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TerraTrends/09-Sep-91

[Editor's Note: This is the first in what will hopefully be a long string of columns from John C. Fuller probing the edges and the futures of computing. We have no plans for a regular production schedule, so TerraTrends will come out whenever John has a column ready to go - same sort of semi-sporadic schedule as our other pseudo-regular columns. Please feel free to send comments, questions, and suggestions to John at jcf@tidbits.uucp. Alternately, if you can get mail to me, I'll forward it. -Adam]

by John C. Fuller

History has shown me mercy by presenting so much to write in the month of August as I prepare this first issue of TerraTrends, in particular the joining of Apple and IBM in what we users might refer to as a hopeful parallel to "Industrial Light and Magic[tm]". For that is just what we could hope for, were we to be so hopeful in this purview.

The title TerraTrends has a multiplicity of meanings in reference to the trends of the world we live in, the mega-mega-trends which will follow the Megatrends of Naisbitt, which will be teratrends within our lifetimes if the explosion of technology continues in the manner to which it has become accustomed. This first column will lay the groundwork for the columns to be built upon it in the future, and hopefully lay the groundwork for some interaction between TidBITS readers and your columnist. To effect this beginning your columnist would like to present a very small, telescoped history of where our technology is, where it came from, and where it will be shortly.

How do the current generation of inexpensive computers compare to what we have seen in the past? And how will they compare to those of the future? Let us take a 386SX or a Mac LC as an example. Generally the Mac prices are not quite in the same competitive league as what we see for PC clones from discount firms. (Your columnist is not involved with any retailer or manufacturer.) For the sake of using a popularly available comparison, please tolerate the examples of 80x86 machines available from a wide set of distribution sources.

These current machines are available for approximately $1500, in what is currently advertised as complete systems. (Apparently there must have been some feedback from the earlier advertising campaigns which included systems priced without monitors, et al) They have reasonable speed and reasonably high resolution, but not enough of either to delve into the current graphics bug-a- boo, fractals. Nonetheless, your columnist is not aware of too many folks out there who require their computers to do much in the way of number-crunching or better than VGA graphics. The storage of these mid-priced computers is heading toward the 100 MB barrier, and floppies are standardizing at 1.44 MB. A different variety of bundled software is available at most distributors. If you happen to like what they give you, great for you, but if you don't, it is unlikely you will find any value to it. A year ago a similar amount of money would have bought you only a 286 and half as much storage, and you probably would have had to pay extra for the same quality monitor and video card. Unless the bugs Intel is having with the 486-50 cause lower level troubles, the prices of slower 486 machines should enter the above arenas in another year or two. What does this mean to the average user?

First will be the speed. A 16 MHz 486 should be four to five times faster than the 386SX, which will make tedious jobs far more bearable. This type of machine will probably also break the 100 MB barrier and will probably come with 4 MB of RAM, all as standard features in a machine that will probably start its career at approximately $3,000 and eventually be the $1500 special of the month. Unix users will probably find uses for ever increasing amounts of memory (some 486 Unix boxes already have 64 MB of RAM, which is hard to consider when so many machines currently on the market have approximately the same amount of magnetic storage). It appears likely that we will eventually have machines in which all the normal applications will be stored in RAM with only the large outputs from those applications stored on the disks.

With the joining of Apple and IBM, rumors have appeared that the 80x86 chip is going the way of the dinosaur. If this is the case, then the above will have to translated into terms of 680x0 prices and performance. Since TidBITS is a primarily Mac-oriented journal, it might be helpful for your columnist to solicit information on the 680x0 chips and their related hardware from the readership.

Since the orientation of TerraTrends is toward applications of personal computers in all areas, including networking, the discussions of machines and operating systems would necessarily have to include DOS, Mac, and Unix and the hardware discussions would have to include 680x0 and 80x86 chips. As other items of hardware and software enter and leave the arena, the discussion will have to be somewhat modified.

Your columnist has heard of current machines with storage on the order of terabyte amounts, and of discussions of future types of storage which will be measured in LOC's (1 LOC is the storage requirement of the entire Library of Congress). Apparently the specs on the 80786 have been out for some time, and a few samples of the 80586 are out there at quite high prices, though they are much faster than any of the 80486 chips. Partitions of hundreds of megabytes are available now in all operating systems. Since few personal computers of the mid-1980s had more than a small multiple of five megabytes of disk space, and since more and more PCs have multiples in the gigabyte range, it would be hard not to predict terabytes in the not-to-distant future.

Hopefully this initial column has neither said too much nor too little. If either is the case, a helpful prod would be most appreciated from the readership. Next time a slight jump ahead into the non-technical applications requiring massive storage and speed.

Until then I remain,
Your obedient columnist,

John C. Fuller

Information from:
John C. Fuller