There’s a great scene in the second Back to the Future movie where Marty wanders around his home town, 30 years in the future. We see extrapolations of the present, we see some things that have barely changed, and we see some things that we can only guess at.
At the weekend I realised I was in such a scene already. Abingdon's town centre hasn’t changed much since I moved there years ago. Boots and Woolworths are where they always were. There used to be a Dixons, now gone, and a fairly minging Menzies which has been replaced by a jewellers. Unlike the Menzies, the jewellers doesn’t sell Dr Who videos so only gets my custom when I want to buy something nice for my lovely wife. And there’s a photo shop that does a small business selling photo frames and albums – but most of its business is through the machines that line each wall. Friendly, brightly coloured, touch screen controlled, with voice instructions to guide you through turning images stored on your stick or SD card or CD into printed photographs. This shop could not have existed 15 years ago. The technology, the market and the perceived need were completely absent. A time traveller from 1991 could maybe make an inspired guess as to what it did (and watching the customers would give the biggest clue) but would still come away with more questions than answers.
Meanwhile I walk around with a phone in my pocket with more memory than the first PC I bought, a 386 laptop in 1994.
My employer runs a 10 Gbit/s network. A lady in the office opposite joined our company’s predecessor 25 years ago this week. She told me one of her first jobs was standing over a network connection with a stopwatch, timing the round trip of a single IP packet to Manchester and back. About 45 seconds was the norm.
So there’s been progress, of a sort. The downside? The downside ...
The said 386 laptop ran Windows 3.1, which was rubbish by anyone’s standards. Fortunately there was a neat little third-party shell that ran on top of it – I can’t remember what it was called, but it essentially gave Windows 3.1 the same desktop-based functionality as Windows 95 and its successors. So that was what I used until Windows 95 came along properly. The shell ran perfectly well, on a 386 PC, with 5Mb RAM and a 30Mb hard disk, with never a problem. And I honestly don’t think I do a single thing on my present XP-based computer that I didn’t do on that old laptop. (Actually I do – DTP, but since I have fond memories of DOS-based Ventura, I know for a fact the laptop could have handled it as well.)
And yet, if I work on exactly the same file on my computer at home (Word 2000) and at work (Word 2002), keeping exactly the same word count and exactly the same formatting – there’s a 20K difference in file size. Why?? No doubt because Word 2002 crams in all kinds of
If you’re an open source / OpenOffice / Linux / whatever geek then you may now step forward and tell me how it’s all the fault of Microsoft, and I’ll probably agree. I’ll also not change over for the same reason I don’t try to disestablish the Church of England. It’s a mess but it’s the mess I’m used to.
We’re halfway to the Back to the Future future. We have a lot of the tech, and we have the mindset and vision to use it in previously unthought of ways. But until you can use a computer as thoughtlessly as you can scribble a note on the back of an envelope, we’ll be forever stuck in a digital dark age.