Can we sustain progress in computer hardware design?

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Today's $ 2,000 laptop computer is more powerful than a $10 million IBM
mainframe of 20 years ago. Do you think the same pace of technological
progress can be sustained over the next 20 years?

-- Claudio Gatti, December 22, 1996


It depends what you mean by progress. Today's laptop may well have a less reliable operating system and be harder to program than the 20-year-old mainframe. System administration was arcane, painful and expensive with the mainframe; it is arcane, painful, and expensive with the laptop.

Of course, hardware engineers have performed brilliantly over the last two decades. It isn't their fault that software technology has stagnated. I think we'll continue to see the same pace of technological advance in computing power but, more interestingly, also in I/O devices.

If I'd played Space War on a PDP-1 in 1960, I wouldn't find the graphics in a Nintendo 64 revolutionary. Yet people who walk up to Ken Sinclair's office on the 8th floor of the MIT Artificial Intelligence laboratory, are amazed to feel virtual objects by putting their fingers into his Phantom Haptic Interface. The computer is literally pushing them around. Walking up one more floor to Phillip Alvelda's lab, one finds a complete RGB display on one chip. At a fraction of the cost and power consumption of displays, this kind of technology could finally let those amazingly powerful $2 microprocessors communicate with their users.

-- Philip Greenspun, December 22, 1996