Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 148 / JANUARY 1993 / PAGE 100

Emerging technologies. (computer technology)
by Tom Campbell

Two years ago this month, I found a way to overcome my insatiable credit card habit and to upgrade my home computer system in one stroke, conveniently killing two dubious birds with one expensive stone: I bought a 386. With its 1024 x 768 Super VGA, 210MB hard disk, and 4MB of RAM, the machine TKO'd my VISA account at $3,400, but it also made working at home a lot easier. On this anniversary of the blessed event, with 80386 technology on the decline (I could buy the same system today for about a third of the price I paid) and expansion bus-based Super VGA barely adequate for my daily work, I thought I'd take a look at the latest technology and see what will be in the ascendant over the next couple of years. These aren't so much predictions as they are extrapolations of trends that are making the scene at trade shows and popping up in press releases from startup companies you've never heard of. Yet.

Don't Forget Your PIMs, Kids!

In 1995, our two boys, Peter and John, will be halfway through high school and on its cusp, respectively. Brian Dougherty of GeoWorks thinks they'll be slipping personal information managers (PIMs) in their backpacks, along with their well-worn copies of the ANSI C++ standard document, which they'll be using in their Win64 programming classes. Dougherty, who's al-ready earned his place in history for creating GeoWorks, the Windows that should have been, knows as well as the next person just how lucrative it could be if Peter and John were carrying user-friendly palmtops to help them track assignments and bone up for Language Arts, whatever that is. He also knows it'll mean better hardware at a fraction of the current price, and he knows whereof he speaks. Hush-hush deals in the works to develop the next-generation user interface software also tell him that the price will be right: under $500 for a palmtop of the Newton variety.

Looking into Another Window

Microsoft may have something to say about that. Its recently announced Modular Windows will appear in none other than VIS (Video Information System), Tandy's new multimedia player. Modular Windows is designed to be legible on TVs from five to ten feet away, and it's been simplified so much that it makes the normal so-called user-friendly interface of Windows 3.1 look like a control program for the Vladivostok Waste Disposal Facility. It also heralds the dawn of Windows NT, a Lego-like operating system that's only 60K at its core. GeoWorks is still the king of lightweight operating systems with heavyweight features, but it isn't the only player in the game. And it doesn't have 20,000 working developers in its court.

You Can Take It with You

On the other hand, maybe my desktop system will soon be able to trade plug-in cards with my kids' palmtops. The Personal Computer Memory Card International Associa-tion (PCMCIA) has sprung up to avert a VHS-versus-Beta-style disaster in the palmtop market. Correctly anticipating the wave of subnotebook computers, the PCMCIA worked with a similar Japanese standards organization to hammer out a standard for the Nintendo-like cartridges palmtops will use for everything from RAM upgrades to portable fax machines to software distribution. Some say the tiny cartridges are good enough to become popular on desktop machines, replacing the space-eating, fingernail-tearing, DIP switch-riddled slot cards we all know and love. Of course, they said the same thing about the PCjr, which employed a similar scheme.

The PCMCIA card standard defines a 52-pin 2- x 3-inch card for laptops and subnotebooks. There's no reason to expect its use will be limited to little computers, though. The card has plenty of room for expansion because only a few of the pins are reserved by the standard (for power, memory bus, data communications, interrupt signals, and the like). This lets the cards work consistently in any PCMCIA-compatible machine, yet it also lets manufacturers add proprietary boosts to distinguish their cards from those of other firms. One yet Apple will have the choice of offering a higher-speed communications link for AppleTalk connection.

Mr. Wizard Returns

Admit it. You have a love/hate relationship with documentation. On the one hand, you decry the state of affairs when you open your latest word processor upgrade and behold five or six good-sized paperback books and half a dozen quick-reference guides. It's got full page-layout capabilities. You won't even need PageMaker anymore. But you have no idea what those hieroglyphics mean on the icon bar. Then you pop over to Crown Books and spend $29.95 for a book that basically recapitulates the contents of all those manuals, only in less detail. How does this come about? People stampede the WordPerfect booth at COMDEX pestering the developers to leapfrog Microsoft Word in the features war and then turn around and hammer WordPerfect for making its products too complicated. Then these same people slip over to the Microsoft booth and do the same. Just for the sheer love of blood sport.

There are three major ways that this is being dealt with by software developers:

* Programs are being developed that integrate the programs you already know.

* Developers are creating invisible helping hands that guide you through your work.

* Companies are getting together and establishing interface and task standards.

At the vanguard of the first technique, you'll find hDC. Its Windows PowerApps utility suite lets you create toolbars for any application--even apps that don't have toolbars of their own. You can design your own icons or steal them from other sources, attach keyboard macros to them, and even customize mouse behavior.

The second trail to helping users make better use of their software is being blazed by Microsoft in its Windows applications. Microsoft is developing interactive tutorial software called wizards that help you with your current task, not just on a demo that has no relationship to real life.

Wizards take you step by step through complex chores such as multicolumn layouts, as if you had a real expert handy. Expect to see wizardlike technology in other Windows programs over the next couple of years.

The third way vendors hope to make software easier is to agree on programming standards that will allow parts of one company's product to attach themselves to parts of another company's program. For example, you might prefer to use the WordPerfect for Windows text-editing module instead of the one that comes with your accounting package, or you might want to use part of Procomm Plus for the communications portion of your integrated Windows package. This concept has been bandied about in the Macintosh world for years, and it has about the same chance of working as a Macintosh clone.

The Slow Catch Up

The new breed of palmtops will boast an astounding screen resolution of 640 x 400--almost as powerful as the six-year-old VGA standard. I've become used to something a bit better, though, as have many of us who own Super VGA systems. On the other hand, most high-resolution screen drivers for Windows are extremely difficult to install.

