Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 07/83 item 02 - scanned

WE CAN'T JUST STAND STILL (column)

I quite often find myself standing on the platform waiting for a Metropolitan Line train to trundle along and, since there's nothing better to do, I look at the backs of the buildings that form Finchley Road. One of these buildings has an enormous, but very faded, advertisement which says something about a cleaning outfit. I've looked at this ad many times during the last four years but it's only today that I noticed the rest of the words. They are 'For hygiene use. . .'. It's funny how the last thing on our minds when we go to the cleaners is that the end products are hygienic, we usually think in terms of 'they'll look nice' or 'they'll smell better' or 'they'll be cleaner'. We've actually forgotten the reason that cleaning companies like this one originally went into business.

This got me wondering about things in this industry that we already take for granted and, perhaps more interestingly, what we may be taking for granted a year or two downstream. For example, we'd never imagine buying a micro that needed its own dedicated power supply line or air conditioning. Yet it was only a couple of years ago that minicomputers with the same (or less) processing capability were cocooned in a specially air conditioned room with clean power lines. We take disks and tapes for granted, even on home machines. Yet it wasn't so long ago that the first-time user was being offered a choice between punched cards and punched paper tape. In fact, you can still see traces of this in CP/M where it refers to its devices as PUN and RDR.

The same thing applies to the use of a video screen. Teletypes (CP/M's TTY) and the more grandly named workstations were the order of the day for most users until the very late seventies, possibly even the early eighties. Some of the really esoteric devices allowed you to feed ledger cards in to be updated visibly. This made the user feel better about taking on a computer because it seemed more like an accounting machine. The secret weapon here was a magnetic stripe painted down the back of the card on which all the account details were kept. It may have been crude, but it got an awful lot of companies into computing for the first time.

Now let's move forward a few years. In my parlance few means anything from three to five, after that it becomes several. Colour screens with high resolution graphics will be the norm. People with monochrome computers will be regarded as slightly eccentric, rather like people who watch black and white TV today. A hard disk or possibly battery-backed semi-conductor storage of data and programs will be taken for granted. No doubt every machine will have a standard suite of user-tweakable programs covering database, word processing and spreadsheet. By the time our future arrives there will be other programs of similar universal appeal. Perhaps our machines will use speech synthesis to tell us what's happening rather than display cryptic messages. None of the things I've mentioned are particularly advanced, even today. But the interesting thing is, if these things are taken for granted, what will be the options on which the microcomputers of tomorrow are to be sold?

Speech recognition would seem to make sense, especially for data retrieval applications. Mice or fingers may still be around and going strong as pointing devices. Perhaps we'll be into electrodes slapped on the head, so that all the user need do is think to make the computer respond. You could have a lot of fun trying to interfere with people's thought processes when they're deep in communion with the computer. Holography might become an area of great activity, especially among home computers. At first it will simply mean three dimensional games played in the open but later it could allow the players inside the holographic projection.

I don't know what's going to happen. What I do know is that today's most exciting developments are going to be taken for granted in the next few years. They will become the forgotten components of the computer system, rather as the humble transistor, which made this industry possible, has effectively vanished inside the newer, much more exciting silicon chip. No doubt hygiene was a bit of a buzz word when it first started making the rounds. People who cling too closely to what is happening now without paying attention to the future are in danger of becoming the next wave of 'hygienic' cleaners, still trying to flog something long after everyone else has forgotten that it was ever an issue.