Thursday, April 26, 2012

Futures Past

Lets see.  What happened in the early 1970s?  Carly Simon was singing about anticipation while Harry Nilson put the lime in the coconut.  The movie the Godfather hit the theaters.  The Watergate scandal erupted.  Atari was founded and introduced the first video game, Pong. Telephones were analog devices with dials (remember those?) that attached to the wall via a wire.  An HP-35 calculator would set you back $395 (that's about $2100 in 2012 dollars).
Cell phones, iPods, Personal computers and Apple didn't yet exist.

Meanwhile, Xerox released this video promoting their Alto computer.  Pretty impressively modern looking considering it was ~40 years ago.

Just as a little reality check.  The Xerox Alto had a whopping 128k of RAM and a 2.5MB hard drive.  That is 0.000016 time the RAM and 0.000005 times the disk space of the computer that I'm writing this post on.  Sure, we have color screens and a few other advancements, but they had the mouse, windows, networking, WYSIWYG printing, etc.  Somehow they made it all work.  It wasn't just a vision of the future, it was an incredible feat of engineering.  So, I really don't want to hear people whining about how their computer only has 4GB of RAM or that with 20GB of disk available they are almost out of room.  Come on...

I was fortunate enough to use these machines and their descendants at the University of Rochester (some years later) and they formed an important part of my view of what technology can do.  Now, although I have to go to the computer history museum to see an Alto, I'm sort of surprised by how much things are still the same.  The mobile revolution we are seeing now is the first real change to this vision in nearly 40 years.