Arlan R. Levitan
Fighting The Bloat Factor
Rapid change is one of the few constants in the world of personal computing. In a little over five years, the average personal computer's memory size has grown from about 48,000 bytes to more than one-half million bytes of storage, with one-and two-megabyte memories becoming common. Once the province of well-heeled small business computing, 40-megabyte hard disk drives are well within the reach of the average yuppie's pocketbook.
During this time, the average speed of computer hobbyist modems has barely kept pace. It has moved from 300 to 1200 bits per second (bps) over the past few years. While 2400 bps modems are now in vogue, far higher transmission speeds will be required by the average user in the future. Even now, the amount of computerized data we are likely to handle can be overwhelming.
This point was driven home rather forcibly to me the other day. I had decided to download four days of messages from the Atari ST special interest group on one of the commercial information services. I played it smart (or so I thought) by not pausing to read individual messages, instead capturing all the messages in a steady stream. I settled back in a lounge chair, put a new recording on the stereo, and closed my eyes for a moment…
I was rudely awakened by the bell signal from the computer which indicates that it has finished the download and logged off the information service. I sat down and gawked bleary-eyed at the screen. The sign-off message said that I had been on the system for almost an hour. Was that possible? I exited the terminal program to check the size of the downloaded message file. It consisted of a whopping 245K of text. With a healthy amount of trepidation, I loaded the document into a word processor that reputedly can take advantage of my ST's megabyte of memory. While the file did load, the word processor's performance was decidedly on the slothful side. Just for fun, I tried some global search and change operations. I stopped grinning when I found that each operation took several minutes.
Both my machine and I were victims of information overload, and more of the same is just around the corner for purchasers of so-called state-of-the-art microcomputers. Larger memory sizes encourage larger (and often less efficient) programs. Forget about 8K gems such as the original Star Raiders for the Atari 400 and 800. Say goodbye to the "huge" 128K address space of the Commodore 128. Bid a fond farewell to the ho-hum 640K of an IBM PC. There is already talk that serious software for the Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh, and even PC will soon require at least a million bytes of memory (if not 2 or 4 megabytes) and third-generation versions of the microprocessor chips those machines use today.
Think I'm stretching things? Apple Computer recently posted a new version of the Mac's operating system on the commercial information services two weeks before it was to be distributed to dealers. I was tempted to download all of the files involved—a total of 978,000 bytes—until I took a closer look at what it would cost. Assuming the 75 character-per-second throughput rate I usually experience on that particular service, it would take 3 1/2 hours to download the entire package—at a cost of about $42. Since the update would be available free of charge from my dealer in 14 days, I decided to pass on Apple's generosity.
Unless there is a corresponding increase in the base transmission speed of modems and the throughput of packet-switching networks, this trend bodes ill for the commercial information services and their subscribers. Under present circumstances, many hobbyists are willing to spend half an hour downloading a 48K program at 300 bps and pay $2.50 for the privilege. But how many of them will be willing to cough up $12 an hour to download bloated code for their new, increasingly more voracious computers? In my view, simple economics will force many hobbyists to abandon the commercial services and rely more and more on local, privately owned bulletin board systems and user groups for public domain software and personal networking.
How fast is fast enough? 2400 bps is generally regarded as a stopgap measure. If modems and the commercial services are to keep pace with the increased demands of 16-bit machines, they will need to support 9600 bps and perhaps even 19,200 bps on regular voice grade lines. Pacific Telephone and several other firms will reportedly bring 19.2K bps technology to the consumer market by early 1988. How the commercial services will see fit to charge for such data rates is anybody's guess. The cost of upgrading existing packet networks to support higher speeds may prove prohibitively expensive.
But the telephone line isn't the only communications link into the American home. Millions of households are already wired for cable television—a medium that can bring you 9600 bps communications for a cost of about $20 per month. We'll look into that next month.