We recently had the opportunity to try out an interesting new product for IBM users. What it does is both worthwhile and paradoxical. You plug it in and it makes your hard disk much faster and, at the same time, increases the space available on the disk.
Normally, of course, there's a tradeoff between size and speed. This rule applies to everything from athletes to cooking a roast. Somehow, though, this plug-in card sent our Norton SI disk efficiency index up from 2.3 to a whopping 10.7, and it added several megabytes of storage space to the bargain. At those speeds, articles are checked for spelling in a second. You don't have to worry about power outages either: Set the word processor to back up your file every ten minutes. The backup happens so fast, you almost don't notice it—you just keep on typing while the disk gulps the whole file in the blink of an eye.
It seems that anytime you increase the speed or storage capacity of your computer system, your behavior changes. There are differences in the way you program, write, debug, model financial information—all of the hundreds of things computers are good for (except games). For one thing, you become more experimental. If it takes five minutes to compile and test a program, you'll think twice before making modifications. The price of frivolity is very high when you have to sit around for a long time, waiting for results. But when compilation takes only seconds, you can play around with new ideas, pull and stretch a program, get inventive.
Likewise, additional memory (or a disk so fast it might as well be online memory) permits the luxury of surrounding yourself with your favorite utilities. Keyboard redefiners, macro shortcuts, calculators, note pads, memo files, the entire collection of your personal "desktop" accessories are only a keypress away. Those tools are much more likely to be used when they're conveniently at hand, when you don't have to load them in from floppy disks.
Floppies were a marvel in their day, though. Back in 1981 we were delighted at how much easier computing became when we switched from cassette tape to floppy disk storage. But one day, a machine from the future arrived at our offices on loan for review. It was the size of a suitcase and about as loud as an air conditioner, but the astounding thing was that it could hold and quickly access five megabytes (five and a quarter million characters—enough memory to hold an entire book). It cost around $5,000. Now, of course, you can get 20 megabytes for a few hundred dollars, but the five meg behemoth was a wonder in 1981. It suggested that sometime in the future there may be no need for us to keep feeding tapes or floppies to the computer—everything will be inside, ready when you turn it on.
That day is approaching. This, too, will change the psychology of computing. Consider WORM, a new optical disk technology which offers staggering amounts of storage space. How would you deal with thousands of megabytes, more memory than you could ever fill with programs, writing, even encyclopedias? You could put everything you've ever read, or will read, onto this new kind of disk and still have immense blank areas left over. But there's a catch: It is relentless. The name WORM derives from Write Once, Read Many. It's so big you can put things on it forever, but once stored, nothing can ever be erased.
You write a school paper for two hours, backing it up every ten minutes. All 12 versions are stuck inside your computer. Over the years more information is tattooed into the machine, layer upon layer.
I don't know about you, but I find the whole thing unnerving. Wouldn't you think twice before saving a file or program to WORM, knowing it was going to become eternal? Wouldn't you, for example, try out various versions of a program or a data file on floppy disk before saving it permanently? The most ironic reaction will probably come from people for whom too much is never enough: They'll conserve space; they'll be stingy with the WORM. That's even understandable, a WORM could quickly become impossibly cluttered. Imagine a disk directory with hundreds of thousands of entries. Imagine trying to back up countless megabytes.
The only solution might be to create disk management software that refuses to access whole regions of the WORM, places where you've "removed" excess data. Instead of backing up your hard disk every week, you would decide which versions or duplicates were to be added to the dead zone. Yet knowing that information is still inside, sitting there but inaccessible, is eerie. Nonetheless, so far we've made transitions from 8 to 612K of RAM memory, from 1 to 18 mHz clock speeds, and from .33 to 100 megabyte disks. It's likely that software designers will eventually find ways to make the relentless WORM effective and, possibly, even seem friendly.