By Walter S. Ciciora,
Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on
Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues
As I'm sure you remember, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel and also Fairchild Semiconductor, made the observation that every 12 to 18 months, the number of digital transistors that can be obtained for a given price approximately doubles. Another way of looking at this is that the price for the same number of digital transistors approximately halves in that time period. This is just a specific case of learning curve theory. Learning curve theory states that competition drives efficiency, and in most cases, doubling the quantity manufactured results in a certain percentage reduction in the cost of manufacturing. This is because the experience of manufacturing under competition forces learning. If a 15 percent reduction in costs comes from a doubling of cumulative production quantity, we say we have a 15 percent learning curve. This kind of learning tends to go on for many cycles of doubling of production as long as competitive pressure remains.
Another observation that comes from getting a bit older: life goes by one day at a time, and small changes accumulate into big ones without being noticed. That happens with Moore's Law as well.
Recently, my trusty desk computer became unstable and essentially useless. I spent some time trying to cure it and realized it was taking too much time away from more profitable pursuits.
And besides, there were some deadlines in jeopardy (including the deadline for this column). So I ordered a new desk machine. I didn't feel too bad about it because my first computer rule is to not buy a new computer any more frequently than every other year (and my second computer rule is not to violate the first rule any more often than every other time). So I was still within my rules.
The computer ordering process was a shock, mostly a good shock, but a shock nevertheless.
The machine I ordered is just amazing. Without going through a complete laundry list of its features, the machine has a 3.0 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1.5 GB of RAM, two 200 GB 7200 RPM hard drives, a CD read/write drive, a DVD read/write drive and a TV tuner with Personal Video Recorder functionality. The previous machine was a 750 MHz Pentium 3 with 256 MB of RAM, and two 40 GB 5000 RPM hard drives, a DVD read-only drive and a CD read/write drive.
Both machines are very near, but not quite, at the top of what was available at their times of manufacture. The increase in capability is simply shocking, and in just three short years.
Using Consumer Price Index information (from: http://www.minneapo-lisfed.org/research/data/us/calc/hist1800.cfm), the $3,304 I paid for the old machine in March of 2000 would be worth $3,524 today. I actually paid $3,617 for the new machine with all of its improvements and additional features. (I don't think there was sales tax three years ago, but I'm not sure about that.)
This experience made me think about how far technology has progressed in just a few decades. And it teaches important lessons for the future. When I got the previous machine, I couldn't imagine that improvements would continue beyond its capabilities. But they have–to a shocking degree. I can't imagine improvements continuing much beyond the capabilities of the new machine. But it would be foolish to think they won't. I'll probably be buying a new machine in another three years!
Looking around my office, there are other indications of massive progress in the recent past. On my shelf is a box from a 2.1 GB hard drive that I used to upgrade a computer from about 1996. I remember being very pleased to have that much additional capacity. The box on the floor is from a 200 GB hard drive I'll install in the previous computer once I stabilize it. The price of the 200 GB drive is about the same dollar number as I paid for the 2.1 GB drive. The 10 times improvement in capacity comes at roughly the same price, probably a little less, taking CPI numbers into account. Going farther back into memory, my first portable computer, a Compaq "luggable," had a 20 MB hard drive. At that time, I couldn't imagine needing more! Now I have 20,000 times more hard drive capacity!
Another shocking statistic: I was recently reviewing a paper that talked about the high anxiety over an information terminal in 1970 because 1K of RAM then cost about $60. Using the CPI data, that has today's value of $280! At that price, the 1.5 GB of RAM in my new computer would cost $420 million! And the 256 MB memory card for my digital camera would cost about $70 million. I paid $75.
I received another shock recently. The second edition of "Modern Cable Technology" by co-authors Jim Farmer and Dave Large (and this time adding Michael Adams) is about to go to press. Its page count has increased from 873 pages to 1,030 pages. The proof pages were sent to us by secure e-mail. The whole 1,030 pages, figures included, fit onto about 7.5 MB. It hardly used any of a three-inch CD-ROM (185 MB capacity).
So what's the point of all of this?
Storage is cheaper than could have been expected. Compression is more powerful than we could have hoped. And electronics is powerful beyond imagination. And all three are progressing rapidly.
Cable technologists are faced with a difficult challenge. On the one hand, they have to be practical and consider the priorities of the moment. They can't let their imaginations go wild. On the other hand, they have to be visionary and anticipate and prepare for the future. These are difficult conditions to meet.
Have a comment? Contact Walt by e-mail at: Walt@Ciciora.com