Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 89 / OCTOBER 1987 / PAGE 20

32-Bit Processing:

Get Ready For The Next Wave

Keith Ferrell, Features Editor

Fast, powerful 32-bit computers are having a big impact on the business market—and it won't be long before that impact hits home as well.


It's an odd, almost archaic word to apply to the world of computers, but it's the word nearly everybody's using to describe the new 32-bit microcomputers that are setting speed and productivity records on virtually every application. PCs built around the Intel 80386 chip, and micros based on the Motorola 68000 series of chips, are being extolled as having all the horsepower even the most dedicated power user needs to achieve maximum computer speed and efficiency.

What does all that horsepower enable a computer to do? Combined with the right hardware and software, a 32-bit computer can access gigabytes of RAM, move huge amounts of data, or accomplish mathematical calculations at blinding speed.

The result is a computer able to complete spreadsheet calculations more quickly, deliver smoother and more detailed graphics and animation, spellcheck a manuscript in seconds, manage artificial intelligence applications of increasing sophistication and complexity, deliver digitized sound, run several programs at once in a process called multitasking, and achieve other applications we have not yet imagined.

Essentially, we are seeing the emergence of microcomputers able to do things which previously required expensive minicomputers or even mainframes.

And all of it is a result of the latest strides in microprocessor technology. Chips can now work with 32 bits of data at a time.

Bit By Bit

At the heart of any microcomputer is its microprocessor, the central processing unit (CPU). The microprocessor serves as the computer's regulating device, coordinating the instructions of the operating system, data, and programs among the memory, storage, input/output, and peripheral devices of a computer system.

It is the CPU that processes, or moves, data. The data and software—whether a game, a word processor and text files, spread-sheets with cells and columns of numbers, or anything else—must first be broken into manageable units of information. Each of these units is called a byte, and is composed of eight binary digits, or bits.

The smallest unit of computer memory is the bit. Eight bits ganged together are called a byte. Four-bit microprocessors can work with four bits of data at a time, eight-bit machines can move eight bits (a full byte), and so on. Put simply, the more bytes that the microprocessor can access, move, and manipulate at one time, the faster the results.

"In general," says Greg Riker, director of Compact Disc Interactive (CDI) technology for Electronic Arts, "the 32-bit machines have the ability to address far larger address space, which means that applications can be much bigger and can have huge amounts of RAM attached to the machine. And this allows programs to run far faster and get to a lot more memory a lot more quickly."

Business Before Pleasure

So far, the impact of the 32-bit machines has been felt most dramatically in business, reflecting a trend that's been dominant since the arrival of the second generation of eight-bit machines early in the 1980s. The driving force behind the first wave of eight-bit computers was the home user, whose enthusiasm for machines, including the Commodore 64, the Apple II, and the Atari eight-bit series, did so much to convince hardware manufacturers that there was, indeed, a market for desktop computers.

Those early enthusiasts carried their very contagious commitment to computers into the workplace, which responded with excitement of its own once eight-bit computers capable of running sophisticated spreadsheets, word processors, databases, and other applications arrived. To be precise, those machines—IBM PCs and their offspring clones and compatibles—are considered 8/16-bit machines: They're able to address eight bits at a time and process 16 bits at a time. That 16-bit processing capability made it possible for PCs to begin to demonstrate speeds and capabilities that, however distant, at least approached those of minicomputers.

With the business market established and growing through the early 1980s, processor manufacturers such as Intel and Motorola, along with companies such as Microsoft (which developed the operating system that runs the IBM PCs and clones), had the capital to apply intensive research and development energy to extending the capabilities of 8/16 computers, and to the development of the next generation of processors—true 16-bit machines.

Sweet Sixteen

Eight-bit machines, such as the IBM PC and its offspring clones and compatibles, brought word processing, spreadsheets, and databases to every large corporation and to many, if not most, medium and small businesses. With PCs selling in the millions, an impetus existed for the development of the next generation of microprocessors: the true 16-bit chip, such as Intel Corporation's 80286.

