Come Full Circle

by Neptune

Ecclesiastes 1
9: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10: Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

When I was young, Big Iron ruled the Earth. We didn't call it Big Iron - there was no "little iron". We just called them computers, and computers were huge, stunningly expensive, and required teams of experts just to keep them running. They were fabulous monsters, cabinet after cabinet full of vacuum tubes and panels strung with the intricate spiderweb of wiring threaded through tiny ferrite beads for memory. But even then, lurking, like the first proto-mammals scurrying under the feet of the tyrannosaurs, there were signs of things to come.

The first sign was the teletype, or TTY. They were utterly stupid, although we did find them useful for printing ascii-art pinups of Marilyn Monroe. Editing on these early TTYs was beyond masochistic. It ranged from "excruciating" to "I think I'll just nip off and shoot myself". Those were replaced by CRT's, or "glass titties" – glass, referring to the video tube, and titty standing for TTY. The first CRT terminals were dumb beasts, but they got smarter. I remember an early Raytheon terminal, one of the first with an actual processor. The processor was not a single chip, it took up two circuit boards. But it vastly enhanced the editing capabilities.

Enhanced capabilities or not, we were still married to the mainframe. If the mainframe was down, nobody worked. All of your documents, all of your programs, all of your files were on the mainframe. But things were about to change.

Silicon had been steadily replacing vacuum tubes and ferrite memory. The first micro controllers were evolving into legitimate CPUs. The likes of Radio Shack, Commodore and Apple were putting out machines that the Big Iron clergy regarded as little more than toys. But they made inroads into the mainframe sanctuaries as terminal emulator software let them replace and further enhance the old terminals, even as they became legitimate standalone computing platforms.

Eventually, we were freed. No longer dependent on the vagaries of a central mainframe, it was possible for us to work on a machine sitting on your desk with no dependence on the main brain. If your PC died, you could walk your floppy over to a neighbor's cubicle and pick up where you left off. We no longer had to depend on the priesthood of the big machine in the basement to get work done. We had broken the shackles.

But a funny thing happened. As machines got faster, with more memory, and more storage, they also got connected. Sun Microsystems famously advertised, "The Network is the Computer." And they were right. When management got the first of the shiny new Sun Ultras, I had no problem running anything too strenuous for my old Sparc-10 on their machines.

Somewhere along there, the Internet crept in. Advances in networking made true machine clustering a reality. Distributed processing spread across the world, with projects like SETI at home, and the Protein Folding at home efforts. The WWW went from simple html document display to advanced interactive protocols and permitted companies like Google to put entire office applications on-line.

So now, we have come full circle. Ecclesiastes was right, and there is no new thing under the sun. We are again about to become dependent on a single remote source to do our work.

Or not.

PCs are getting faster, bigger and cheaper, with no real end in sight. Most of us have more computing horsepower on our desk than NASA used to put men on the moon. If we can't afford, or just don't want Windows applications, we have excellent options in Linux. We have choices, and the new crop of Internet applications is just one more choice.

For some, it's the only choice. I am a bastard. After too much time, trouble and money enabling an in-law's drug choices, I made him homeless. He's now working his way out of rehab, but for now, the on-line applications have let him work on his resume, maintain contact lists, and communicate with potential employers from any public PC. That's not a bad thing. And when he gets back on his feet again, he can afford his own PC - and keep his own work on it, instead of depending on Google. Options he wouldn't have had a few years ago.

Our grateful appreciation to and Devnet for making this project possible.