From Mainframes to Personal Computing: The Journey

From mainframes to desktops, from desktops to laptops, from laptops to phones, and from phones to watches. So far. As I said in the previous edition of Tech Tuesdays, my daughter doesn’t think of Alexa as a computer, but what is Alexa if not one?

We are an empowered species today, for most of us – not all, to be sure, but most of us – carry around with us more computing power than was used to send people to the moon. Not only do we take it for granted, but the programming itself is done at such a high level that we aren’t even aware that we’re programming a machine.

For example: when my daughter says to Alexa, “Set a timer for five minutes”, she’s really programming a computer to emit a series of beeps in three hundred seconds, starting now. But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when people were excited about the fact that they could get a machine home into which they would have to laboriously (by our current standards) input a series of instructions for it to do certain things.

What kind of machines were these? Who made them, for what reason? What changed in terms of ease of use, design, and available accessories – and with what results for us, as society?

In today’s set of five links, we take a look at the answers to some of these questions.

  1. “At the time that IBM had decided to enter the personal computer market in response to Apple’s early success, IBM was the giant of the computer industry and was expected to crush Apple’s market share. But because of these shortcuts that IBM took to enter the market quickly, they ended up releasing a product that was easily copied by other manufacturers using off the shelf, non-proprietary parts. So in the long run, IBM’s biggest role in the evolution of the personal computer was to establish the de facto standard for hardware architecture amongst a wide range of manufacturers. IBM’s pricing was undercut to the point where IBM was no longer the significant force in development, leaving only the PC standard they had established. Emerging as the dominant force from this battle amongst hardware manufacturers who were vying for market share was the software company Microsoft that provided the operating system and utilities to all PCs across the board, whether authentic IBM machines or the PC clones.”
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    The excerpt above comes a long way into the Wikipedia article, and the correct way to read this article, if you ask me, is to scan through it, rather than read every single word. But the excerpt, for an economist, is the most interesting part, for it explains how Microsoft became Microsoft – because of an ill-thought out strategy by IBM!
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  2. “Although the company knew that it could not avoid competition from third-party software on proprietary hardware—Digital Research released CP/M-86 for the IBM Displaywriter, for example—it considered using the IBM 801 RISC processor and its operating system, developed at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. The 801 processor was more than an order of magnitude more powerful than the Intel 8088, and the operating system more advanced than the PC DOS 1.0 operating system from Microsoft. Ruling out an in-house solution made the team’s job much easier and may have avoided a delay in the schedule, but the ultimate consequences of this decision for IBM were far-reaching.”
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    As economists, we’re interested in understanding the fact that we have the power to be vastly more productive now that we all have our own personal computers, sure, but we’re also interested in finding out why firms who were the giants of their time (lookin’ at you, IBM) didn’t make the transition over to being the giants of the personal computing era. We’re interested in this in and of itself, of course, but also so that we can apply these lessons to the giants of our time.
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  3. “The 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the computer mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and a collaborative real-time editor (collaborative work). Engelbart’s presentation was the first to publicly demonstrate all of these elements in a single system. The demonstration was highly influential and spawned similar projects at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. The underlying technologies influenced both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows graphical user interface operating systems in the 1980s and 1990s.”
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    I learnt about this only while researching links for this series: the mother of all demos that inspired, essentially, what we know as personal computing today. Fascinating stuff!
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  4. “Now that computers were up and running with Microsoft’s operating system, the next step was to build tools to streamline the user experience. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world where computers didn’t run programs such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.These “productivity applications,” as Microsoft calls them, were revolutionary tools for getting work done. They automated many of the aspects of word processing, accounting, creating presentations and more. Plus, Microsoft’s deal with Apple allowed it to develop versions of these programs for Macintosh computers.Over the years, Microsoft has provided updates to the Office Suite, from additional programs (such as Outlook and Access) to additional features.”
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    Yes, this is a listicle, but a useful, mostly informative one. The excerpt above comes midway through the article, and the rest of the article speaks about Microsoft’s attempted move towards becoming a hardware focused firm, and the subsequent move towards being, well, a software focused firm under Nadella. We’ll be focusing on Microsoft next Tuesday, so consider this an appetizer.
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  5. “The iPhone’s potential was obviously deep, but it was so deep as to be unfathomable at the time. The original iPhone didn’t even shoot video; today the iPhone and iPhone-like Android phones have largely killed the point-and-shoot camera industry. It has obviated portable music players, audio recorders, paper maps, GPS devices, flashlights, walkie-talkies, music radio (with streaming music), talk radio (with podcasts), and more. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft wouldn’t even make sense pre-iPhone. Social media is mobile-first, and in some cases mobile-only. More people read Daring Fireball on iPhones than on desktop computers.”
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    John Gruber rhapsodizing about  a whole variety of things, but mostly about how the iPhone was the culmination of the long journey that began with the move away from mainframes. It is exhilarating to realize how far we’ve come! Two weeks from now, we’ll also take a look at Apple’s long journey.