Soon, that situation will get . . . worse.

If your computer is so fast, why does it take so long to refresh the screen? The most common complaint about Windows is that it's slow. But surprisingly, Windows already works faster than the average VGA video card can push pixels around the screen. In fact, the speed bottleneck is sending video signals through the outdated and comparatively mazelike system of circuits that connect your CPU with your video-out jack. From the days when Steve Wozniak was soldering together his Apple I, video has been the weak link in the chain, slowing down and crippling everything else.

The answer to the video bottleneck is the local bus. Local bus provides an almost direct connection between the CPU and the video card (which will take the form of a video chip in the new design).

Right now, local bus applies to anything using this technique, and until very recently there was no standard. Everyone was using different tricks to accomplish the same noble goal, but that means if you buy a local-bus machine today, you might not be able to find drivers for it in a few years. That's one of the continuing problems in the computer age. Fortunately, standards are being established, which should make the future at least a little bit more predictable.

Local bus is normally thought of as a way to speed up video cards, but in fact, it's a general-purpose very high speed data connection to the CPU. A local bus is similar in concept to your PC slots, but its speed isn't limited by the hardware, as the speed of normal ISA slots is. (The original PC card standard was flexible and farsighted, but it imposed a speed limit on data transmission for reliability, a hallmark of IBM architecture at that time.) Your PC slots are usually either 8- or 16-bit slots, immediately guaranteeing that your 32-bit 386 or 486 will suffer a bottleneck in dealing with the outside world, notably video cards. Additionally, the ISA expansion bus operates at a set 8 MHz--an enormous speed when the PC was developed but a snail's crawl today.

This slowdown isn't noticeable when you're printing, telecommunicating, or using a hard disk. The devices you use for these activities are slower than the normal expansion bus speed. But when you use video intensively, as in animation or drawing, the effect of the bus speed can be seen. Even in mundane matters like scrolling through a document in a Windows word processor, the herky-jerky way most computers advance is caused by the trickle of information from the CPU to the video card, as one part of the system waits for another part of the system to catch up.

Local bus gives your 32-bit processor a means of sending data at processor speed to a receiving device. What's most interesting is that the Super VGA standards group, VESA, does not limit local bus to video. Local- bus video, hardware controllers, and network cards that conform to the VESA standard are already sprouting up. Not even the relatively new 32-bit EISA and Micro Channel can run as fast as local bus, so it's quite possible that it will replace them. For now, if you're shopping for a computer, look for a machine that hews to the VESA standard (VESA's version of the local bus is called VL-Bus) or to the competing Intel standard (called Peripheral Component Interconnect--PCI for short). That way, you'll be prepared for the flood of superfast peripheral devices that will appear over the next couple of years.

In the near future, changing the video standard might simply mean pulling your video chip out of its local-bus socket and replacing it with a new one or upgrading your computer to an as-yet-undreamed-of video technology.

VL-Bus architecture is ready for 64-bit processors when they arrive on the

Old News Flash

The second-most-recent hardware add-on hype is flash memory, which combines the sluggishness of a disk drive with the much-greater expense of RAM. This isn't the breakthrough, however. The breakthrough is that it acts like RAM but holds its contents when you switch your machine off. This news is hauntingly familiar to those of us who remember bubble memory, which was all the rage in 1983 but suffered the same limitations--inferior speed coupled with a record-high price per kilobyte. Hewlett-Packard refused to jump into the flash memory fray, and that's because it came out with...

Little-Bitty Hard Disk Drives

Smaller than a half dollar and only $200 per 20MB, Hewlett-Packard's Lilliputian hard drives beat flash memory by a factor of 3 in its dollar-per-megabyte-of-storage ratio. It may not be as flashy, but it will no doubt do what flash memory was supposed to do. The company plans to put these supersmall hard disk drives on PCMCIA cards. This miniaturization leads to an interesting situation. Imagine a 20MB hard card no larger (and perhaps smaller) than the MasterCard you'll use to pay for it.

NT Promises

When the PC came out in 1981, IBM built it with off-the-shelf parts and published all the specifications so that anyone could write software or hardware that worked with the machine. Despite smug posturing by Apple, a company so hubristic that it placed snide ads in the Wall Street Journal "welcoming" IBM to the market, IBM instantly achieved world personal computer domination.

In 1987, IBM displayed its intelligence and foresight by building on that success with the Micro Channel machines, which were hardware incompatible with the PC, and OS/2, which was incompatible with DOS.

Despite the warm embrace of a supportive, receptive high-tech community (NOT!), this farsighted ideal collapsed in a few months, and OS/2 and the Micro Channel are still trying to extract themselves from the chaos.

Microsoft gazed upon the carnage and learned. The result was Windows NT. It's everything Windows and OS/2 and UNIX and OS/360 were supposed to be, yet it's still pretty compatible with its predecessors. Microsoft has done an incredibly good job aiding developers in the transition, so its debut will be accompanied by literally thousands of compatible applications.

Windows NT will cost under $500, but hold onto your hat--you'll need at least 12 megabytes of RAM and 100 megabytes free on your hard disk to make good use of it. But boy, will it network.

Speaking of networking, Microsoft has thrown down the gauntlet to makers of network operating systems in the form of Windows for Work Groups, a special version of Windows specifically intended for networking.

Days of Future Past

Whenever people are faced with revolutionary change, they wonder, "What will happen next?" Personal computers seem to be in a state of perpetual revolution. Faster, smaller, and easier seem to be the only sure predictions for the future.

What is coming is a computer that is faster and more powerful, with greater storage and more ease-of-use features. Sound familiar? It should. It's no wild speculation to say that tomorrow's computer will be faster and easier to use.

The predictions made for wizards, Windows NT, the local bus, and the rest represent an ideal toward which the computer industry has been striving since its inception.