I just spent five minutes waiting for my laptop to boot up. It’s a fairly standard spec, running the dog’s breakfast that is Vista, but still, it shouldn’t take that long. In a world of cloud computing, could we be looking ahead to instant start-up as clients get thinner? I doubt it.
I’ve documented my history with computing on this blog before, but very briefly you go ZX81, ZX Spectrum, IBM PC running DOS, GEM (a precursor to Windows), Windows, self-built PC, and now I’m the proud owner of four networked machines that all do their own thing in their own inimitable way (sorry about talking tech with long words but I’ve just been listening to the Fry Chronicles and marveling at how Stephen Fry reacted to tech in the same way I did).
In one way it’s a history of progression, from a 1KB system that didn’t have enough memory to fill the screen with characters, to being able to store all my DVDs, uncompressed, on one hard drive.
But in another, it’s not.
The ZX81 and Spectrum were so-called ‘clean machines’, that is, you just turned them on and they booted up instantly because the operating system was built into the hardware. The early DOS-based machines were similarly quick to start up, not as immediate but pretty fast. Certainly not five minutes. And, for the record, I cannot remember one instance in which a DOS-based machine crashed. Not one.
Since then, machines seem to take longer and longer and longer to start up. And despite the laptop I’m typing at right now being several orders of magnitude more powerful than the PC I built several years ago, it doesn’t strike me as much faster. It does more things, and it’s easier to use, but it’s not really faster. My netbook, if anything, is quite a lot slower.
An anecdote: I used to work for a company that delivered financial information to the City via a web browser. It was very forward-looking stuff (too forward-looking perhaps – it never made it). I remember trying to nail down the specs for running the system and in the end we just decided ‘if it can run Windows, it can run us’. This was quite neat, but still we got enquiries from people running machines that were only a year or so old that couldn’t handle it, particularly if the City was feeling quite bullish.
I remember saying to the tech manager, with heavy irony, “So they don’t have enough capacity to run our thin-client system then?” My how we laughed.
Here’s what I want: a completely online operating system. Something so server-based that all I have to do is switch my machine on, and everything runs online. The only thing the local machine has to look after is the web connection, maybe some security, and that’s it. I know there are versions of this – my Samsung netbook came with one that didn’t work so I uninstalled it – but I cannot name any.
But I doubt that’s going to happen. Chip designers and manufacturers will, out of necessity, produce faster and more capacious chips because they’re in a competitive market. In response, and for the same reason, software designers will use that computing power to do more. Your local machines will continue to gain weight.
So I’d really love not to have to wait for my machines to boot up, or to have to update every sodding piece of software on a daily basis. Instead, I’d like to transfer all the computing online, because it’s a much neater way to do it. I want a dumb but trim terminal, not a clever, overweight machine. I want something more akin to my clever little black cat rather than my stupid fat one.