Tech: Understanding Mainframes Better

My daughter, all of six years old, doesn’t really know what a computer is.

Here’s what I mean by that: a friend of hers has a desktop in her bedroom, and to my daughter, that is a computer. My laptop is, well, a laptop – to her, not a computer. And she honestly thinks that the little black disk that sits on a coffee table in our living room is a person/thing called Alexa.

How to reconcile – both for her and for ourselves – the idea of what a computer is? The etymology of the word is very interesting – it actually referred to a person! While it is tempting to write a short essay on how Alexa has made it possible to complete the loop in this case, today’s links are actually about understanding mainframes better.

Over the next four or five weeks, we’ll trace out the evolution of computers from mainframes down to, well, Alexa!

  1. “Several manufacturers and their successors produced mainframe computers from the late 1950s until the early 21st Century, with gradually decreasing numbers and a gradual transition to simulation on Intel chips rather than proprietary hardware. The US group of manufacturers was first known as “IBM and the Seven Dwarfs”: usually Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell, General Electric and RCA, although some lists varied. Later, with the departure of General Electric and RCA, it was referred to as IBM and the BUNCH. IBM’s dominance grew out of their 700/7000 series and, later, the development of the 360 series mainframes.”
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    Wikipedia’s article on mainframes contains a short history of the machines.
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  2. “Mainframe is an industry term for a large computer. The name comes from the way the machine is build up: all units (processing, communication etc.) were hung into a frame. Thus the maincomputer is build into a frame, therefore: MainframeAnd because of the sheer development costs, mainframes are typically manufactured by large companies such as IBM, Amdahl, Hitachi.”
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    This article was written a very long time ago, but is worth looking at for a simple explanation of what mainframes are. Their chronology is also well laid out  – and the photographs alone are worth it!
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  3. “Although only recognized as such many years later, the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer) was really the first electronic computer. You might think “electronic computer” is redundant, but as we just saw with the Harvard Mark I, there really were computers that had no electronic components, and instead used mechanical switches, variable toothed gears, relays, and hand cranks. The ABC, by contrast, did all of its computing using electronics, and thus represents a very important milestone for computing.”
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    This is your periodic reminder to please read Cixin Liu. But also, this article goes more into the details of what mainframe computers were than the preceding one. Please be sure to read through all three pages – and again, the photographs alone are worth the price of admission.
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  4. A short, Philadelphia focussed article that is only somewhat related to mainframes, but still – in my opinion – worth reading, because it gives you a what-if idea of the evolution of the business. Is that really how the name came about?! (see the quote about bugs below)
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    “So Philly should really be known as “Vacuum Tube Valley,” Scherrer adds: “We want to trademark that.” He acknowledged the tubes were prone to moths — “the original computer bugs.”
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  5. I’m a sucker for pictures of old technology (see especially the “Death to the Mainframe” picture)