Riffed by Dr. Geek
from an idea by Vitriol


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what a computer is made of these days

I was looking through this morning's Wall Street Journal business section while doing my cardio workout before arriving at my desk today. In it, a technology writer was describing the new numbering scheme that Intel is using to describe their processors. He went on to discuss what the "average" consumer needs when buying a personal computer these days. The machine was configured like this:

Memory: 256MB (512MB preferred)
Display adapter memory: 32MB (64MB preferred)
Disk size: 40GB minimum (80-100GB common)
CPU: almost any new microprocessor will do (at least 1.5GHz)

I must be in the computer game for too long, because this configuration seems HUGE to my eyes. That disk drive size in particular seems enormous. I run multiple operating systems on my computer at home, and the main hard drive I use is only 20GB in size... and I only use that much because the operating systems gobble up most of that space.

Looking at my personal data needs for the last 10 years or so, I think I've only generated less than 2GB of e-mail, documents, and spreadsheets (including a Master's thesis and Ph.D. dissertation.) True, I could take up 10GB of space and digitize around 200 CDs worth of music (less than half my collection) but that seems like overkill. Barring that kind of data-intensive application, I can only think that the average user could generously get by with much less than 40GB of disk.

I think the need for so much memory is the fault of Microsoft. Memory is like crack for Microsoft Windows; Windows can't get enough of the stuff. I can't decide if that is because of poor design or just based on the fact that Microsoft takes an "everything including the kitchen sink" approach to operating system design. I wish they would stop it, but they won't. When the next version of Windows comes out (code-named Longhorn), the new searching and multimedia features of the operating system will bring the recommended amount of memory to 512MB.

In any case, my basic feeling is that we've moved beyond the "bread and butter" computing needs of a lot of the computer-buying public these days, and new technology is just providing enjoyable but not necessary improvements in speed and response time. (I do not speak of computer game players here, by the way... they now drive the market for high end personal computers. To play all the latest games well, you need the computing equivalent of a Formula One race car.) With that in mind, I have my own list of things I would like to see happen in the personal computer space:

  • Less complicated "productivity suites" -- the big joke among business efficiency experts is that Microsoft Office is probably the biggest impediment to office productivity ever invented. Let's face it: why bother working on a report when you can spend all your time making the fonts look pretty and insert clip art everywhere? Let's not even bother to ask if home users need all those features. I want a more compact office suite that lets people handle day-to-day business (letters, memos, budget their time and money, check spelling and grammar, organize books/CDs/recipes) and skips over all the desktop publishing features that will only be needed by a tech writer at work.
  • A different design for the personal computer itself -- Right now, changing hardware on a computer is akin to changing equipment on the engine of a car. To change anything, you have to be ready to pull the engine out of the car, take it apart, and then add what you want. I would much rather it be like buying stereo components -- you have a stack of single function pieces of equipment. If you want to change one, you break a small number of connections, replace the unit, and redo the broken connections. In any case, there must be an easier way than the method used now.
  • Less environmental impact -- I mean this in several senses. I read recently that every new computer made uses up 1.2-1.5 TONS of fossil fuels in its construction. I would like a more environmentally friendly computer to construct and dispose (you do NOT want to landfill a computer, trust me...) I would like a computer that doesn't add $5 a month to my electric bill if I keep it on 24/7. Advances in processor speed come at the price of increased power consumption. Soon we won't be able to buy the latest generation of computers because the utility providers won't be able to meet the need. I also want a computer that is silent.
  • Better user interfaces for software -- I think the Apple people always lead the way here, but, even they could do better. I honestly feel like a modern day mage when it comes to operating computers. It really is magic; you need to have a number of specific incantations memorized to use the damn thing. I think it's no wonder that the cross section of people who work with computers and who also used to play Dungeons & Dragons and Magic The Gathering and who read Tolkien novels is pretty is pretty huge. If you have a jones for magic spells, a computer is an excellent way to get your fix. I read that women particularly find the interface for computers to be very "male" and "unintuitive". I'm not positive about that, but, I work with computers enough to know that there is a certain mental stance required to interact with a computer, and it would great if the computer came more to you than you have to go to it to deal with it.

I wish I could say that all of this was going to happen tomorrow, but it won't. There are good business and/or technical reasons why it can't happen right away. In any case, it's something to shoot for.

said drgeek on 2004-04-22 at 3:08 p.m.


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