"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." -- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Enlightenment often lurks in the unlikeliest of places. I recently found an important lesson about computers in the bottom of my suitcase. The teacher? Batteries.
Or, more specifically, battery chargers.
I went on a trip recently, and after reaching my destination, I realized that I'd packed a total of five battery chargers: one for my cell phone, one for my laptop, one for my iPod, one for my digital camera and one for my other digital camera. (Yes, I carry two digital cameras. I have a problem, OK?)
This is my traveling kit, mind you -- my digital life pared down to the bare essentials. Unpacking the devices didn't bother me, but seeing those chargers made me feel a little ridiculous. Nothing will dash your illusions of being cool faster than checking into a hotel and immediately plugging in five battery chargers. "Hello, front desk? This room doesn't seem to have enough outlets ..."
The "world market" for computers has obviously outstripped the early predictions. It's to the point now where I'm carrying five computers on my body whenever I leave home for a week. The Harvard-IBM Mark I computer, which was completed around the time Thomas Watson made his now-famous remark, could execute just over three instructions per second. The computer chip inside my iPod can execute 133 million instructions per second. The Mark I was used to compute highly accurate military and mathematical tables; I've dedicated 40 million times its computing power to the task of playing music.
This fact highlights the most significant sea change in computing since 1943: ubiquity. In the early days, computers were so large and expensive that they were built and used for very specific purposes.
What Mr. Watson could not predict was the microprocessor and integrated circuit, which shrank computers to unthinkably small sizes, improved their computing power dramatically and made them incredibly cheap. This meant that computers became practical for a variety of applications that had never even been imagined.
As is usually the case with human imagination, there is a downside. In addition to the horrors of the dancing Santa and the singing bass, we also face the problems of managing all of these computers.
First, consider those battery chargers. If this is a headache now when I have five devices, what will happen when I have 10, or 100? (If 100 devices per person seems ridiculous, just talk to Mr. Watson about the dangers of making predictions.)
Then there's obsolescence.
Many digital devices have little or no ability to be upgraded and are more likely to break than their home-bound counterparts. This means that you have to buy new devices every couple of years. As we come to rely on more and more gadgets, the cost of upgrading all of them becomes staggering.
And let's not forget the problem of waste. Unlike desktop computers, which many people recycle when they're obsolete, handheld devices are so small that they're often thrown away. A study by Inform Inc. estimates that by 2005, Americans will be throwing away 100 million cell phones every year. Most of these phones will end up in landfills, where their batteries can leak toxic chemicals into the ground.
So what's the solution? Many of these problems -- specifically battery issues -- may eventually be solved by improved technology. But until then, I think the only answer is to buy fewer devices. When shopping, don't just consider the up-front cost. Think about how much money, time and effort the device will require over its lifetime. Then ask yourself if the device is useful enough to justify the total cost of ownership. In many cases, you might find that you don't need it after all.
If that doesn't convince you, think of the humiliation you'll feel when you have to call the hotel manager and ask for a room with more outlets. Trust me, you don't want it to come to that. It's almost enough to make me consider leaving one of my cameras at home.
Scott Dierdorf is a writer and technology professional.