Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 02/85 item 01 - scanned

ONWARDS TO THE LASER AGE (column)

What did you think of 1984? For me it was a sort of 'lost' year. The industry seemed to stagnate in both a commercial and a technological sense. By contrast I believe that 1985 will be the start of another exciting phase for us. All sorts of opportunities are going to present themselves this year and form the basis for many new products and companies. Sadly, I also share the general view that our industry is in for an almighty shakeout.

People swift on their feet may be able to avert disaster by changing their focus of attention or by embracing some of the emerging technologies. With companies like IBM dropping hardware prices, upping machine specifications and coming out with cheap software, it's time for a swing perhaps to the service side of the industry.

In 1985 I think we'll see the long overdue flowering of communications. Prestel seems to have been more a diversion than anything and we should now see an expansion in the range of useful dial-up services. Micro/mainframe links will become more widely used and the perception of the micro as an intelligent work station will grow, especially as prices tumble. This year microcomputer communications will finally lose its mystique thanks to a combination of good software, simple communications equipment and a range of genuinely useful services.

This will lead to the realisation that our public telephone networks can't move data around anywhere near fast enough. Not only that but many of us have the irritation of having to be physically connected to the end of a cable. The telephone system will be perceived as inhibiting a factor as the man with the red flag. Since a fully optical/digital network is still some way off, perhaps the cellular radio/telephone network will gallop to the rescue. If people driving round in cars can talk to whoever they please why can't a person on the 6:30 to Edinburgh extract database information from the office mainframe through his notebook computer?

With cellular radio becoming firmly established in 1985 and perhaps even getting popular in 1986, we may have a mechanism to bring a whole new meaning to the concept of portable computing. The next item on my agenda for 1985, and I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief here, is the advent of the 32-bit microprocessor chip. Most mainframes and minis found 32-bits quite enough to run all but the most sophisticated tasks. Let's hope that chip designs are about to stabilise and that money spent on machines of the next generation (4 1/2 ?) will be regarded as an investment rather than keeping up with fashion. Software developers will be able to concentrate on new types of software rather than dissipate their energies on rewriting programs to fit the latest architecture.

On the subject of architecture 1985 will be the year that parallel processing catches on. In America, the multi-processor machines will become visible, while here in the UK we should see the first use of the Transputer in Alice. At present Alice is a paper machine but as soon as Inmos produces the Transputers a consortium of Imperial College, ICL, Plessey and Manchester University Consortium will bolt it together. Parallel processing will eventually lead to developments such as speech recognition in real time. Even mundane tasks will run much faster and low cost multis will compete with mainframes costing several times as much.

Vision systems will catch on this year, especially those which can scan printed pages and convert the characters into ASCII. I'd just love a computer to browse through all the magazines and papers for me, perhaps presenting me with two files - one containing a list of material known to be of interest to me and another containing a list of material lacking any 'accept' or 'reject' keywords. I'd be invited to accept or reject the contents of the second file thus expanding the system's knowledge of my preferences. Within a short space of time, and without too smart a program, I could save myself many 'sifting' hours a week. It will become even better when drawings can be stored in a symbolic form rather than as a space-gobbling bit-map.

Compact audio discs will make great peripherals in 1985 and the potential there for some 'K-Tel' type of software publisher is amazing. (Perhaps I should have a go myself.) You could put your six favourite spreadsheets, word processors, data management programs and flog them at loony prices. How about £10,000 of software for £50? Or even £100. It would be amazing value for money and would easily justify the purchase of a laser disc drive.

And 1985 will also be the year in which we should all do everything in our power to strengthen the UK computer industry. Companies like Inmos, Sinclair and ACT are all having a damned good try and, rightly, they aim for excellence and competitiveness to secure orders.

Unless we become more outward-looking we will certainly become a third world country in the not too distant future. The UK market simply isn't big enough for us unless we manage to frighten IBM and Japan away.