How things have changed. Only 76KB of ROM and 4KB of RAM landed astronauts on the moon. Roughly speaking, that’s equivalent to a ZX Spectrum or a Commodore 64. Both machines were launched in 1982 and both went on to dominate the 1980s computing scene. At the time of writing, the Commodore Amiga 500 took another step towards its 40th anniversary. The iconic A500 was another child of the 80s. It was launched in 1987, while the Amiga family was introduced in 1985.
My first computer was an IBM PS2/386. Some younger readers may assume this is early an incarnation of the Sony PS2 (Playstation 2) - not quite.
The revolution that started at home
When I was young, my family was fortunate enough to have a modem and home working was both permitted and encouraged by my father’s company, IBM.
Long gone are the days of those big, grey, boxy computers that were running Microsoft Windows 3.1 and DOS. Today, we easily harness the power of those early machines: our portable laptops. We can sling that laptop power in our backpacks, access that power on our wrists with smartwatches and take powerful computers in our pockets in the form of smart phones. The key is this portability.
The catalyst of global catastrophe
Recently, the COVID technological revolution has propelled us toward remote working. It’s mind-blowing to think of all those workers who were previously commuting via the train, tube, bus and car, now typing away at home. The 11.7million children in the UK, who had all previously learned lessons in their classroom, who have been learning online and socialising with their classmates via social media apps. It was this separation that brought us all together in a common goal - to keep calm and carry on.
This dogged determination to work and study from home has facilitated a boom in sales of personal computers, tablets and phones. But would we have been in this space if it wasn’t for the advent of superfast internet in our homes? Or indeed in our cities in the form of mobile 4G and now 5G, rolling out across all the major phone networks? Would we even have developed these thin, lightweight, portable devices if they didn’t have the ability to talk to each other?
Would we have spent our time and efforts on transforming devices to becoming smaller? Or would we still have the mobile phone taking up entire backpacks or the phone needing to be fitted into a car to actually be portable?
One size never really did ‘fit all’
There may have been a notable buzz about the cumbersome home computers of the 1980s for the geeks who could build their own, but for the lesser mortals, there was certainly a market for people who wanted computing power without the ‘Krypton Factor’.
The first Apple computers capitalised on this need. The late, great, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak saw an opportunity: instead of selling plans and components, they could sell those pre-compiled computers for a premium, enabling not just ‘nerds’ and ‘computer enthusiasts’ to build their own computers, but enabling that vision of anybody being able to access information via the super highway they called the internet.
A perfect storm of invention
There are many parts to the perfect invention. The train needs the tracks, or the tunnel. The hotdog needs the bun (maybe ketchup, maybe mustard). The PC needs the internet, high speed connectivity and convenience, which could be via portability, accessibility and people-centric design.
We have progressed from blending tech into our lives, to blending our lives through tech. We can link with our co-workers, our classmates, or even influencers in a different country en-masse, at the touch of a button. The humble home computer and work laptop can seemingly handle this pressure with ease.
A well-timed pandemic?
Just imagine what would have happened if this pandemic occurred 30 years earlier, when remote working and a desktop computer in your home office or school was extremely rare. The last global pandemic, with the Spanish Flu outbreak, was long before most of us commuted to offices for work, in 1918-20.
We have fallen into a pattern of commuting, often of presenteeism that is not always productive. However, enforced working from home has instigated a re-evaluation of the status quo.
While some global organisations have gone on record to say they want a return to full office working when COVID-19 subsides, many companies - most notably Microsoft and Twitter - have announced an acceptance of home working. The global pandemic has reshaped the future.
Adapt to survive
Changes to the way we work have negatively impacted the high street and will undoubtedly change the future of commercial property usage.
The local shop has also had to change; the sit in restaurant has had to adapt to takeaway. While adapt to survive has become the order of the day, it has brought with it a need to update and innovate. Some local companies have put off having a web presence, but in the absence of being able to open their doors to customers, they realised they must have a website. An online menu. An online ordering facility. A way to be seen and to sell.
At home to stay?
Whether home working is all-encompassing or blended remains to be seen, but we’re already sold on and reaping the benefits of home working.
Although home-schooling has been problematic for parents who are also working from home - from both a concentration and connectivity point of view - there has been an increase in parent participation in children’s education.
Children now are learning independently on their iPads and their smart phones. Platforms have been quick to adapt with Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Classroom facilitating online learning and socialising. Children can complete their lessons using iPads or phones and parents are able to track what their children are doing, what assignments they’re working on and how they’re progressing.
If we’re all at home, where are we going?
So, what’s next? We started with those grey box computers on our desktops and the Casio calculator watch (I always wanted one - and still do). We’re still wearing watches. A lot of us probably still have desktops at home in the form of a laptop and a big screen.
They even tried tablets in the not so distant past of the 1980s: the Apple Newton, the personal digital assistant, the Palm, the Psion. Maybe the adoption wasn’t there because we were missing these enabling services of highspeed internet at home and high speed mobile networks…
Enjoying the spectacle
There have been attempts over the past 10 years to create spectacles with augmented reality; computers projected into lenses that could be interacted with, without looking down at a watch or phone. And now, we have home assistants like Alexa and the Google Mini that can be given commands by voice alone - even at a whisper.
So, what will the next 40 years bring? Those same form factors will be there but without those enabling technologies to stream huge amounts of information, such as video at low latency so we are not seeing big delays. Teletext was invented some 40 years ago too, leveraging the signal in between television pictures to project data that could be consumed on the TV.
In fact, John Major, the prime minister in the peak of Ceefax (BBC’s version of Teletext), used to get his updated cricket scores at 10 Downing Street this way before the dawn of the rolling news channel. Now, we can access anything with our fingertips or just our voice.
The rhythms of life captured in meters
The latest and greatest public rollout that has leveraged mobile technology has been home electricity and gas smart meters - essentially a meter with a SIM card inside it - a constant dialogue between the home and the utility company.
Ostensibly, they were created to help people monitor and change their own personal usage, as well as facilitate a more efficient use of electricity. Looking for patterns, the utility company is able to see when peak usage will need them to tap into more or less electricity. This is not only day to day, but will dictate how energy is generated wholescale in the future.
This constant conversation between company and consumer has been adopted by the supercar company Tesla. They now have a SIM card built into the car and every day there’s a new update released where it’s learning from other cars and improving functionality.
Without these enabling technologies, it would be much harder to innovate. And I, for one, am excited about where they will take us in the next 40 years.