Windows 1995 marks the end of the personal computer era, that span of time that started in 1978 with the Apple II. Windows '95 also marks the end of Microsoft.
Windows 1995 marks the end of Microsoft?
Conventional wisdom tells us that Microsoft is at the top of the technology hill -- the unquestioned king of high-tech. Conventional wisdom would also tell us that Microsoft's position is impregnable. No one will toss this king off his hill. Well. That's true. Problem is....what if another hill were to pop up? Would the king be able to jump over?
Microsoft's Kingdom: The Personal Computer
The last 17 years were a wild time in high-tech, fueled by the staggering, relentless and exuberant increase in microprocessor power. The microprocessor made the personal computer a reality. Those tiny chips, pioneered and dominated to this day by Intel, brought what once belonged to the priesthood to the people. Our image of the computer went from HAL ("I'm afraid I can't do that Dave") in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the smiling "happy Mac" in less than one generation. With this transition, came the phrase "personal computer." Who would have thought that those two words would go together? Now, who would think they might come apart? Certainly not Microsoft.
We are now entering what some high-tech gurus call a "paradigm shift." Paradigm shifts mark the point when an entire technology moves in a new, unexpected, direction that wreaks profound change. These shifts start out unnoticed at first, then with sudden speed they take over like wildfire. In their wake, people's lives also change. The paradigm shift we are about to experience will usher in the age of the "Whole Computer."
The Whole Computer
The Whole Computer is a massively heterogeneous fusion of individual computers into one system. These machines, yoked together, create a the illusion of being one computer in the mind of the individual using it. It is, in a sense, a return to the paradigm of the 1960s -- "time sharing." Except in the 1960s, time sharing described the sharing of one computer by many people through "dumb" terminals. Before time sharing, in the 1950s, the paradigm was simply "the computer." One person, one computer. The personal computer is essentially a mainframe for one. Now that millions of us have our personal mainframes, the same logic is making itself felt -- it is massively inefficient to keep all these personal mainframes separate. Why not bind them and harvest the power of shared CPUs, storage and memory? Until 1994 the answer was simple. We're not connected.
The second piece of the Whole Computer fell into place in the last 18 months as people world-wide, in record numbers, agreed to connect to the Internet. What does that mean? The Internet is two things: a set of standards dictating how different computers can talk to each other, and physical network of copper, wireless and fiber channels that carry digital data. With these three ingredients: personal mainframes, universal communications protocols, and a communications network infrastructure the Whole Computer is almost here. What missing is demand. People have to want this for it to happen. They will wait until the old paradigm -- the isolated personal computer -- becomes too obviously cumbersome and inefficient.
Have you tried Windows 1995 yet? Probably not. Will you? Maybe. It depends on how rich you are. The truth is, Windows '95 is predicated on a basic assumption -- upgrading (which implies moving up, or getting better). You need 16 MB of RAM to run it. You need 100 MB of free hard disk space to store it. You need 120 MHz of CPU power to crunch it. Oh...and then software vendors have to retool all their code to "take advantage" of the new Windows '95 features. Do you have all that yet? For $3,000 you can....or you can wait. That relentless microprocessor is still marching away. Performance should double and prices should halve in the next 18 months. This begs the question: is this worth it? Is this really the future? Is this our children's future? To quote Alicia Silverstone in my favorite summer '95 movie -- AS IF!
Some high-tech aficionados are already testing the new paradigm -- whether or not they realize it. Go on the Web and you'll find sites here and there using "server push" and "client pull." (For a good example, check out Razorfish) This allows your personal computer to receive data and send data without your intervention. That data can lead to moving images, sounds, constantly updating stock prices -- whatever. But the program interpreting that data is on your computer (i.e. Netscape, QuickTime, etc.) The next step is to actually send you data with built-in interpreters -- mobile software.
Hot Java, the Web browser under development by Sun, allows for tiny programs called Applets to get sent back and forth. The demo I saw (running on a Sun) created little cartoon characters that cartwheel above the text. Each character was more than data, it was tiny program. A company much maligned for its over-hyped "intelligent agents", General Magic, has created a programming language called Telescript at an estimated R&D cost of $300,000,000. Telescript is designed to allow mobile software (i.e. intelligent agents) to share both disk space and processing power over decentralized networks (Oh, yeah, you won't find much talk about that on their site right now. They are very wary of over-hyping their technology). A little too far of its time, Telescript lies temporarily dormant. But in its conception much of the hard work for the Whole Computer has already been done.
The final steps will involve designing software that is meant to share the memory of all the personal computers connected to the network. Once that's done, as long as you stay connected, you get the benefit of collective memory. Want to run a word processor? You run it off the network. Want to run a real time 3D modeling program? You run it off the network (as opposed to buying a Silicon Graphics Onyx fully loaded for $300,000). One application takes up a lot more resources than the other -- so you'll pay more per minute to use it. What's the benefit? You get access to everything, right now. You don't have to constantly buy new hardware to take advantage of new software. Software companies also get a huge benefit -- you can't pirate programs with a Whole Computer.
In the mature iteration of the Whole Computer, we have monitors, keyboards, mice (whatever input device you like), a CPU and a storage device. Just like a personal computer. Except all that's stored on the drive at home is your personal data (for security and privacy). The operating system and software is stored out on the network. As with America Online, the software is constantly upgraded, but the upgrades are so continuous, incremental and gradual that they are easy absorbed. Best of all they do not require buying new hardware. If you want to lower the cost of using the programs, buy a more powerful CPU (so you drain less CPU time off the network). The more processing power you contribute the Whole Computer for others to use, the more of a discount you get when it is your turn to consume. Really big CPU donors might even get free time -- i.e. paid.
Who's left out in the cold in this new era? Folks who invested heavily in the personal computer paradigm. No one has invested more than Microsoft. No one got more pay-out than Microsoft. It doesn't really matter if Windows '95 is really great or not. In the end the paradigm will shift. It will shift to the Whole Computer. The only question is...how soon?
PREVIEW OF THE NEXT ISSUE OF MEME.
The Unabomber and Newt Gingrigh represent two different visions of technolgy and its social impact. But both share the same goal. Find out how they're connected in Meme 1.03.
Meme 1.01 and its contents copyright 1995 by David S. Bennahum. First spawned by Into The Matrix at http://www.reach.com/matrix/welcome.html. Pass me along all you want, just include this signature file at the end.
Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at email@example.com.