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Nostalgia: 40 years on in a new era of the Take Home Computer

40 years ago: the take home computer. 30 years ago: it gets a full fledged operating system. 20 years ago: an audio codec for take home computer hardware is standardized. 10 years ago: the smart phone. 1977. 1987. 1997. 2007. 2017??

The August 3 birthday brings back memories. Harry McCracken notes the 40th anniversary and cites his story of five years ago: Please Don’t Call It Trash-80: A 35th Anniversary Salute to Radio Shack’s TRS-80. 1977 was the year the world turned over as Apple, Radio Shack, and Commodore made computing a take home experience.

That 2012 retrospective was accompanied by another: 25 Years of IBM’s OS/2: The Strange Days and Surprising Afterlife of a Legendary Operating System — “Big Blue’s next-generation operating system was supposed to change everything. It didn’t. But it’s also never quite gone away.” This was after ten years of development of the hardware and introduced modern operating systems concepts to the ‘take home’ computer. The Macintosh and Windows were salad dressing on operating systems that were little more than file management software. DOS had some add-on memory management utilities and there were video and other device drivers but these ad-hoc fixes were incomplete solutions. OS/2 changed that in providing task management that allowed downloading files from a network while printing a document and editing a document seamlessly all at the same time. The problem OS/2 faced was that the hardware wasn’t really quite up to the task.

Another *7 hallmark is the Intel AC’97 (Wikipedia). “AC’97 defines a high-quality, 16- or 20-bit audio architecture with 5.1 surround sound support for the PC. AC’97 supports a 96 kHz sampling rate at 20-bit stereo resolution and a 48 kHz sampling rate at 20-bit stereo resolution for multichannel recording and playback.” This one marks a change in the take home computer from a rather limited computing device to a full fledged networked, multitasking, general purpose appliance.

Ten years ago, the hallmark device is likely to be the Apple iPhone. See CNBC The iPhone went on sale 10 years ago today – here’s how far it’s come or, for where it is today, Cnet iPhone 8: Everything we know about the launch date, specs and price. For social impact, read Molla on How Apple’s iPhone changed the world: 10 years in 10 charts — “Everything has changed.” Take home computing technology has advanced from a big box to something you can put in your pocket, from a several thousand dollar expense to only a tens of dollars expense, from limited functionality to replacing a whole plethora of personal devices.

Now, 40 years after the first computers based on the Z-80, the 6502, and similar chips, the entire guts of those first take home computers is all embedded into a chip that can be had for under $5. This includes working and storage memory, support circuits, and a whole lot of peripheral support machinery. The clock speed has increased by a factor of a hundred and the word size by a factor of eight. That’s just the SoC or system on a chip and the microcontroller collection. The chips that have replaced the dedicated CPU needing external memory and peripheral interfacing circuits now include multiple processors running at a thousand times the speed with enhanced instruction sets to handle modern network and security needs.

As McCracken tells the story, his dad brought home a TRS-80 when he was a junior in high school. Just a few years earlier, a high school student would have to visit a nearby university to play with computers. The Dartmouth BASIC project to put terminals in high schools had started only a few years before the 1977 watershed year but even that required going to a special place that had special connections to a special university computing facility. 40 years on and the junior in high school is buying his own Raspberry Pi to create a retro gaming rig that runs emulators of earlier home computers to play old fashioned games of ten, twenty, or more years ago. And that is not to mention his cell phone with all of its apps or the laptop or whatever he’s got for personal computing needs.

It may be that the marker this *7 year is when the computer goes from a take home appliance to in integral part of home management. The home becomes the computer. This is the IoT or I’net of Things concept where the refrigerator can order what’s needed to keep its stock up for you, the thermostat works with the power company to assist in community energy supply management, and your car knows who you are and how to get you to where you want to go.

Can you keep up? Or will you really even notice?