).

BTW, reminded me about one Wiki art: - how we apparently predicted that a central computer will control the home and its appliances ...only, we failed to anticipate that connections and software will be the really expensive and/or hard part - meanwhile, the computer quickly became so inexpensive that each appliance can have one, with a bonus of keeping the software single-purpose & easy (and we still didn't really manage to tackle the issue of interoperation).
By my rough estimate, there are around 20 processors in the room I'm sitting in ...and only one PC.

Reply Parent Score: 6

zima Member since:

(plus at least Z3 looks like it could be made by a dedicated individual backed by some patron - and indeed, that's basically how Z2 was made)

PS. Recent examples: ...Zusie, after Konrad Zuse ;) (plus few other relay efforts in Links)

Edited 2012-08-29 09:51 UTC

Reply Parent Score: 2