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COFFEE WITH WARREN: Laptop grief? Moore’s the pity!

This week is the birthday of our older son, Reg Harbeck , an Information Technology consultant.
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This week is the birthday of our older son, Reg Harbeck, an Information Technology consultant. To honour the occasion, I’ve asked him to provide a guest column about another birth that occurred the same year as his that calls computer designers to “responsible frugality”: Moore’s Law. The lesson? The glitter of personal computers is no substitute for time-tested mainframes.  Reg?

MY LAPTOP COMPUTER is nearly four years old, so I recently looked to see what it would cost to buy an upgraded version. Surprise, surprise: nothing that had as much capacity was available for the price I’d paid – the price had gone up and the capacity had gone down in available models. Since when are computers subject to inflation?

Meanwhile, the more software I install on my computer, the slower it runs. And newer versions of that software are not prone to speed it up, instead piling on new features, functionality, and data usage. One of my colleagues calls this constant inflation of software size and data and processor usage “bloatware.” It reminds me of an ancient “law” of computer software: “Any given program will expand to fill all available memory.”

Since 1965, we’ve all come to take for granted that computers would keep getting faster and faster to make up for the increasing demands we placed on them, thanks to a discovery that this was the trend, which came to be referred to as “Moore’s Law” after its discoverer. That trend has now ended, but we keep piling more stuff onto our computers anyway. Maximum processor speed has frozen around 5 GHz for over a decade, and more and more tricks are having to be used to make up for that fact.

But tricks are no substitute for responsible design, and that is a fact we’ve known since long before 1965, yet many software companies seem to have forgotten over the past 55 years. Instead, it almost seemed like the software was deliberately made more and more complex in order to support the PC hardware companies in selling ever-newer-and-faster models to be able to run the latest versions, while the older versions became unsupported.

Back before the discovery of Moore’s Law, mainframe computer systems were generally frugally and carefully designed, with the idea that they’d never have enough resources (memory, storage, speed, etc.) to meet demand, so they had to be responsibly frugal with what they had. Programs and applications were written not to waste, or perform extraneous functions. And while the interfaces may have been simplistic, they worked well enough that those very programs and computers are actually still running the world economy today, in their current versions, having been maintained, enhanced and redesigned to meet modern requirements, sometimes for over five decades.

It's funny that, in some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced the existence and importance of these responsibly designed mainframe systems. As governments have panicked to make changes to their unemployment and social support systems given greatly increased demand, they’ve discovered that they’ve been underinvesting in the maintenance of these systems, which were so well-designed that they’ve just kept running, with the minimum of caretaking, for decades. And they’re still more functional than any quick-and-easy alternatives someone might try to slap together in their place.

What does it all mean? It looks to me like the end of Moore’s Law, the hardships imposed by the pandemic, and the rediscovery of responsible frugality may just lead to designing quality software systems for laptops and other PCs that are written to assume limited resource availability and the need to not be wasteful while performing their functions.

You might say we’re finally learning the real Moore’s lesson.

THANKS, Reg. Happy Birthday! —Dad

© 2020 Reginald Harbeck

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