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The computing future

The computing future

Dec 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Kevin McNamara

It’s always fun to write about the future of technology because it permits us to combine reality with imagination. It has been said that the best way to predict the future is to look into the past. To put it into perspective, many of the products you’ll use in two years haven’t been invented yet.

When I started in this business more than 28 years ago, many transmitter sites were still manned, logs were recorded manually and state-of-the-art automation used multiplayer cart machines along with several reel-to-reel players. Originally, a simple relay-based control ladder operated many of these systems. While solid-state components were found in most devices, the consensus among many engineers was “anything that doesn’t use relays can’t possibly last.” That mindset changed quickly, but the point is that this industry has always been slow to adopt new technology.

Consider that the majority of radio stations jumped on the Internet bandwagon only within the last three to five years, much later than other industries, even newspapers. Radio has consistently lagged behind other industries in its application of new technologies by a factor of five years or more. Given this trend, predicting the future of computing in our industry is easy. Look at what is hot now and, chances are, you’ll be using some of it in the next year or two.

It’s about the CPU The good news is that CPUs are getting faster while consuming less power; the bad news is that you can’t buy programs to take advantage of that power. In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted the number of transistors on a chip would double each year. That prediction was updated in 1995 to transistors doubling every two years.We know this theory as Moore’s axiom, and it has held remarkably true for nearly 40 years. The software guys didn’t have such a visionary. In most cases, operating systems are the limiting factor for application performance. Don’t believe it? Find two PCs with identical hardware and attach them to the same segment of a network. Load one with any of the current flavors of Windows and another with Linux. Using any of the network sniffer analyzer program and a large uncompressed file, measure the network throughput of the file as it transfers from each machine. You’ll notice the Linux machine will always perform faster due to the additional overhead required by various operating systems.

As usual, this year’s Comdex in Las Vegas became the venue for the Silicon Valley’s finest to unveil the latest and greatest technologies. Several manufacturers announced the availability of workstations using the Intel Pentium 4 chip for less than $2,000. The Pentium 4 chip currently touts operating speeds of 1.4- and 1.5GHz, both of which surpass AMD’s Athlon. One drawback of the P4 chip is its inability to support dual processor configurations that are found on high-end workstations and lower-end servers. Currently, the P4 will only work with Rambus memory. It is expected these issues will be worked out with the next generation of the P4.

Not to be outdone, AMD announced a new series of chips with names like Duron, Mustang, Palomino, Morgan, Thoroughbred and Appaloosa. Although the Clydesdale and Quarter Horse are noticeably missing from the series, these chips promise speeds starting at 1.2GHz and will increase to over 2GHz by the first half of 2002.

A new player, Transmeta, introduced the Crusoe series of chips. Although the company’s approach is to produce chips that work more efficiently and consume far less power than what is currently available, these chips are considered under-powered at 500MHz. The speed of the chip is expected to increase to 700MHz during the first quarter of 2001. Clearly, these chips are poised to address the next generation of computing appliances, particularly the devices that will combine your mobile phone, Palm-Pilot and laptop computer. It is just a matter of time.

One thing is true: the introduction of any new processor always leads to a significant price drop for current systems. We should see the 1GHz Pentium 3 systems available for less than $1,000 by January.

I believe we have finally reached a performance plateau with the currently available hardware. At this point, upgrading your system from a Pentium 3 to one of these faster systems would likely not provide any significant speed improvement. The next generation of operating systems and applications will provide that next-level performance, but don’t expect to see it soon.

High-speed Internet access Rather than the speed of the hardware, the future of computing will be determined by the speed of Internet access. Aside from its rich source of information, the Internet will also provide the applications that we currently purchase at the store. Moreover, high-speed access will finally permit the PC to become a viable multimedia device, allowing playback and delivery of flicker-free audio and video.

The FCC has released statistics about the availability of high-speed Internet access (a minimum of 200kb/s in both directions). The use of high-speed lines connecting small businesses and homes has increased by 57 percent, or 4.3 million lines, since 1999. DSL use increased 157 percent to 1 million lines, with other delivery methods such as wireless, fiber, satellite and wired services increasing at least 18 percent in the first half of this year.

Although DSL service is available in most large metros, it is physically limited by the cable length from the central office. Cable delivery is limited to those systems that have the proper infrastructure, and many systems are not capable of data delivery.

Several new companies are providing alternative wireless high-speed access for homes and businesses. Wireless systems are easy to deploy and typically cover a large footprint without the expense typically associated with wires. This market is also driven by a combination of falling equipment prices and the availability of carrier-class, designed to operate in the unlicensed ISM and UNII bands.

Teligent and Winstar are providing businesses with wireless voice and high-speed data at costs less than that of the local bell company. Technologies like Bluetooth seamlessly integrate your Palm device with the Internet. E-mail can be checked from your pager. Web access and e-mail are available on your PCS phone. And a new technology called 3G is expected to be deployed in this country in the next 2 years, extending the data capabilities of your mobile phone to allow high-speed connections while driving.

All this amounts to better performance, reliability and lower costs. I look forward to the future.