If the eight-bit machines elevated computer speed to a level where big business could do something with it, the 16-bit machines delivered speed and capabilities that were nothing less than stunning.

"The 286 now constitutes that mainstream processor of choice for most business," says Bob Beach, manager of corporate relations for Compaq Computer Corporation, a leading manufacturer of business-oriented microcomputers, and the company that introduced the first production-model 32-bit computer.

Just a couple of years old, the 286 machines are being eclipsed by their 32-bit descendants. Does the arrival of 32-bit processing spell the end of 16-bit machines? Not at all, says Beach.

"The 286 is still very much alive. There's still a lot of value left in 286 machines and, for that matter, the eight-bit PCs. As one user upgrades to a 32-bit machine, his 286 machine tends to be passed along to someone else."

Recently we've seen the introduction of 16/32-bit computers, such as the Macintosh, Amiga, and Atari ST, which attempt to offer the best of both worlds. But it is the true 32-bit machine that has caught the attention of the business community.

1987 = 386

Intel's 32-bit chip is the 80386, and excitement gathered around it from the moment it was introduced.

"1987 has been a year in which the 386 machines have gotten a great deal of attention," says Bob Beach. "And I think 1988 will definitely be the year of the 386 processor."

Compaq led the industry with the introduction of a 32-bit machine, putting the Compaq Deskpro 386 on the market in September of 1986—to much market enthusiasm, but also to some skepticism.

"One of the things that we found most interesting when we introduced our 386," Beach says, "was that a lot of articles were published asking who really needed that much power. And a lot of the answers were nobody. The 286, people felt, had plenty of speed and memory for the typical user."

The success of the Compaq 386—more than 10,000 were sold in the last quarter of 1986—and the quick entry of other compatibles manufacturers, such as PC's Limited (now Dell Computer Corporation), into the 386 market proved the skeptics were wrong.

"Obviously," Beach notes, "there are plenty of people out there who want this speed and power. We have yet to see a level point in the PC industry where users have said, ‘This is it. I don't need any more speed, I don't need any more storage.’"

Is there such a point? "I don't have any idea where such a level point is," Beach says, "if it exists at all."

Out Of The Cradle

With 386 machines on the market and in the hands of consumers, the question becomes: How long will it be before we are fully able to utilize their capabilities?

Beach suggests it's too early to say. "Thirty-two-bit processing is still in its infancy. For that matter, the 286 is just now starting to leave its teenage years and enter early adulthood."

For now, owners of 386-based systems are limited to using their machines to run existing IBM-compatible software, albeit at far faster speeds than possible on 286 machines. The current PC operating system, version 3 of Microsoft's MS-DOS, can access only 640K of RAM at a time, and is limited to mass storage devices of 32 mega-bytes or less. It won't be until Microsoft's new OS/2 operating system is introduced that the full power of the 386 will be unleashed.

The widely-touted OS/2 is still in development at Microsoft, with release expected next year. Simultaneously, Microsoft is working on an extension to DOS 3 that will be able to handle larger amounts of RAM as well as accessing larger storage devices.

"There are two markets [for 386 software]," Bob Beach says, "and it's important to bear both operating systems in mind. Both of them will be important to computer users, depending on the individual user's needs."

The Price Of Heading Home

So far, 32-bit machines have remained high-end items mostly affordable to large businesses. Computer prices, though, have displayed a tendency to decrease with success. Will 32-bit technology touch the home computer and entertainment market in the next few years?

"Definitely," says Electronic Arts's Riker. He points out that while the home user is not likely to purchase a high-end 32-bit machine—such as the Compaq Deskpro 386, PC's Limited 38616, or IBM's new Personal System/2 Model 80—other companies are already bringing 32-bit machines home.

"In general, the 32-bit processors of both the Intel [386] family and the Motorola 68000 family will, as their costs comes down, find their way into computers intended for the home."

Tandy/Radio Shack celebrated its tenth anniversary in the computer business with the early August introduction of its own 386 machine, the Tandy 4000. Pushing the price for an 80386-based com-each having 550 or more megabytes of storage, which is 1500 times what you can stick on a floppy."

