Why not step off the treadmill?

About the same time as I bought my first Mac I paid $3000 or so for what seemed an extraordinarily indulgent separate component stereo. It's still got life left in it, although the amplifier's been inexpensively repaired a few times

Oops, we almost forgot to mention the 20th anniversary of the PC.

It was about a month ago that publications everywhere ran stories marking the PC’s 20th birthday. In the US, the birthplace of the personal computer, the event was celebrated at gatherings of leading lights of the industry (I saw them referred to as “dignitaries” in one story – talk about laying it on thick).

At one of these occasions, featuring Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Compaq founder Rod Canion, the audience heard how an early programming effort by the man who brought us Windows was a game involving driving a car over a donkey. How differently the industry might have evolved if he’d stuck to writing games. And around about now the donkey would have to start fearing for its life.

Canion, meantime, told how he drew up Compaq’s original business plan on a table mat in a Houston restaurant. Not only did that spawn countless other PC clone companies, but numerous other computer companies since claim to be able to trace their origins back to a scribbled design on the back of a table napkin. The industry learnt early on that originality was less important to success than the ability to tell a good story.

Computerworld decided to wait until the fuss had died down a bit before bringing out its commemorative offering. We also thought we’d wait until there was some other reason to bring it all up again.

Intel provided the excuse last week with the launch of a Pentium 4 processor with a 2GHz clock speed. Keen to cash in on the (near - August 8 is generally taken as the birth date of the PC) historical significance of the occasion, Intel larded the launch with lots of PC factoids.

Did you know, for example, that while it was the 20th anniversary of the PC, it was the 30th birthday of the microprocessor? Intel built the 4004 chip in 1971, a chip with a clock speed of 108KHz. It wasn’t until a decade later that IBM’s PC, featuring the Intel 8008 processor, was built.

Did you know, as well, that with the help of the $US4.2 billion the company will spend on R&D this year, today’s 2GHz P4 with its 40 million transistors will be just as much an item of historical interest as the 8008 when a processor due in 2007 will run at 20GHz and have a billion transistors? It will respond in an instant to spoken commands …

I guess that’s the kind of thing you expect from anniversaries. Lots of astounding historical facts; lots of comparisons of today’s technology with the past’s; and bold predictions of what’s to come. And if perspective is lacking, that’s because nostalgia’s been allowed to cloud the picture. Nostalgia’s a wasted emotion when it comes to technology, though, if you ask me.

My personal PC history is comparatively brief. It wasn’t until this year that I owned a Windows PC (I can’t call it a Wintel machine because AMD supplied the processor).

Before this year I’ve owned a couple of Apple Macs. All told I’ve spent about $12,000 on computer hardware, and that’s with generous discounts.

While the tendency of Intel is to compare this year’s model with the previous generation and say haven’t we come a long way, I compare what I’ve spent on computers with what I’ve spent on a stereo. About the same time as I bought my first Mac I paid $3000 or so for what seemed an extraordinarily indulgent separate component stereo.

It’s still got life left in it, although the amplifier’s been inexpensively repaired a few times and is at the repair shop as I write. Unfortunately, the repairer’s days are numbered, though, as his work dries up. That’s because modern audio gear is going the same way as PCs – being built from costly modular components which are replaced when they fail, rendering the skilled technician redundant. Progress? I think not.

End users with large populations of PCs will look back at their upgrade history and marvel at the amount of money they’ve poured into PCs and wonder how much better off they are today than five years ago. Probably not as far ahead as Intel would have them believe, I’d contend. Here’s another factoid to conjure with, then: more than 800 million PCs have rolled off the assembly lines since IBM built the first. If you’re in need of more PCs, round up some pre-loved ones and build yourself a thin client network. You won’t be doing Intel any favours, but it’ll give you a break from the upgrade treadmill.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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