The Death of the Computer

Kaypro II Computer by Kaypro Corporation

The first computer that I put my hands on was a Kaypro.  My older brother got a job as a programmer and this was his instrument.  It was a “portable” computer that was in a box that looked more like a sewing machine than a computer.  The bottom of this “box” unlatched and revealed a keyboard and a CRT.  It weighed a ton, ran CP/M and whatever programs you could fit onto a 256K floppy drive.  Since that time the computer has evolved considerably.  Computers got faster, memory increased, monitors turned color and communication became easier.  Computers took over our desktops, filled our briefcases and then infiltrated our phones.

There used to be Computer stores that you could go to buy a computer.  Where do you go today?  If there is a computer store in your town, I bet it feels more like an antique dealer than a sleek, modern, cutting-edge store.  Computers seem more like office furniture than a vibrant display of the future.  Why is the computer dying?

At the heart of the “computer” is a piece of silicon where all the “processing” is done.  It is called the microprocessor.  It is a specialized electrical circuit that processes data extremely fast.  Since the invention of the microchip, changes have been advancing the manufacturing of the microchip that double the capacity and cut the size in half about every two years.  This phenomenon was observed and predicted by Gordon Moore in 1965 and is commonly called Moore’s law.  This is the real culprit behind the changes in the computer.  On the cutting edge, this has produced faster, more powerful processors that are much smaller and cost roughly the same as the previous generation.  In its wake is an increasingly cheaper supply of relatively powerful processors.  There are now microprocessors that could have run the Kaypro that cost less than a dollar today.  Full, single board computers can be purchased for less than ten dollars.  Moore’s law turned computers into a new commodity.

Computers were designed to be very versatile.  We could add new ways to interact with the programs running inside the computer.  Computers have lots of connection points, ports, to add additional hardware.  When the computer was expensive, it makes sense to provide lots of options to how to expand the computer.  When the computer is cheap, it becomes much more sensible to just connect what is needed to the “computer”.  That way you can have lots of computers for all the different kinds of stuff that you need to be done.  Now the “computer” is “embedded” in whatever needs the processing.  With the microprocessor, some power and a few ways to connect to the processor you have a tiny and cheap way to make anything run a program.

While the computer of my childhood is quickly disappearing, computers aren’t dead.  They very much are alive and multiplying all around us.  Cheap, custom designed computers are all around us.  If what you are holding has an “on” button and communicates with something else, chances are good, it is a computer.

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