One hour -

One hour

My son starts college this Fall, fortunately, as I just can’t answer his questions about physics anymore. Like most incoming freshmen he’ll “need” a new computer. “Need” is of course a relative thing, but I suppose few students use pencils and slide rules any more.

So I found myself at a CompUSA trying to buy a laptop. Service, in this service economy, was of course abysmal. An hour went by as my blood pressure rose. The CompUSA associates knew little and cared less. I left in a huff, annoyed at spending an entire hour unsuccessfully trying to buy one lousy computer.

Later I realized how much has changed in a single generation. An hour to buy a computer? When I started college the microprocessor hadn’t been invented. Though companies could afford minicomputers, individuals never owned a machine. The University had a Univac 1108, a $10 million system sporting a 1.25 MHz clock with a meg of memory. 40,000 students competed for time on this machine. Typically it ran – poorly – some 500 jobs at a time, mostly submitted on card decks. The system crashed more often than Windows 1.0 and regularly lost jobs.

And I’m complaining about an hour to buy a computer whose power possibly outstrips all of the computers in the world back in 1971?

Back in those olden days even the smallest mini cost tens of thousands of dollars. And that’s when a new VW ran $3k or so. Yet now a few hundred dollars gets one an entry-level desktop.

Even handheld calculators didn’t exist. Belt-worn slide rules slapped engineering students’ legs, branding them as geeks long before Geeks On Call became an icon.

In the mid-70s HP released their HP-35, a reverse polish machine that offered quite a few useful engineering functions – for $400, when $400 was worth probably $1k in 2005 dollars. Yet now calculators are trade-show giveaways. High school kids “need” elaborate graphing calculators in their Algebra 1 classes. And, having watched them work these marvels, I have to admit it’s breathtaking to see a function unveil its mysteries without tediously plotting on graph paper. Remember how mind-numbingly boring that was?

Computers long ago became appliances. Devices we buy rather like selecting a toaster or TV. We “need” them for functions no one would have imagined. I’m utterly unable to write with a pen anymore, editing each sentence a dozen times and counting on the machine to highlight misspellings. It’s my revenge on the nuns who spent 8 years tormenting me for lousy penmanship. Now, who writes much of anything without booting a word processor? Does penmanship matter anymore? But PDAs still can’t recognize my scribbling, so maybe the good sisters were right after all.

An hour to buy a computer? I remember spending weeks coercing a parental friend just to let me in to see one, a mainframe buried in a NASA basement. And spending all of my lawn mowing money for 110 baud access to a Honeywell machine to learn Fortran.

I eventually did get a machine for my son, a shiny Vaio with dazzling graphics that’s giving me laptop lust. And he’ll have exclusive access to the thing; it won’t be time-shared. He expects just that – hasn’t it always been this way? One person, one computer? Few remember those old big iron days. Or that in 1974 when MIT retired their 7094, they found that, due to an OS bug, a job that had been submitted in 1967 was still waiting to run.

Now that’s a patient user.

Just a generation ago few people really “needed” a computer. Now we can’t imagine running our lives without one, or two, or three. And that’s not including the blizzard of embedded processors surrounding us. Sure, it might take an hour, or two, or three to buy one.

But during lucid moments I remain astonished that so much capability is available in every shopping mall for so little money.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response

I wonder how many processors are actually embedded in your son's notebook?

– Ingo Cyliax

I have installed PCs as machine controllers in a number of customer facilities and I always buy them from a privately owned store because the owner cares that I come back again. He also only sells me what I want, not what is the “special” on sale that day. I have heard horror stories about the service on standard brands; he can only sell the merchandise that he believes will satisfy his customers, so he has stayed in business for many years.

– Joel Wexler
JW Electronic Systems, Inc.

: >Service, in this service economy, was of course abysmal.

Ah yes, one of my favorite topics: The Myth of the Service Economy. We no longer need manufacturing, we'll just sell each other insurance and gasoline.

Go to any five fast food restaurants and place an order to “have it your way.” I guarantee you at least one of the orders (all five, more likely) will be wrong. And we're going to base our entire economy on this?

Coincidentally, I also have a son entering college in the fall, and coincidentally he also “needs” a laptop. Against my better judgement. I caved into his wish and ordered a Dell (“The horror”). It has yet to ship, so I'll reserve comment on this aspect of The Service Economy. But knowing Dell as I do, things don't look good.

The ultimate irony? My son wants to be a Field Service Engineer when he graduates. Will his generation make The Service Economy work? I hope they bury me before that question is answered.

– Larry Brunson
Sr Software Engineer
FireLite Alarms

7 years waiting for it to run? Sounds like my Windoze machine trying to shut down sometime…

– Andy Kunz
Sr. Firmware Engineer
Transistor Devices

Just a sidebar:

Took about two minutes googling to discover from that the hp35 was introduced in 1972 for $395 and from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that $395, 1972, is roughly equivalent to $1835, 2005.

– Edward Ezzell

: > Service, in this service economy, was of course abysmal.

From my perspective, the ratio of service-related jobs to innovative/creative/developmental jobs is disgusting. This is not a revelation, but what is surprising and scary is that I know, and know of, far too many college students (with 4-year degrees) in service jobs. Hopefully my view does not reflect the nation as a whole.

– Newbie 23 yr old engineer

I believe it's always a trade-off. Do you want quality of service or job oportunities? In my home country, you have very often excellent engineers working on computer shops as salesmen. They have university degrees, they are up-to-date, they read magazines, reviews, deploy linux networks at home, play on-line, etc. Sure enough, they do a great job in advising people. Now what are the chances they'll grow in their careers? Low. They keep those jobs for years.

In the U.S., people want dynamic jobs. How long do you take a job at Best Buy? Sure enough, they (the salespeople at Best Buy) are clueless. They barely manage to learn how to use the cash register and endorse a gift certificate. Do you believe them when they strongly recommend you an extended service plan? One day someone told me the Radio Shack Motto: “you've got questions, we've got batteries”. Found it quite amusing.

With today's economy, get used to it: go to the newsgroups and magazines for advice. Then order online. The bigger stores? Go there if you are bored on a rainy Sunday. The personnel? Maybe they know on which aisle contains the product you are looking for. I believe cheap products, dynamic jobs, and service quality are hard to combine.

– Julian

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