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Hal Rappaport

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10 landmark technologies that defined computers & 5 that will
by Hal Rappaport   
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Last edited: Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2011

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Today, it's hard to think of computers as more than a collection of advanced microchips and the like processors, RAM, flash storage and graphics cards, for example. Like a river, the flow of technology that has led us to the modern computing architecture we use today came from some several often overlooked sources the proverbial "stones that divert the river."

10 landmark technologies that defined computers, and 5 that will

10 landmark technologies that defined computers, and 5 that will
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1. Jacquard Loom • The hearts of all modern computers actually owe their basic architecture to the shape of the human hand. The Jacquard loom weaving machine, invented in the 19th century, used punch cards to direct thread and enabled complex patterns to be mass produced. Years later, adding and computing machines adopted the same punch card format, followed by computers through the 1970s. To this day of our modern computer architectures are still based on multiples of eight bits.

2. Enigma Machines • Enigma machines were sophisticated encoding systems employed by the Germans during the Second World War. It wasn't the actual machine itself that spurred evolution in computing technology, though. The number crunching involved in code cracking was the catalyst to design faster computing power. This led to the creation of Presper Echert and John Mauchly's, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which is the first real electronic computer.

3. Transistors • Often equated more with radios than computers, transistors replacing vacuum tubes meant the form factor dropped from a small gymnasium-sized computer to one the size of a small classroom. It also meant the air conditioner required to keep a computer from overheating itself (and the operators) didn't need to be the size of an airplane hangar. This smaller form factor allowed more to be done with less, which allowed computers to be significantly more powerful.

4. Integrated Circuit Chips • There's no question about it. More than any other technological advancement, the integrated circuit/microchip put electronics and computing into the hands of the consumer. Just because you can make something doesn't mean consumers will buy it. (Anyone remember New Coke?) Integrated circuits continue to be enormously vital to computers, yet in our lifetimes we could even see them replaced.

5. The Apple II • The first “personal” sized computers like the Altair 8800 were really not so personal, lacking key components such as a keyboard, monitor, printer, teletype, floppy drive or even punch card reader. In truth, a “hobbyist” would have needed at least a fair sized chunk of a computer science degree just to know where to begin. It really was Apple that made computing “user friendly." The base model computer came with a keyboard and came with a programming language (BASIC) that could, in theory, bring computing to the masses.

6. Video Games • This was a huge rock diverting the course of the technological river. Apple may have delivered the computer to the home, but it was the video game that attracted the '80s “whiz kid,” who developed interactive software that could enhance productivity or entertain. In truth, games got played more often than they were written, but that only helped popularize computers for use in the home and in schools.

7. Email • Almost nothing has changed the way we connect more than email. Email saturates every level of communication, from personal to professional. If Internet web access becomes unavailable for a few hours for a business, for instance, it would not be nearly as crippling than if the email servers stopped working. There may be some criticism here for not actually mentioning the Web on this list. After all, you probably wouldn’t be reading this without it. The Web clearly changed the way we live and caused a much larger change in the world as a whole, but email put computers in the office and on every desk.

8. Lithium Ion Batteries • If you consider Lithium Ion's predecessor, Nickel Cadmium, more important than today's standard, then try picking up an old Nextel L1000 “Lingo” phone battery. In the mid 1990s it was affectionately referred to as “the brick.” Without this advancement, our iPhones, iPads, laptops and Blackberry devices and more would all weigh more than twice as much, and you would also likely have to carry a spare battery with you.

9. The Palm Pilot • One could credit the Apple Newton or even Casio Organizers with bringing a computing platform down to a handheld device many years before Palm in 1997. It was the popularity of the Palm platform, however, that clearly began the mobile computing revolution that led to our indispensable Blackberry, iPhone and Android smartphones. So much so that the handheld has secured itself today as primary computer platform, rather that just a companion to a laptop or desktop.

10. Next-Gen Cell Networks • We can credit next-gen cellular data networks (EDGE, 3G, 4G) for thinking beyond just voice and creating an environment to make access to data, especially messaging (email, text, tweets, etc.), from anywhere possible. These networks connect us to our data from anywhere, in easy to use, easy to carry devices.

What The Future Holds • Computers are already so small that they fit in our hands — in our pockets, even. The human interfaces of thumb keyboards, track pads and touch screens make them useful, but only to a certain point. Most users of this technology will admit, to work on a complicated document, presentation or spreadsheet, a larger screen and keyboard are necessary. It stands to reason the future trends will likely be in new means to interface with these devices. [Image]

1. Projection Technology (That Works!) • Imagine: combine the projected keyboard and a micro display projector built-in to a single mobile computing device (i.e., a smartphone), and it would give a complete, full-sized interface on a device that can be carried anywhere. For the mobile user on the go, a hotel room wall can become a full-sized monitor for your smartphone, and you'd have all the regular tools at your disposal rather than having to drag around a bunch of peripherals.

2. Augmented Reality • This visual interface, when further developed, will provide not only a useful mobile interface to portable computing, but a connection between the real and virtual worlds. We've already seen it being used by corporations, such as by Lockheed Martin to build jets.

3. Gesture Sensitive Technology • Since the mobile solution lacks a full form factor mouse substitute, a technology that can sense your hand gestures might be adapted for to meet those needs. Even more useful, gesture control — in contrast to augmented reality — could incorporate seamlessly into our environment.

4. Portable Fuel Cells • With the ever shrinking mobile computing platform, many of us have found our lives cluttered with chargers and wires. Lithium ion batteries may have improved weight longevity of the mobile platform and wireless charging is arguably cool, but a greener solution with less down time is within our grasp. Fuel Cells literally generate power rather than just store it and can function basically on water. A better battery means better gadgets.

5. Always On, Always Connected Gadgets • So here's the endgame: truly pocketable smartphones that can be our everything — our desktop business computer, our credit card, our cellphone and our connect to the Web and thus the world. Computers make the world seem smaller and smaller, and if we had a handheld that removed our need for anything bulkier, and technology advanced enough to make worries over charging and connecting to the Web a thing of the past, then we'd truly have arrived at the pinnacle of computing. [Image: a flexible prototype by Samsung]

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