Herald Journal Columns
August 7, 2006, Herald Journal

Remembering the past is fun too

By MARK OLLIG

Back in the mid to late 1990s, when the excitement and wonderment of the Internet and personal computing started to make a serious impact in the everyday lives in our homes and businesses, a local fellow began writing a column in his hometown newspaper.

He was a fortunate person, meaning he was able to dabble in his favorite pasttime, learn some new and interesting things, and share that information weekly with his readers.

So with his trustworthy 1995 Omni-notebook computer, which had the modern active-matrix screen that I thought was very neat, he set out to explore and explain this newly discovered cyber-spaced landscape to the reading masses.

One of the popular subjects back then was figuring out what type of home computer a person wanted to buy.

You know, remember walking into the computer place, and the salesperson walks up to you, you say you’re looking for a home computer, then the salesperson smiles at you (you could see the dollar signs in their eyes) and asks you what you want to do on it.

The answer was the standard response. I would mention that I wanted to have a word processor on it, the latest Windows operating system, which I think at the time, was Windows 3.0; I wanted some communication software on it, along with a modem.

The salesperson would then throw the “Do you want an internal or external modem?” question at me. Well, at the time, I was getting a Tower PC, and thought it would be best to have an external modem so in case I needed to replace it or set some dip-switches in it, I would not need to tear the whole computer apart to get at it.

Besides, I like being able to see what I pay for.

Yes, I wanted an Intel 486DX CPU, with 100 MHz of speed.

In 1995, this was the latest state-of-the-art in home computing processing power.

How times have changed

The future: how fast can it go? Today, when purchasing a new home computer, you can expect it to come with a basic computing processor speed of around 3.2 GHz (Gigahertz). For those of you out there that are not up on your mega and giga, a megahertz can perform one million “processes” per second. One thousand megahertz equals one gigahertz, which amounts to being able to calculate one billion processes per second.

Did I mention tera-hertz processors yet? Dell computers are now being sold with the new Intel Core 2, which is the latest state-of-the-art multi-core duo processor that is like running two CPU processors inside your computer at the same time. The Core 2 is on one single chip. This will allow software programs to be processed and run so much faster. You can also get a gaming computer (XPS 700) that can handle 1.5TB (tera-bytes) of combined hard drive space. This is equal to 1000 GB (gigabytes) a trillion bytes of storage. In 1995, I thought 100MB (mega-bytes) was a lot.

Here is something they don’t have yet on a home PC: 1PB (peta-byte) which is equal to 1,000 terabytes.

I think we all can take another sip of that favorite beverage we’re holding onto right about now, slow it down a bit, and let that one sink in. Even today’s 3.2 GHz processors would be somewhat ‘Star Trek’- like to what powered the onboard guidance systems of the late 1960’s Apollo moon-landing missions. In fairness, NASA actually did most of the heavy number-crunching here on Earth, using a row of large main frame computers. That information was re-layed by satellites up to the space craft.

Today’s CPU’s are interacting on a shared basis with the overall computing power used. These days, the story is constantly evolving and developing on how a computer can process all the information that we see displayed on our monitor.

IBM Chess and early video games.

Every few years, the supercomputer maker, IBM, will have some fun with its latest and greatest computers; you might remember the one called ‘Big Blue’, playing a few games of chess against a human grandmaster. At first, the human grandmasters proved why a computer should not be playing chess. The machine would lose. Today, the computer is not only winning because of better written software with improved defined analytical processes, it’s winning because it simply operates much faster and with more improved processing power then it had before.

Back in the late ‘90s, the story was about needing faster computing chips to process the larger and more complex software programs that were being developed and written.

Today’s software programs use millions of lines of code that are required for the very intense video gaming and computer movie making graphics programs of the day. I don’t mean the old gaming graphics we used to play on our old black and white television sets like ‘Pong,’ which, by the way, was invented by Ralph Baer in 1969 and first played on our TVs in 1972. It had wired connections to a box made by Magnavox called Odyssey. It is a story in itself . . . I think I may have just stumbled across an idea for my next column!

The games played on computers today are like watching full motion movies in 3-D and Dolby Stereo surround sound, where the players are in full control of the character,s actions and can determine how the game ends.

Software using Computer Graphical Interfaced (CGI) technology on computers has created movies such as “The Polar Express” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” without real people or real sets. The final result is photo-realistic computer animated visual effects that are amazingly lifelike.

Remember when all we wanted for Christmas was a simple Lionel train set? Now, if the gift doesn’t come in a cardboard box with those white and dark spotted cows all over it . . . well, you get the idea.