Monday, November 12, 2012

The Software Roundabout

In computing, products come and go at an amazingly fast pace.  That's true of hardware and it's doubly true of software.  Yet, the ideas behind software have their own lifetime.  There are innovations, yes, but these are relatively rare.  Mostly, we combine and recombine ideas, optimising for different things, adjusting and trying different compromises as hardware allows us to do more practically.

Good ideas can appear 'ahead of their time', be implemented crudely, then disappear for a while only to reappear in new forms or combined with other ideas or technologies.  Ideas get packaged and repackaged at different times for different platforms.  While the world of commercial software is typically subject to the 'drag' of the market and the need to ensure the continuance and growth of revenues, we do thankfully also have the academic, hobbyist and commercial start-up worlds that continue to try new things.

Arguably, we have entered an exciting new cycle of innovation, experimentation and advancement as some of the hoary old incumbent computing platforms and models give way (at least somewhat) to new things.  Ubiquitous desktop computing developed over a couple of decades, during which Microsoft guided its Windows OS into a totally dominant position, while the hardware manufacturers made computers ever more cheaply until they were truly commodity items.  However, for the last five years or so, things felt like they were getting really stale.  PCs were cheap enough (in fact most hardware manufacturers seemed to concentrate on making almost the same hardware cheaper every year), but computing was far from offering the visions of supporting our activities while we worked, played and lived.  For that we needed devices, full-time connectivity, universal identity and presence with a raft of software technologies build around people and their relationships rather than a disconnected desktop machine. 

Apple, to their credit, have been instrumental in showing us the way with new systems - to say the very least, they have bumped the industry and the consumers out of a certain paralysis and showed how 'smart' phones, tablets, app stores can work.  Google has demonstrated the power of the web like never before with searchable information, mapping and other essentially free high-value applications.  Facebook is the most successful of the companies that realised that human social interactions could be amplified with computer networks as a new medium.  

While the PC remains a "terminal device" into the world of web and cloud, with both business information and social information melding on a single fabric, the species increasingly seems out-evolved by portable devices.  If the PC has to stay sat in one place, then we will increasingly be expecting our digital world to appear on any PC has we sit down to use it, even if there are still ergonomic reasons for the PC form-factor for certain kinds of activity.

So, mainstream computing seems to be going interesting places again at last.  We watch and wait to see whether tablets become Apple's Knowledge Navigator, or if IBM's Watson becomes HAL, or if the internet turns into Skynet :-)  In the meantime, I also enjoy looking backward at the great ideas and software products that didn't become mainstream.  I entered the workforce at the dawn of personal computing, just as things were evolving from centralized computing models of mainframes, minis and terminals.  These are some of the remarkable products that I've seen and touched:
  • Micros (ZX81, ZX Spectrum, BBC B, Sinclair QL, Einstein, Enterprise, Atari ST, Amiga)
  • VMS minis (VAX)
  • UNIX minis (Sequent, HP)
  • NeXTStation
  • PSS, FidoNet, Prestel, Demon Internet
  • Workstations (e.g. Sun 3/50, 3/60, DECStation)
  • Psion Organiser, Series 3, Series 5, Series 7.
  • Apple Newton
  • Windows NT
  • Mac OS X
  • Linux
  • Apple devices: iPod, iPhone, iPad with their service ecosystems
This blog will, rather randomly, explore some personal sentiments about the evolution of computing as I have experienced it, and in many ways how I continue to experience ideas and products from the past as a surprising about of historical software artifacts continue to live on in one from or another.

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