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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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How far have we come?

12 May 2022

It's amazing how time flies and how technology advances.

If you gave me a time-travel machine so that I could take back one of today's mid-range desktop PCs or even a smartphone to my 1982 self, I don't think I would have believed just how far we'd progress in just four short decades.

Back in the days when memory was still being measured in kilobytes and hard drive storage was delivered in single-digit megabytes, today's hardware would have seemed like alien technology.

Likewise, we were still driving all this stuff with clock rates that were in single-digit megahertz territory so talk of "gigahertz" would have been black magic.

I still marvel, even today, when I consider the astounding strides we've made in computer tech since I fired up my first microprocessor back in 1977.

Back then everything was still built with through-hole components on drilled PCBs and mainly 14-pin DIL 74-series integrated circuits. Even the simplest microprocessor-based computer required several boards, massive amounts of wiring and the patience of a saint combined with the brain of a mathematician if you wanted it to actually do any work.

These days, surface-mount technology, massively high levels of integration within the chipsets being used and super-intuitive touch-based interfaces have brought us supercomputers in a smartphone that even a child can navigate with ease.

Given that computers have advanced at a pace that even I could not have imagined, all those years ago, I have no idea what sort of tech we'll be using in another 40 years. Unfortunately it's unlikely I'll get to see it but never the less, it is exciting to contemplate just how much more we'll be able to do.

Also unfortunate is the fact that keen hobbyists are increasingly locked out of doing real "hands dirty" things with this modern tech -- at least not in the way we used to.

These days, building a computer consists of buying a motherboard, case, PSU, an SSD some RAM and a GPU from your local vendor and then just bolting it all together.

It's pretty hard to be creative or push the boundaries when your building blocks are so large. "Back in the day" we had the joy and challenge of actually building stuff from far more basic elements.

Instead of just buying a motherboard "ready to go", we had to design, lay out, etch, drill then populate a board. This was a fascinatingly fun process that delivered huge rewards if/when it all finally worked. It also meant that we could exercise our own creativity in a way that modern PC builds totally lack. We also learned an awful lot more from the entire process than just how to use a screwdriver and push plugs into sockets.

I think that it's this simplifying of computer-builds that saw my own interests shift to microcontroller-based systems where designing and building bespoke hardware is sometimes still a thing. Likewise, on smaller systems it's normal to write the software from scratch, without even an operating system to rely on. That's fun!

In the past I have lamented the fact that radio HAMs are now able to engage in the hobby without ever turning on a soldering iron, thanks to the proliferation of store-bought transmitters and receivers. Perhaps I'm also sad that so many computer "enthusiasts" will never know the joys of scratch-building their own hardware and writing code that has no store-bought OS or libraries to lean on.

In a strange way, I really miss those all-night sessions struggling with home-made 8-bit CPUs and code that was laboriously converted to hex-codes, by hand, from the assembly-code I'd written. Compared to even the most sophisticated modern FPS gamer experience, this was fantastically challenging stuff with rewards that I'm pretty sure must have generated litres of dopamine.

While today's computer builders seem more fixated on how many FPS they can get out of CyberPunk and how low they can get their operating temperatures, 45 years ago there was a whole generation of us just struggling to get our code to work on hand-built hardware and getting just as much (if not more) fun out of the process.

So how will we get fun out of our computers in another 40 years' time?

Will it all be VR or augmented reality? Perhaps a direct interface to the brain via one of Elon's crazy ventures? Or maybe something that hasn't even been thought of yet?

Isn't the future a mysterious and wonderful place? :-)

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