How do you interact with your computer?

“Alexa, play Hush, by Deep Purple.”

That’s my daughter, all of six years old. Leave aside for the moment the pride that I feel as a father and a fan of classic rock.

My daughter is coding.


My dad was in Telco for many years, which was what Tata Motors used to call itself  back in the day. I do not remember the exact year, but he often regales us with stories about how Tata Motors procured its first computer. Programming it was not child’s play – in fact, interacting with it required the use of punch cards.

I do not know if it was the same type of computer, but watching this video gives us a clue about how computers of this sort worked.


The guy in the video, the computer programmer in Telco and my daughter are all doing the same thing: programming.

What is programming?

Here’s Wikiversity:

Programming is the art and science of translating a set of ideas into a program – a list of instructions a computer can follow. The person writing a program is known as a programmer (also a coder).

Go back to the very first sentence in this essay, and think about what it means. My daughter is instructing a computer called Alexa to play a specific song, by a specific artist. To me, that is a list of instructions a computer can follow.

From using punch cards to using our voice and not even realizing that we’re programming: we’ve come a long, long way.


It’s one thing to be awed at how far we’ve come, it is quite another to think about the path we’ve taken to get there. When we learnt about mainframes, about Apple, about Microsoft and about laptops, we learnt about the evolution of computers, and some of the firms that helped us get there. I have not yet written about Google (we’ll get to it), but there’s another way to think about the evolution of computers: we think about how we interact with them.

Here’s an extensive excerpt from Wikipedia:

In the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation of Human Intellect project at the Augmentation Research Center at SRI International in Menlo Park, California developed the oN-Line System (NLS). This computer incorporated a mouse-driven cursor and multiple windows used to work on hypertext. Engelbart had been inspired, in part, by the memex desk-based information machine suggested by Vannevar Bush in 1945.

Much of the early research was based on how young children learn. So, the design was based on the childlike primitives of eye-hand coordination, rather than use of command languages, user-defined macro procedures, or automated transformations of data as later used by adult professionals.

Engelbart’s work directly led to the advances at Xerox PARC. Several people went from SRI to Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. In 1973, Xerox PARC developed the Alto personal computer. It had a bitmapped screen, and was the first computer to demonstrate the desktop metaphor and graphical user interface (GUI). It was not a commercial product, but several thousand units were built and were heavily used at PARC, as well as other XEROX offices, and at several universities for many years. The Alto greatly influenced the design of personal computers during the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably the Three Rivers PERQ, the Apple Lisa and Macintosh, and the first Sun workstations.

The GUI was first developed at Xerox PARC by Alan Kay, Larry Tesler, Dan Ingalls, David Smith, Clarence Ellis and a number of other researchers. It used windows, icons, and menus (including the first fixed drop-down menu) to support commands such as opening files, deleting files, moving files, etc. In 1974, work began at PARC on Gypsy, the first bitmap What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) cut & paste editor. In 1975, Xerox engineers demonstrated a Graphical User Interface “including icons and the first use of pop-up menus”.[3]

In 1981 Xerox introduced a pioneering product, Star, a workstation incorporating many of PARC’s innovations. Although not commercially successful, Star greatly influenced future developments, for example at Apple, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

If you feel like diving down this topic and learning more about it, Daring Fireball has a lot of material about Alan Kay, briefly mentioned above.

So, as the Wikipedia article mentions, we moved away from punch cards, to using hand-eye coordination to enter the WIMP era.

It took a genius to move humanity into the next phase of machine-human interaction.


The main tweet shown above is Steven Sinofsky rhapsodizing about how Steve Jobs and his firm was able to move away from the WIMP mode of thinking to using our fingers.

And from there, it didn’t take long to moving to using just our voice as a means of interacting with the computers we now have all around us.

Voice operated computing systems:

That leaves the business model, and this is perhaps Amazon’s biggest advantage of all: Google doesn’t really have one for voice, and Apple is for now paying an iPhone and Apple Watch strategy tax; should it build a Siri-device in the future it will likely include a healthy significant profit margin.

Amazon, meanwhile, doesn’t need to make a dime on Alexa, at least not directly: the vast majority of purchases are initiated at home; today that may mean creating a shopping list, but in the future it will mean ordering things for delivery, and for Prime customers the future is already here. Alexa just makes it that much easier, furthering Amazon’s goal of being the logistics provider — and tax collector — for basically everyone and everything.


Punch cards to WIMP, WIMP to fingers, and fingers to voice. As that last article makes clear, one needs to think not just of the evolution, but also about how business models have changed over time, and have caused input methods to change – but also how input methods have changed, and caused business models to change.

In other words, understanding technology is as much about understanding economics, and strategy, as it is about understanding technology itself.

In the next Tuesday essay, we’ll take a look Google in greater detail, and then about emergent business models in the tech space.

 

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.”
    ..
    ..
    Wikipedia’s article on mainframes contains a short history of the machines.
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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!
    ..
    ..
  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.”
    ..
    ..
    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.
    ..
    ..
  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)
    ..
    ..
    “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.”
    ..
    ..
  5. I’m a sucker for pictures of old technology (see especially the “Death to the Mainframe” picture)