There's more to CDI than storage, however. What can CDI deliver? "Digital audio of the same quality that you hear when you play a compact disc on your stereo system, and television-quality imagery."

In addition to the features the new technology offers, Riker is excited about the standardization of CDI technology. "For the first time," he says, "a specification for a system has been made available to any hardware manufacturer that chooses to license and build it."

According to Riker, the CDI builders—Phillips and Sony—are committed to keeping CDI's architecture open and standard so that each CDI system will be compatible with all the others. "In the past, when the Commodore 64 came out, you could only get it from Commodore. When the Apple IIGS came out, you could only get it from Apple. With CDI, Phillips and Sony have made the architecture of the system available to any manufacturer who wants to build it."

This decision, Riker feels, will have a large impact upon consumers. "For the first time, consumers looking for a computer will have the assurance that there is a standard. Any CDI disc can be put into any CDI player. Before, you had to be a pretty aware shopper knowing that Commodore software ran only on Commodore hardware."

Electronic Arts is targeting several products to be released in late 1988—at the same time the hardware will be ready.

A New Generation—Again

Will the new CDI software require a new generation of chips? Not at all. CDI is based upon Motorola's 32-bit 68000 series of microprocessors.

But if this next generation of technology rests on existing chips, the computers themselves will be something quite different from the keyboard/computer/monitor combinations we're familiar with now.

"The CDI player is itself the computer." Riker explains, "but it's not being called a computer. It's a freestanding Compact Disc Interactive system, meaning that the user interacts with the system through a pointing device. The 68000 and all the custom chips are contained in the box."

That box will be linked not with a desktop computer, but with other, more familiar home electronics devices.

"It has left and right audio outputs that connect to your stereo amplifier," Riker says. "There's a composite video output which you connect to either a modulator or to a monitor, and you're off and running."

Computers For Everybody

Riker and others involved in CDI see the technology as opening up a new market as well as attracting existing computer users. "We see CDI as a real breakthrough in getting to that large body of people out there who have not yet embraced computers as something that's a necessary part of their lives."

Because the discs are read-only, users won't be able to use them for word processing or other operations that change the disc itself.

"We see these players being put in the living room, and attached to the television set that the family watches," Riker says, "as opposed to being placed in the study and attached to a monitor as a peripheral to a word-processing type computer."

If this approach to CDI succeeds, it will represent a dramatic shift in the marketing of computers. "There's a real divergence that's beginning to occur now in terms of the way people think about their computers," Riker says.

In what way is the market diverging? "There's the kind of system that you work on," Riker says, "such as word processing, spread-sheets, telecommunications, and so on. Or it's going to be an entertainment system that connects to your home audio/video system."

And the entertainment-specific 32-bit CDI systems will bring us a new generation of entertainment? "You bet," Riker says. "The degree of realism is going to be unprecedented. You'll have audio that's the equivalent of the kind of audio you hear on a compact disc. The music for a game can be composed by John Williams, for example, or The Police, or Bruce Springsteen. All of a sudden the doors are thrown wide open for bringing in talent from other parts of the music industry that we never before could consider doing."

What about the pictures that go with the sound? "The incredible audio capability," Riker says, "will be coupled with the ability to present television-quality video on the screen. Plus it's interactive, not to mention the incredible amounts of storage space you have for audio, video, and other aspects of entertainment."

These two paths for computers come from the same source: The microprocessor whose evolution from 4 to 8 to 16 and 32 bits has been swift and is, doubtless, not over yet. Few who were involved in the industry a decade ago would have, or could have, predicted the shape of the industry and the part computers play in our lives today.

It's the same now, says Greg Riker. "These are exciting times, and I think we have not yet envisioned what tomorrow's computer applications are going to be like."

Compaq's Bob Beach is equally enthusiastic: "For the first time in the history of man's use of tools, we have a tool that is not created for any one specific task. By combining the right hardware and software, you can choose what task you want the computer to perform."

But while we wait for those applications to take shape, it's exciting—and entertaining—to speculate.