By John C. Dvorak, PC Magazine
18 July 2000 - Until the Internet came along, there were consistent advancements on the desktop, ending with the CD-ROM. That was the last gasp for the desktop machine as a trendsetter.
With each advancement - from the first floppy-disk Northstar brought out in 1977 to the hard drive, and finally to color monitors - a subsequent advancement in software occurred. The software always took advantage of new technologies introduced to the desktop.
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The floppy disk brought word processing (Electric Pencil, WordStar). The video-mapped display brought spreadsheets (VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3). When the hard drive appeared, so did a rush toward database management software (dBASEII). Laser printers resulted in the emergence of desktop publishing systems (PostScript, PageMaker).
Note that as time progressed, the new advancements in hardware brought in more middleware. Understanding this will help us understand where the Internet fits into the scheme of things. In the case of database technology, dBASE was actually middleware for a new category of applications. PostScript was pure middleware.
Any advancement today brings nothing but middleware. The last technology that bucked this trend was the CD-ROM with its dedicated CD-ROM products such as how-to books and libraries of other repurposed books. This market could never exist since the CD-ROM was to become a conduit for program transfer and little else except in niche markets such as clip art.
For the most part, the CD-ROM is the drive that holds the code for some software package that harkens back to the days of the word processor - an application, Microsoft Office being the most important example. This, in fact, makes the CD-ROM itself a data-transfer middleware device.
As the initial new technologies improved, the programs that took advantage of them improved, too. Nothing, however, really changed except code size and the look of the programs.
The first hard drive designed specifically for the desktop computing market was 5 megabytes. People were amazed at its speed. Now a hard drive can be 30 gigabytes and more. People are amazed at the speed, but it does the same thing as before. It can do some new things such as run video, but how many of us run video from our hard drives?
That app became network-based and now runs over the Internet more often than it does directly from the PC. And if all we can do between 5MB and 30GB is come up with one or two piddling new uses, then I'd hardly celebrate it.
The same holds true for the processor itself. What has speed accomplished? Now we can render objects in real-time 3-D. I would not call this an application, it's a tweak. A major tweak for sure, but still a tweak. It's hardly anything to rave about after decades of waiting.
Worse yet, the value of true 3-D can only be appreciated by game junkies who would be just as happily addicted to 2-D games if it weren't possible to play 3-D games.
It takes a new hardware technology to shake things up, not just an improved technology that already shook things up.
Enter the Internet. The hardware advancement that resulted in the emergence of the Internet as software middleware was the introduction of networking to the PC.
The Net, more than just about everything else, epitomizes the middleware phenomenon. The Internet is pure middleware for the PC just as dBASE and PostScript were. But dBASE and PostScript never garnered so much attention to the point where they become the total focus of development. And this is not just because the Internet can be linked to cell phones and appliances.
Most middleware is portable in some way or other. The Internet is different than other middleware because it enhanced person-to-person communication once e-mail, the Web, and Web apps were developed for it.
Like the phone, the Internet's strength is in communications - not computing. This is a radical departure from other forms of computer middleware and is commonly misunderstood to the point where it totally misinterpreted (and has now affected) the future of computing.
Internet or Web-centric computing is, in fact, ludicrous. Perhaps because no killer app of this magnitude has been witnessed since the desktop publishing phenomenon that began 15 years ago, people are overexcited.
But is it such a killer app that we should be focusing all our attention on it? Why should a computer publication even care about eBay, for example? What does it have to do with anything except that it runs on a computer and on the Internet?
It's a distraction. Yet people seemed fascinated by it since it can be accessed on the computer.
A good question to bring in the readers is: What is the underlying fascination with the Internet and sites like eBay? What's the big deal? And will this kill the computer scene by diverting resources and attention? You tell me.
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