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Сочинение: Dawn of the digital information era

                   Dawn of the digital information era.                   
Successive waves of computing technology over the past 50 years have led to
huge changes in business and social life. But the internet revolution is just
beginning, writes Paul Taylor.
Thomas Watson, who  founded one of the giants of the information tech­nology
world, could not have been more wrong. In 1946, the head of International
Business Machines, said: "I think there is a world market for maybe five
computers." Today, half a cen­tury later, as we head towards  1bn people with
access to the internet, the true scale of his mis­calculation is apparent.
Computers, and the semicon­ductors that power them, have invaded almost every
aspect of our lives and become the engine for perhaps the greatest changes
since the industrial revolution - the dawn of a digital information era based
upon the ones and zeros of computer binary code.
The last 50 years have seen at least three phases of computing, each building
on, rather than replacing, the last.
These "waves" have included mainframes and departmental mini-computers, the
PC era and client/server computing and, most recently, the emergence of the
internet computing model built around the standards and technologies of the
Each wave has enabled a shift in business processes: main­frames have
automated complex tasks, personal computers have provided users with personal
pro­ductivity tools and internet com­puting promises to deliver huge gains in
productivity and effi­ciency, as well as the ability to access huge volumes
of informa­tion.
The technological foundations for these changes began to be laid more than
350 years ago by Blaise Pascal, the French scien­tist who built the first
adding machine which used a series of interconnected cogs to add num­bers.
Almost 200 years later, in Britain Charles Babbage, the "father of the
computer", begun designing the steam-powered analytical engine which would
have used punched cards for input and output and included a memory unit, had
it ever been completed.
But the modern computer age was really ushered in by Alan Turing who in 1937
conceived of the concept of a "universal machine" able to execute any
algorithm - a breakthrough which ultimately led to the build­ing of the code-
breaking Colossus machine by the British during the second world war.
In 1946, the Electronic Numeric Integrator  and  Calculator (ENIAC) computer
which con­tained 18,000 vacuum tubes was built in the US. Two years later
scientists at Manchester com­pleted "Baby", the first stored program machine
and ushered in the commercial computing era.
Since then, computer architec­ture has largely followed princi­ples laid down
by John von Neu­mann, a pioneer of computer science in the 1940s who made
significant contributions to the development of logical design and advocated
the bit as a mea­surement of computer memory.
In 1964, IBM introduced the System/360, the first mainframe computer family
and ushered in what has been called the first wave of computing.
From a business perspective, the mainframe era enabled com­panies to cut
costs and improve efficiency by automating difficult and time consuming
Typically, the mainframe, based on proprietary technology developed by IBM or
one of a handful of competitors, was housed in an air-conditioned room which
became known as the "glasshouse" and was tended by white-coated technicians.
Data were input from "green screen" or "dumb" terminals hooked into the
mainframe over a rudimentary network.
The mainframe provided a highly secure and usually reli­able platform for
corporate com­puting, but it had some serious drawbacks. In particular, its
pro­prietary technology made it costly and the need to write cus­tom-built
programs for each application limited flexibility.
The next computing wave was led by the minicomputer makers which built
scaled-down main­frame machines dubbed depart­mental minis or mid-range
systems. These still used propri­etary technology, but provided much wider
departmental access to their resources via desktop ter­minals.
Among manufacturers leading this wave of computing was Digi­tal Equipment
with its Vax range of machines and Wang which developed a widely used
propri­etary word-processing system.
A key factor driving down the cost of computing power over this period was
significant advances in the underlying tech­nology and in particular,
In 1947, scientists at Bell telephone laboratories in the US had invented the
"transfer resistance" device or "transistor" which would eventually provide
computers with a reliability unachievable with vacuum tubes.
By the end of the 1950s, inte­grated circuits had arrived - a development
that would enable millions of transistors to be etched onto a single silicon
chip and collapse the price of comput­ing power dramatically.
In 1971, Intel produced the 4004, launching a family of "processors on a
chip" leading to the develop­ment of the 8080 8-bit micropro­cessor three
years later and open­ing the door for the emergence of the first mass
produced personal computer, the Altair 8800.
