Oh How Far We Have Come!

By David L. Brown

In 1965 Gordon E. Moore, a co-founder of Intel Corp., wrote a paper in which he predicted that computing power would continue to increase exponentially, that is, doubling again and again. Moore noted that since the invention of transistors, about seven years before, the number of components (switches) that could be put on a single integrated circuit chip had doubled approximately every year. He claimed that that trend would continue “for at least ten years.”

Well, what has become known as “Moore’s Law” turned out to be an understatement. Since his paper appeared, computing power has continued to double, not every year but every 18 to 24 months, regular as clockwork. And while contrarians have often claimed the end is in sight, technology has continued to roll forward. Present estimates are that Moore’s Law will continue  to hold true until at least 2015, and the promise of new methods coming over the horizon may extend the exponential expansion even further. And, oh yes, should quantum computing become a developed technology, it could go even faster and further to almost unimaginable levels of storage and computing power. In a few years, you may be able to hold the entire contents of the Library of Congress in one hand while scratching your head with the other.

Words are great things, and it is my personal belief that despite the old saying they are more powerful than pictures. Sometimes, though…well, here’s an example.

storage-1980-2010crop1What you see here are two forms of computer storage, one from 30 years ago and one from today. On the left is an eight-unit IBM 3380 Disk System from 1980. Each of the eight units can hold 2.5 GB of data, so the total capacity of the array is 20 GB. The estimated cost of this system ranged to more than $1 million. It weighs about 4400 pounds. This was an advanced example of the cutting-edge technology that had put a man on the Moon.

On the right, by way of comparison, we see three 32 GB micro SD flash memory cards from today. Each card has more than half again more capacity than the complete IBM array from 30 years ago, and together the three cards could store nearly five times as much as the eight units of the old hard disk unit. The weight of a single flash memory chip is about half a gram, or 1/70th of an ounce. You can buy a 32 GB flash card for less than a hundred bucks, and Apple’s latest iPod and iPhone products, not to mention the new iPad, can be ordered with that much memory. Prices are sure to come down fast as new, even larger capacity products hit the market.

Flash cards are ubiquitous these days, used to store image files in digital cameras, music in iPods, digital books in readers like the Kindle, and increasingly in a host of other devices. including cell phones and game consoles. Flash memory is rugged and far more compact than hard disks.

To get an idea of the amount of storage capacity involved, a 32 GB iPod can hold enough music so that you could listen to songs while flying round-trip from Los Angeles to New York City and back 35 times before a track repeated. (Not that that sounds like anything one might want to do!) That’s several hundred hours of music, all in a device that fits in your shirt pocket. And, oops, lookout! The latest iPod Touch can now be ordered with 64 GB of memory, enough to hold 7000 songs. The  advanced model of the new iPad, coming soon, will also boast 64 GB of flash memory.

And the flash memory story is only part of the picture. These days you can buy a 1 TB hard drive (that’s terabytes, or 1000 GB) for around eighty bucks, and a 4 TB drive for about five times that much. The 4 TB drive could hold 1600 times more data than the million-dollar-plus IBM array from 30 years ago. Whew! My first Mac came with a 40 MB hard drive, and that was real kick-ass computing back in 1989.

These examples apply to storage, but Moore’s Law is alive and well in terms of computer processing, too. It’s  nothing short of astounding what has emerged, and continues to emerge, into the world of computing. When I think back to the “old days” when I wrote with an electric typewriter backed up by a copy machine and the U.S. Postal Service (never mind the “really old days” of  mechanical typewriters and carbon paper!), it’s hard to imagine the differences that have occurred.

1977I’ll conclude with a personal anecdote about my first contact with computer-driven gadgetry. In 1974 I was operating a communications agency, and one of our biggest expenses was to buy typesetting services for the magazines, newsletters, brochures and other things we produced for our clients. The old hot metal typesetters, Linotypes and the like, were just nearing their end, being replaced by computerized photo-typesetters. I bought one of those newfangled machines and we used it for about ten years. The system took up two rooms with its keyboard input and punched paper tape editing terminal. Total cost: About $55,000. (The new, three bedroom house I had purchased two years before cost ten grand less than that.) At left is a newspaper clipping from the 1970s featuring a picture of the Mergenthaler V-I-P phototypesetter similar to the one I owned.

Back in those early days of computing, that machine, for all its high cost, had some built-in memory, 8 kilobytes to be exact. That’s KB, not MB, and certainly not GB. And that wasn’t storage memory, but operating system memory. All data was on rolls of punched paper tape. We used old-fashioned spring clothespins to keep the tapes from unrolling. And storage? Well, sure — we had storage. We hung the tape rolls on a pegboard. Ah, technology!

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