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Flashback: The PC revolution, 1985

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Flashback: The PC revolution, 1985

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1985, The Syracuse Newspapers

Computers have grown up, and they're much different now (in 1997) than they were 12 years earlier. Could I have known what would happen to the computer revolution? You tell me.

You would almost certainly be surprised to find something like this in a newspaper or magazine:

"Here I am at my desk holding an Eberhard Faber No. 2 in my right hand while I inscribe these words on eraseable bond, watermarked, 16-lb. weight, with a slightly sharpened point...."

It would be sheer nonsense. What can it possibly matter what medium was used to record the thoughts of the writer?

What difference could it make whether an article was written with pencil and paper, or typewritten, or scraped onto bark with a lump of charcoal?

Or whether it was written on some other medium—such as a computer? I was jolted into this realization the other day when I skimmed through a computer magazine and saw, for the seventh or eighth time this month, an article that began in just such a fashion as I have described above.

It was written by ... well, since so many writers do it, we'll just call him Ralph to save him some unnecessary embarrassment.

"I am lounging at the beach," Ralph wrote, "writing this on a Radio Shack Model 100 portable computer. When I get back to the cabin I rented here I will make two quick connections and the computer will send what you are reading now to the ofice over the phone lines, all at 300 baud.

"It is truly amazing what this thing can do. It is a modern miracle."

No, Ralph. It is not a miracle, no matter how amazing it may seem. The only miracle we can hope for is that you and your fellow computer columnists will grow up.

The personal computer has grown up without you, Ralph. It's no longer a toy, no longer an adolescent looking for a Purpose in Life. When spears were invented, farther back than any of us can remember, there must have been an initial period when they were Universal Magic Sticks to everyone who wanted to poke his neighbor or catch a mammoth on the sly.

But they are only long wooden sticks to us now. Who knows what our IBM PCs are going to seem like to the folks on Alpha Centauri in 6871? If that seems too far off to contemplate, try a nearer date in the future.

Let's take a look at what's shaping the world of computers this year.

First, there's the incredible advent of what is called CD-ROM. This is not, as it may seem, some kind of certificate of deposit, but a new way of using the laser disk originally designed to replace the standard phonograph record.

As music-storage devices, these laser-read Compact Discs are quite impressive (they will hold up to 75 minutes of music, with no noise and no scratches, and no wear at all). But in their computer applications, Compact Discs are used as memory storage devices. In a strange coincidence, CDs are almost exactly the same size as the standard storage devices now used for most personal computers, floppy disks.

Computer Compact Discs will hold MUCH more information than floppy disks—we'll get to that in a moment—but there is, for now at least, a significant difference in their functions. Floppy disks work like flattened out cassette tape; information can be recorded on them and then erased to make room for other information later on.

But computer CDs won't be erasable at first. In fact, they won't even be recordable except at the software factory. Once the software company puts the information onto the CD, it's there for good—even ‘til 6871.

The permanent nature of the new medium is the reason it's called CD-ROM (for Read-Only Memory). The disadvantages of not being able to erase a CD-ROM are far outweighed by its storage capacity.

Each single CD can hold the same information as 500 to 1,000 floppy disks. In terms familiar to computer users, a CD-ROm can hold 552 megabytes; stated in the typical way, that translates to 552,000 kilobytes.

To put that in perspective, the typical personal computer has active storage (Random Access Memory) of from 64 to 128 kilobytes, and the floppy disk used with that computer will hold from 80 to 180 kilobytes.

A quick digression is in order. A kilobyte is 1,024 bytes, a byte being the normal "chunk" of information a computer works with. If a computer is used to process words, each byte represents one letter, and 2,048 bytes—usually called "2k"—would represent he contents of a typical typewritten page.

A floppy disk, therefore, can hold about 40 to 80 pages of typed information. A CD-ROM can hold 275,000 pages, enough to store dozens of Encyclopedia Britannicas on A single disk less than 5 inches in diameter.

What use would dozens of Britannicas be? Not much. But its vast storage capacity means a single CD could hold scores of complicated computer programs, such as spreadsheets, while simultaneously containing data bases of many different kinds. If we have temporarily lost you, don't despair. It's not necessary to know anything about CD-ROMs to appreciate what they will do for all of us in making computer storage cheaper, faster and more effecient. A CD-ROM will cost about $20; the same storage capacity in floppy-disk form would run well past $1,000.

CD-ROMs have been demonstrated for about a year, and are expected to reach actual marketing some time this year. Disk players (or disk drives, as computer terminology insists on calling such things) will cost about $1,000 at first, but the price probably will fall to the $200 to $400 range before long.

Some where farther down the line are user-recordable CD-ROMs, but they are likely to be superceded by user-record-and-erase CDs—in other words, CDs that fully replace floppy magnetic disks.

And farther away than that? How about disks that have such incredible storage capacity that they don't need to be erased? Like an endless roll of notepaper, these disks would never fill up.

One such design would hold 500 disks in a single pack. They would store two terabytes of information. For those who have trouble with megabytes, a terabyte is a million of them—in other words, the disk pack would store more than 2,000,000,000,000 bytes. (Computers count funny, so that's how they get more than 2 million in 2 million.)

That works out to 1.1 billion pages of information. Ah, the future is going to be a fun place.

By the way, Ralph, I'm writin this on a micro-computer with 64k memory and sending it to the office at 300 baud. But that's the last time I'll mention it.

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