March 09, 2017

Terminal conditions

John Dvorak archly observes that the personal computer was a declaration of freedom from the the mainframe, epitomized in Apple's famous "1984" commercial (directed by Ridley Scott). Except Apple has since turned into the client-server walled garden it once promised to liberate us from.

As early as 1983, IBM had produced a PC more powerful than the doomed Lisa. Sold only to corporate clients, the XT/370 ran DOS locally, could act as 3270 terminal, and, thanks to dual Intel 8088 and Motorola 68000 CPUs, could execute both DOS and S/370 mainframe instructions.

But as the "workstation" paradigm took hold ("A computer on every desk"), it was easy to criticize Digital Equipment CEO Ken Olsen for opining in the 1980s that only a terminal was really needed on every desk. Larry Ellison caught a lot of flack for championing the "Network Computer" back in the 1990s.

They were simply ahead of their time.

The client-server paradigm was waiting in the wings for the Internet and the World Wide Web to standardize the interfaces and APIs. Then all it needed was enough bandwidth and fast enough processors to make all that mainframe horsepower accessible from the desktop. Or a phone.

When I worked in Microsoft support at the turn of the millennium, the CRM software was a VB app that connected with the knowledge base servers back in Redmond. Practically pure client-server, it was fast, even on pokey Pentium III Windows 2000 machines.

These days, software-as-a-service (SAAS) CRM software like Salesforce and Netsuite run in the browser. To be fair, These apps include a kitchen sink of feature sets, capable of handling the entire customer-facing and B2B facets of a business. Add to that an integrated VOIP client like inContact or Five9.

But they demand hardware resources comparable to whole supercomputers a mere decade or two ago. Opening up a couple of tabs in Chrome can soak up half a gigabyte of RAM, and with anything less than a multi-core processor running at several gigahertz, the whole setup runs infuriatingly slow.

There's something wrong with that.

The ExtremeTech website recently resurrected a Windows 98 machine with 128MB of RAM and a 500MHz Pentium III CPU--top-notch specs back in the day--to see how it ran in this brave new world (all of two decades later). It kinda sorta managed to cope, except when it came to the Internet.

With Internet Explorer 6, "most web pages don't even load, and those that do are completely broken." After tweaking a seven-year-old version of Opera 11, "most websites will at least work. Some larger sites like Facebook simply use up all the computer's RAM and never finish loading."

Facebook is just a glorified version of AOL, and AOL ran fine on the above configuration.

PC sales have leveled off and even fallen across the board. Everybody has a smartphone, which is, again, simply another smart client. The Chromebook has evolved into an only slightly smarter terminal.

So when the apocalypse comes, the world will end with smartphones raised high in supplication, accompanied by the whimper of "No signal."

Despite holding more computer power in our hands than a football stadium full of IBM PCs, we won't be able to do much more with our not-very-smart phones than what a 16-bit IBM PC with 128K of RAM could accomplish in 1985. Well, besides play the offline version of Angry Birds until the batteries run down.

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# posted by Blogger Dan
3/13/2017 5:52 PM   
The smart device ecosystem provides a huge opportunity and challenge to content companies to optimize the processing load distributed to each device. This way the content company can reduce its server load and all related costs and at the same time induce consumers to foot more of the cost of viewing content. Of course Facebook takes this idea to the extreme by having consumers provide the content as well as a good part of the hardware to make it work.