The development of the per­sonal computer and personal pro­ductivity software
- the third wave of computing - was led by Apple Computer and IBM in
con­junction with Microsoft which provided IBM with the operating system for
the first IBM PC in 1981.
This year, an estimated 108m PCs will be sold worldwide including a growing
number of sub - $500 machines which are expanding the penetration of PCs into
households which previously could not afford them.
Sometimes, however, software development has not kept pace. As Robert
Cringely, the Silicon Valley technology guru, notes: "If the automobile had
followed the same development as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost
$100, get a million miles per gallon and explode once a year, killing
everyone inside."
Nevertheless, for businesses the arrival of the desktop PCs built around
relatively low cost standard components put real computing power into the
hands of end-users for the first time. This meant Individual users could
create, manipulate and con­trol their own data and were freed from the
constraints of dealing with a big IT department.
However, the limitations of desktop PCs as "islands of com­puting power" also
quickly became apparent. In particular, people discovered they needed to hook
their machines together with local area networks to share data and
peripherals as well as exchange messages.
By the start of the 1990s, a new corporate computer architecture called
client/server computing had emerged built around desk­top PCs and more
powerful serv­ers linked together by a local area network.
Over the past few years, how­ever, there has been growing disatisfaction,
particularly among big corporate PC users, with the client/server model
mainly because of its complexity and high cost of lifetime ownership.
As a result, there has been a pronounced swing back towards a centralised
computing model in the past few years, accelerated by the growth of the
The internet has its origins in the 1970s and work undertaken by Vinton Cerf
and otters to design systems that would enable research and academic
institu­tions working on military pro­jects to co-operate.
This led to the development of the Ethernet standard and TCP/ IP, the basic
internet protocol. It also led Bob Metcalfe to promul­gate "Metcalfe's Law"
which states the value of a network is proportional to the square of the
number of nodes attached to it.
But arguably, it was not until the mid-1990s and the commer­cialisation of
the Internet that the true value of internetworking became apparent. The
growth of the internet and the world wide web in particular since then has
been astonishing.
With the help of tools like web browsers, the internet was trans­formed in
just four years from an arcane system linking mostly academic institutions
into a global transport system with 50m users. Today, that figure has swollen
to about 160m and esti­mates for the electronic com­merce that it enables are
pushed up almost weekly.
According to the latest Gold-man Sachs internet report, the business-to-business
e-commerce market alone will grow to £l,500bn in 2004, up from $114bn
this year and virtually nothing two years ago.
Two inter-related technologies have been driving these changes:
semiconductors and network communications.
For more than 25 years, semi­conductor development has broadly followed the
dictum of "Moore's Law" laid down by Gor­don Moore, co-founder of Intel.
This states that the capacity of semiconductor chips will double every 18
months, or expressed a different way, that the price of computing power will
halve every 18 months.
Moore's Law is expected to hold true for at least another decade but around
20l2 scientists believe semiconductor designers will run into some physical
(atomic) roadblocks as they continue to shrink the size of the components and
lines etched onto of silicon chips.
At that stage, some computer scientists believe it will be necessary to look
for alternatives to silicon-based    computing. Research into new materials
and computer architectures is mostly focusing on the potential of quantum
Meanwhile, the deadline keeps being pushed back by improvements to existing
processes. At the same time, there have been big leaps in communications
technologies and, in particular, fibre optics and IP-based systems.
Today, one strand of Qwest's US network can carry all North America's
telecoms traffic and in a few years, the same strand of glass fibre will be
able to carry all the world's network traffic.
"We are going to have so much bandwidth, we are not going-to know what to do
with it," says John Patrick vice president of internet technology at IBM.
"I am very optimistic about the future."
He believes this telecoms capacity will enable the creation of a wide range
of internet-based new services including digital video and distributed
storage and medical systems.
But he cautions: "The evolution of the internet is based upon technical
things, but in the end it is not about technology itself, it is about what
the technology can enable."