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Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 2001.04.27
The Future of Computers and Computing -- All IMHO

Are you ready for my predictions? Make sure your seats and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions. Remember that even a blind dog finds a bird in the hand once in a while.

Computer Speed / Space

People continue to talk about Moore's Law which states that computer speed will double every 18 months. Certainly the pace in which computer speed has increased shows little to no sign of slowing. Faster computers allow designers to build even faster machines. Combined with advances in chemistry and physics means that the motherboard and processor kids continue to churn out incredibly kick-ass hardware. These days we see desktop units with gigahertz processors, gigabyte of memory, and tens of gigabytes of disk for US$2000. Amazing. Terabyte hard drives can't be far away. Smaller, cheaper, faster -- choose three.

There is something, however, that I believe that most people are overlooking. The main force behind this quest for speed is -- drum roll -- the market. Duh. People have always wanted faster computers. Remember when you had your 486 which worked well and the guy down the hall got the first Pentium which made your box look like a snail on prozac. This combined with the fact that software companies continue to bloat code in a desperate attempt to push the features envelope ahead of the competition the quest for the fastest box seems universal.

I believe that we need to factor these market forces with Moore's Law to determine the speed of future computer architectures. What happens next Christmas if John Doe thinks to himself, "You know, our old computer is still pretty damn fast, we've not run out of disk space yet, and I can't think of a good reason to upgrade to Windoze 2002." The computing industry has depended on obsolescence and replacement to keep their engines humming. Also, they often give out long support contracts knowing the when/if it breaks people have been much more likely to just buy new than ask for service.

There certainly are reasons why I'd like a faster computer these days. I infrequently edit movies of Timmy on our Imac which makes it so very easy to do. The only problem is that there is a lot of waiting since you are dealing with gigabytes of data. But I believe that 4 or 8 times my current speed would just about make me a happy camper. What then? Okay, people will start ripping and sharing DVDs like they do CDs now -- and you wonder why the film industry is suing everyone desperately trying to catch the horse that left the stable about 2 years ago. But you can do that now with current processor speeds quite comfortably.

There certainly will be demand that I have not foreseen but I'm scratching my head at what that will be. The signs are already out there that people are less interested in the Net as they were a couple of years ago. Less time on their computers and less need to replace them means that the bottom will fall out of the PC industry. Sure there will always be someone who needs very fast hardware, but when it isn't the 97% of the computing population, the market forces will mean that the speed R&D cost benefit will not be there.

20021001 Here's a quote from a recent article from the New York Times by John Markoff entitled "PC Makers Hit Speed Bumps; Being Faster May Not Matter".

Todd Schreiner, a Chicago business consultant, went to his local Best Buy recently to check out hot new PC's that could replace his three-year-old computer. He decided not to buy.

Mr. Schreiner represents an unpleasant new reality for the personal computer industry. For decades it has relied on the certainty that customers have an unquenchable desire for speedier new machines. But computers have reached a point where for the most common home purposes -- Web surfing, e-mail and word processing -- they are already more than fast enough to suit a typical home user's needs.

20030210 Here's a quote from a recent article from Red Herring by Michael Malone entitled "Forget Moore's Law".

... Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. His words were both simple and devastating: when asked how the 64-bit Itanium, the new megaprocessor from Intel and Hewlett-Packard, would affect Google, Mr. Schmidt replied that it wouldn't. Google had no intention of buying the superchip. Rather, he said, the company intends to build its future servers with smaller, cheaper processors.

Industry watcher Donald Luskin noted earlier this year that even Intel is finding itself being slowly crushed by Moore's law. He pointed out that just to keep its revenue level, Intel must convince its customers to double their power every 18 months or to stick with its current offerings and find twice as many customers.

Virtual Computers

So a year or two back, the "network" computer concept hit the newswires with a splat. At the time, I dismissed the idea as making about as much sense then as buying Priceline stock at $150. Hardware prices were falling through the floor and why would people give up control over their boxes. "The network is the computer." What a bunch of bull. There are situations, however, were I think this idea will gain popularity.

Business MIS departments these days are having a hell of a time keeping up with the hundreds of computers under their administration. Viruses, bug fixes, and the general complexity of the modern PC operating systems means that things are never heterogenous, never sane, and take a lot of work to keep them bootable.

One solution for this is virtual computers. Basically the idea is to have some sort of simple rig on your desk -- probably just a small box with monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and network port. This box would not be running Windoze or whatever but would rather be the mechanisms through which the computers talk (and listen) to the user. The operating systems would then be run in the MIS cluster locations under their full control.

The trick in all this is the concept of a virtual computer or a virtual desktop. Virtual in that there is no physical connection to hardware. Your desktop would be stored in some distributed storage system and then migrated between processors when needed. When you go to the bathroom your desktop would be swapped out and saved and when you sit back down and move you mouse, it would get moved back in.

People could migrate between locations with ease since migration of the virtual machines would be possible.

Since everything is virtual, your desktop could get updated almost at the same time you are using it. Backups would be easy since they would be under centralized authorities. If you needed more computer power, you would just buy a couple more computers and plug them into the cluster. If you needed less then unplug and send them back. During the night or lunch, R&D jobs could use the spare cycles doing data analysis or log processing.

At least that's my opinion. I could be wrong.

More later...

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