Monday, December 06, 2010

PCs & 63s - Part 1

My first brush with a computer came in 1963 when the college engineering school thought it would be a good idea to give their incoming class a brief introductory course. It was more of a one-week seminar during which several hundred students were to write a small program to solve a trig problem, go to the lab, punch the IBM cards (yes, IBM cards), hand the pack to a computer dude behind a gated enclosure who then inserted your stack of cards for reading and performing the instructions.

There were 4 card punchers and 1 computer…for several hundred students. The lectures were unintelligible and the experience was a nightmare. I didn’t care if I ever saw another computer…let the dorks who liked that kind of stuff deal with it. There was one more experience a few years later that was about the same. Again I said to heck with that computer stuff. Sane people simply didn’t waste their lives with that kind of frustration. As it turned out later only dorks like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs put up with that kind of frustration.

Watch about 5-10 minutes of this video to see what put me to sleep

Our age group is about the eldest that took some time to become familiar with 1980s desktop computing—there are some exceptions, of course. Some of us stayed clear of it while some older folks took to it with gusto. We were about 35 when the PCs started showing up in the workplace and most of us were far enough along in our careers that we could avoid dealing with the stuff if we wished.

During my working years I noticed another discriminator between computer literate people and those who were not. That was whether they had touch typing skills or not. If they did not, then interacting with a PC was much more difficult. I’ve seen remarkably fine professionals who were really handicapped in doing much with a computer by their inability to type rapidly. Some of them are still writing their things out in long-hand for a secretary to type for them.

In the early 1970s I saw the first remote terminal installed in a large company engineering office. There were 30-40 engineers in the office and one computer terminal that none of them knew how to operate. One guy, the weakest of them, was assigned to learn how to use it and he spent weeks and months in front of that screen. He got very good at playing games on that old computer. In manufacturing plants large mainframe computers were used to log and report process data points. PCs came along about 6-7 years later and everything started to change.

For most of the 1980s we used computers as expensive typewriter replacements that had some additional capability to store documents. A few made some rudimentary use of the spreadsheet programs; there was no Internet then, nor it seemed, did any of the programs people chose to use have the ability to be read and acted on by other programs…nothing was compatible with much of anything else. Industrial plants started using PC based controllers to replace the old analog devices. Operators seemed overwhelmed by excessive data reporting…it was hard to tell for sure because no one wanted to be seen as lagging behind the technology.

The 1990s brought software standardization with Microsoft’s Office, Local Area Networks, and the Internet for the masses about 1995, only 15-years ago. Software began to expand and improve permitting computers to be used for more than typewriter replacements and simple spreadsheets.

In my opinion the most significant milestones in the useful application of PCs was the 1990 Windows 3.0, their first GUI program, followed by Windows 95 in 1995 which opened up the Internet along with more user friendly software. In 2003, broadband was replacing phone lines as ISPs and data transfer sped up by orders of magnitude. Windows XP was introduced that same year and was, in my opinion, the first real improvement since Windows 95.

Development of the PC operating environment has been a constant balance of processor speed with memory capacity, operating system improvement, band-width growth, and the availability of competent software programs. Thrown in the mix has always been the noise from wireless vendors which have, to my mind, added quite a bit of confusion to understanding the PC environment. It’s simply a phone company vs. cable company battle for providing ISP services. I think the confusion added by this and many other noise makers has significantly hampered moving the entire science forward. More in the next posting.


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