That Was Then, This Is Now

With all the talk about how prices on this, that, and the other thing are always going up, let’s stop a moment and bow, or at least give a polite nod, toward Silicon Valley, Poughkeepsie, and Boston’s Route 128. A rather more reverent appreciation is due entrepreneurialism, capitalism, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the past 40 years, the tech titans of the FPCE (Founding PC Era) have given us the greatest ongoing upgrade at the biggest continuing discount ever. The saga of the personal computer is as fantastic a tale as any sci-fi story ever.

Progress through self-seeking

In fact, truth isn’t just stranger than fiction—it’s often got more magic and miracles in it, too. And, I hasten to add, the progress whose techie little handiwork you enjoy daily is brought to you by a whole parade of people, groups, companies, and cabals all pursuing their own ends, competing more often than cooperating, looking to make a buck, and generally proving Adam Smith right.

PC - Going Back in Time

The longer you’ve been using computers—and some of us had the original Apple, Tandy (Radio Shack), and Timex Sinclair models in the 1970s—the more you can appreciate the astonishing speed of progress. This is a tale that everyone working with computers really should know, and uses terms that everyone really should understand. If you don’t understand a kilo-this from a mega-that, you will never get the full impact of this amazing tale. So read on—you’ll be glad you did.

You can visit PC.net or one of the other great online tech glossaries when you see a new term, but I’ve written such a way that you should understand much of it in context. Some of you, of course, are true experts, so if I’ve erred in any way, by commission or omission, let me know. I’m going to demonstrate just how much technological progress has been made in “personal computing.” It really is an awe-inspiring tale.

Basic computers in 1981

IBM introduced its first consumer-level personal computer in August of 1981, running on an Intel 8088 CPU with a clock speed of 4.77MHz, or 4.77 million cycles per second. It came with either 16 or 64kB of RAM, expandable to a whopping 256kB. It connected to a TV or a monitor, and gave you storage options that included one or two 5¼-inch floppy drives, an optional 10MB external hard drive, or your own cassette recorder. The software bundle? It came with an operating system. Nothing else.

With a monitor and a single floppy drive (giving you 180kB storage per single sided disk) it cost $3005 in 1981 dollars. Depending on how you figure it—Consumer Price Index (CPI) is one common method—today it would take about $2.57 to buy what a dollar bought in 1981. Translation: That IBM-PC computer would cost $7,722.85 (in today’s dollars). Now let’s see what type of desktop computer you can get today.

High-end computers of today

Entry-level computers today are thousands of times faster and more productive than the IBM-PC. The H-P xw8400 was a high-end model in 2006, but it’s still a decent workhorse today and, arguably, is better than many newer models as an entry-level workstation. It features dual 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon processors, meaning eight separate CPUs. A single one runs almost 600 times faster than the IBM CPU, so we’re talking almost 5,000 times as fast with a rough clock speed comparison.

The xw8400’s 160GB hard drive, one-sixth the size of most desktop internal drives these days, holds close to million (932,000) times as much data as that single floppy. There are now hard drives 2TB in size selling for $80—that’s 250MB for a penny, versus the floppy’s 250MB for $7,500 ($30 per MB). That’s 750,000 times less expensive.

For the monitor, the comparison is between today’s 16 million crisp clear colors, precisely displayed by about 2.3 million pixels, with about 9,700 pixels per square inch—and a black-and-white TV with 480 wiggly lines for the entire screen. Today a 20-to-24-inch flat-panel display, bargain basement variety (which are darn good), would set you back as little as $100.

In 1985, when you could get a color MacII for $3,898 without a hard drive, or $5,498 with an internal 40 MB hard drive, you still had to buy a video card and a monitor. That would come to an additional five grand or so. Color system with 40MB hard drive: Over $10,000. Today?

How about we just say, “Infinitely more for infinitely less” and leave it at that?

Bottom line

Today, you can store a million times as much, crunch numbers thousands of times faster, and watch videos in beautiful, high-definition color. For a few hundred bucks you can buy a pocket-sized tablet incalculably more powerful than the room-sized, air-conditioned behemoth that helped send Apollo 11 to the moon—and you don’t have to be a programmer to use it, either.

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