Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, August 26, 2011

What in the world is happening to computers?

Think of a computer. You probably thought of the iconic desktop computer with some kind of box, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse and maybe a printer. If you are like me, you also thought of the huge tangle of cables running all over my desk and onto the floor. You may have also thought about a few other things, all adding to the pile and tangle; an external hard drive (or two or three), a speaker system, perhaps a scanner. All this is rapidly changing. You may have missed my note a few days ago about Hewlett Packard's (HP) abandonment of the PC market by selling its PC division. This essentially means that there may be no more HP computers sold. So why does the largest manufacturer of PCs abandon the market? The answer is simple,  there is no longer a viable PC market.

What is a "big box" computer? The term "computer" is very, very ambiguous when used to refer to any specific configuration of electronic components. If you are as old as I am, you can distinctly recall computers that were much larger than the house I now live in. These massive boxes of tubes and circuits took up whole floors of buildings and had their own cooling systems. The idea that these massive computers could be carried around in your pocket was not only impossible, it wasn't even science fiction. Not one science fiction writer even dared to predict that computers would become so pervasive that they would fit in hand-held telephone. What is more, almost no one could imagine the entire world instantly connected through a vast network of wireless communications devices. What is more, these devices have keyboards and screens and play new release full color movies on demand.

It is tautological to say that computers are becoming faster and smaller. Of course they are. My grandchildren could not imagine a world where you couldn't pick up a cell phone and ask a question about anything in the world and get an answer in a few seconds. They also could not imagine a world where they couldn't talk to their friends or relatives while driving across the deserts of northern Arizona at 65 mph. But what is happening even more than these incremental changes is a complete re-orientation in the way computers are used and configured.

Here are some examples. I don't have a computer and a monitor. I have a monitor that has my entire computer including a huge hard disk drive. You see, I have an iMac. Also there is no messy cable connecting my keyboard and mouse to the computer. Theoretically, if I could see that far, I could sit across the room and operate my computer. Also, when I walk out of the room where my computer is located, I don't leave it behind. I pick up my iPhone and have almost all the same programs and connectivity I have with my so-called desktop computer. If I wanted to spend a few dollars, I could get rid of almost all the cables on and under my desk. Using WiFi, I can connect to a printer, even if the printer is in another room. Using that same WiFi system, I can use my laptop computer anywhere in my house.

What about the mouse? It is mostly on the way out also. Apple has a touch pad on their laptops that works without buttons. You click the touch pad. I have never liked touch pads and with my previous laptop computers, I always carried around a mouse to plug into the computer. No more. I love the touch pad on the MacBookPro and I am thinking about upgrading to the new Lion OS from Apple and getting a touch pad for my iMac. No more death grip on the mouse.

These changes may seem superficial but there are more changes on the way. What about the iPad. You might recall that the media universally excoriated Apple for coming out with a "useless" machine that no one wanted. The latest news reports show tens of millions of sales with more millions upon millions predicted. Some people, like my wife, are moving away from the traditional desktop model of computing to using the iPad almost exclusively, yes, with a keyboard. Even some of my most conservative and least innovative friends are moving to iPads. They are showing up in some of the most extraordinarily unexpected places.

So why did HP quit (or is going to quit)? Easy, they cannot compete with Apple. Right now, no one can. How long will Apple's initiative last? Only as long as it take Google to make computers. Oh by the way, have you heard of the Chrome Computer?

So what does this mean to genealogists? We are consumers of computers whether we like it or not. For my part, my iPhone/iPad/iMac/MacBookPro combination has fundamentally changed the way I work. But what is more, WiFi has liberated me from the wires. I can now sit in the Family History Center and work on my own computer without paying a connection charge. Because of programs like DropBox, when I get home the same document I just worked on is on my iMac (and my iPhone and the iPad). I can drive to Salt Lake and sit in a conference and have the same documents I have at home and when I get home, I don't have to "transfer" anything, it is all updated automatically.

I could go on and probably will, but not right now.


  1. Isaac Asimov uses the term "pocket computer" in End of Eternity (1955) and the term "tabulator pad" in Foundation (1951). Though I think these devices were closer to calculators, since that's what even the huge computers were doing in the 1950s.

  2. iPods and their ilk remind me of the PADD in Star Trek. For myself, I am a troglodyte. I do not feel the need to be connected every second of every day. In fact, I love solitude and being out of touch. I cringe when I see what I saw today in a parking lot. Mother and son getting out of a SUV, both of them with cell phones to their ears. I'm horrified. I see Bluetooth on people's ears, and I think (again with a Star Trek reference), "We have met the Borg, and they are us."

    However, I do find computers useful. I have an ASUS laptop which has replaced my desktop machine. The ASUS is far more powerful, it is faster, and it has more storage capacity than the desktop. But I do not have any need to be connected to all and sundry with several devices all synched together. I can get my work done just fine with a traditional laptop PC. And I do not think we are seeing the death of the PC.