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Have we reached a plateau in computers?

Yesterday I went to London, a regrettably rare occurrence these days but all the more special as I took the High Speed train for the first time. I was enjoying wafting through the countryside at hitherto unknown speeds. Out of curiosity I took out my phone and checked the speed on my GPS. We seemed to be travelling around 130-135mph most of the way. While I realize that there are trains elsewhere in the world that can travel considerably faster, the primary selling point of this service is its speed. It struck me that it’s not actually that much faster than we were capable of 70 years ago. OK, so this is an nice new express service. It’s clean, quiet, reasonably punctual and convenient – but in terms of ground breaking speed, it’s not that big a leap forward compared to how we traveled three generations ago. Not like cars… Well maybe – OK modern cars are much more safe, more comfortable, more reliable even, than they were in the past, but are they actually much faster? Given a deep enough bank balance I can walk into a showroom and drive out in a car capable of 200mph. Mind you, I could have bought a car in 1955 that would do 192mph (with a bit of preparation). Despite what vehicle makers would have you believe, fuel consumption hasn’t been revolutionized. A typical family car from the 1960s – The Ford Anglia 105E does about the same as a typical modern family car – a Ford Focus 2.0 Ghia – per gallon of fuel. At the end of the day, while cars have got “better” in a number of ways, some of the headline numbers haven’t really advanced that much.

And that got me thinking about parallels in the computer world…

Having seen computing go through the heady days of seemingly doubling in speed every year as early Pentiums and their descendants rocketed through the hundreds of MHz, the clock speeds of processors haven’t really advanced that far since the Pentium 4 broke the 3GHz barrier in 2002. Yes computers run faster with more cores, faster memory and better communication with their attached devices, however the headline speed of mainstream chips hasn’t advanced more than a few hundred MHz in a decade. Perhaps this is like the car, because we have reached “enough” – Just like there are a limit to the number of people who will pay more for ever decreasing reductions in a one hour journey and there are few places you can practically drive at over 70mph, there are very few users who need to be able to perform more than 3,000,000,000 calculations in a second (or 6×10^9 for a dual core processor). We don’t need to be able to do more, we want to be able to do what we need to do “better”. Already many people are choosing computers with much less powerful processors than those at the leading edge of the market in favour of ones which are quieter, smaller, lower powered, more portable or even just cheaper as they don’t need more than a web browser to check their email, write documents and edit photos.

There will always be a need for powerful computers – games consoles are an obvious example – and anyone who believes that I am going to upload 100GB of raw video to YouTube to edit down to a 5 minute clip on the cloud anytime soon needs their head examined. However for the majority of users, the need for a powerful general purpose computer could soon be a thing of the past. Photos are whisked instantly from our smartphones to the cloud, We compose, spell-check and send emails from a website even a typical office suite isn’t stressing a modern CPU. It’s easier for people to tweak their photos in a flash extension on Flickr than acquire, learn the features of and then use Photoshop. I think that for a large proportion of users, appropriate computers are going to be less about the clock speed of the CPU and more about other ways to make the use of the computer “better”. Faster boot time, less power consumption or even just better pathways to get the data needed to the CPU.

For some people the best computer is one that doesn’t exist at all. Virtual servers have long been a cost and resource saving move for servers and now I’m hearing about it more and more for desktop use – one virtual computer for each family member of office member means that people can get to their own environment conveniently, and problems are easier to contain than with some other means.

We’re surrounded by more and more powerful devices – our phones, cars and even televisions all contain far more computing power than it has taken to send people to the moon and build nuclear reactors, do we really need more computing power in our desktop system?

Of course this isn’t going to stop people making computers go faster, but perhaps it’s going to be more and more removed from the thing sat under your desk. After all does the contents of Google’s server farm really have much more relevance to your iPad than Richard Noble’s car that can break the sound barrier has on the hatchback parked outside your house? It’s going to be interesting to see where this leads us in the next few years. Perhaps the world will come full circle to the point that the famous quote predicting a world market for five computers doesn’t seem so silly…

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