Home > Computing, developments, internet, personal computing, Web 2.0 > Foundations. Past, present and future

Foundations. Past, present and future

It is interesting to reflect back on the developments in computing over the past thirty or so years at a time when the prevailing technologies seems to be taking another major turn, this time in the direction of  ‘real’ mobile computing and user friendly surface interfaces. This post provides a brief history of the development of computing, before considering the kinds of changes which look likely over the immediate future and the impact that these developments are likely to have on our both personal and educational practice.

Analysis of computer development identifies four main stages of development, being:

1) The first generation (1946-1958) The era of vacuum tubes. Examples are ENIAC, UNIVAC, EDVAC

2) The second generation (1959-1964) The era of the transistors.

3)  The third generation (1965-1970) Integrated Circuits-Miniaturizing the computer

4) The fourth generation (1971-today) The era of microprocessors.

Question: Are multicore processors a fifth stage, or a continuation of the fourth?

The past…..

computer_1954This picture appeared in a 1954 copy of Popular Mechanics. The original, dreamed up by scientists from the Rand Corporation, was forwarded as a ‘home computer’ for the year 2004. It would have a teletype interface and would use the Fortran as a language.

(Any idea why is has a steering wheel?)


Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac).

Designed and built to calculate artillery firing tables, ENIAC (1946) was able to solve a wide range of computing problems.

acorn_bbcb_system_s1Real personal computing came of age in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

My first computer – Acorn BBC model B. £399.00 (ouch!) I later added a “Torch” floppy disk unit, which had two 5.25 floppy disk drives and a Z80 co-processor which allowed the BBC to use CP/M software. Perfect Writer, Perfect Calc and a database came bundled with the Z80.
Although these features are not particularly impressive by today’s standards, they provided powerful new tools which helped people to work more quickly and efficiently. Wordprocessors and Spreadsheets were suddenly available to the man in the street.

This software was also available for the first IBM PCs which became  available at about the same time. The IBW was well built, heavy and expensive. Early models featured two 5.25 inch floppy drives. Hard drives were available at a later stage and were very expensive.

The first Apple.  Garage model.


In spite of this somewhat scruffy beginning, Apple Computer (now Apple) went on to become a a major consumer electronics manufacturer, successfully branching into the mobile music and mobile phone markets, where they lead the field for well designed and finished ‘cool’ gadgets.

Links to sites providing histories of computing.

Old Computers.com Museum : History of computers, 1 : History of computers, 2 : Computer History Museum : Computer History Museum : A history of computers from About : Presentation by Michael A Hoyle.

An illustrated history of computers : PC World’s brief history of computers, as defined by TV ads : A history of Apple computers from About.  A working lego model of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine.

Laptops and Notebooks



The Apple IIc


The first laptop? | More on early laptops | GRiD Compass 100

Even at this stage, there was a demand for ‘portable’ computing. Early models like the Osborne (1981) and IBM (1984) were similar in design.



The IBM5155 (1984)


They were extremely heavy when compared with today’s models, with small monochrome screens which did not show up particularly well in the open.  True portablility was limited, given the need to plug into an electrical supply, limiting them as office to office machines.



Osborne 1, 1981




An Apple laptop from 2004



Wired Gallery – Classic computer manuals from Apple and IBM

First Spreadsheet – Visicalc… Or was it? Dan Bricklin’s Website : First Word Processor – Wordstar… Others… : Other software from Old-Computers.com

What some do with their old technology.

Moore’s Law

moore1There was a steady development of both hardware and software through the 1980s. 5.5 inch floppy discs were replaced by smaller 3.25 inch discs, which were more robust and held more data (1.44 mb). Hard drives became more affordable. The key to development depended largely on the development of better microprocessors.

The power of microprocessors has doubled every 18 months or so, as engineers found ways to pack more and more transistors onto chips. The first person to write about this trend was Moore – hence Moore’s Law.

Moore’s law has played a big part in the development of computer chips and processors. Recent articles have questioned whether the rate at which processors double their speed can continue. Others point the way to new technologies which will allow us to continue developing more and more powerful computers.

Moore’s Law – Wikipedia Moore’s Law – Intel Understanding Moore’s Law – Arts Technica Original issue of publication found – BBC News Moore’s Law – 40th birthday article (April 2005) Moore’s Law is dead, says Moore. Techworld.com New life for Moore’s Law says Steven Chou. CNet News Moore’s Law meets its match. IEEE Spectrum Beyond Moore’s Law – Technology Review. Superfast computing – BBC (2004)

Various Histories

IT Timeline : IT History : Internet History : Telephone History : Eniac museum online : About Eniac : Living Internet : About history of the internetHistory of computing hardware (wikipedia)

The essential trend in the development of computers has been the appearance of smaller, easier to use and more powerful machines at a steady rate. More powerful microprocessors have enabled software developers to design better software. Another important aspect is the rapid fall in ‘real’ price, with computers becoming more affordable – hence the ubiquitousness of the technology today.

While looking at the development of computing and the kinds of computers and software prevalent in the seventies and eighties, a number of commonalities emerge. These were personal computers, not only in name but in character too. They were used in an isolated fashion for a variety of tasks, at a time when the idea of a fully networked world was understood by very few.

The 90’s – Colour, multimedia and the world wide web.

images-1 Computers would begin to change in the early 1990s as the internet developed. The launch of multimedia computing would also change the way we understood and began to used computers, especially as educational tools. Resources like Microsoft Encarta providing a rich multimedia environment which revolutionised the way we explored information, allowing us to look at data in totally different ways. The development of the web launched the world into the Information Age.

Breaking News

tblTim Berners-Lee to head web research project.

The influence the internet has had on the way we socialise and live our lives is to become a focus of a new field of study under the leadership of the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee.

The joint research programme in web science is being launched by the University of Southampton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

The new research area will look not only at computer science, but will also cover emerging research into social networks and how people behave while using the internet.

Prof Berners-Lee, a professor at both Southampton and MIT, who invented the world wide web’s basic software was knighted in 2004, said: “The web isn’t about what you can do with computers. It’s people, and , yes, they are connected by computers. But computer science, as a study of what happens in a computer, doesn’t tell you about what happens on the web.”  Education Guardian, 2/11/2006.

The future.

Jonathan Zittrain explains how the web works because  of random acts of kindness.

Tomorrows computers and issues…


Smaller computers, and powerful internet ready mobile phones. A Jan 08 report from ZDNet provides evidence that iPhones are used to a far greater extent for accessing the web than other internet ready phones. This suggests that we are heading in the right direction with respect to the development of easy-to-use interfaces. A growing number of applications for both the iPhone and the new iPod suggest that ‘usable’ hand-held computers are likely to be available sooner rather than later. The recent launch (October 08) of Google’s Android powered phone, updated iPhones,  new Blackberry’s and the new Palm Pre (Oct 09) have raised the stakes in this market.

Collaboration and The Cloud

Perhaps the most important change in recent times has been the way we use the internet. While we once simply looked up information (the read web) we now use it largely as a communication and collaborative tool (read-write web). Web2.0 is largely about talking and sharing, where we use the web as a platform for what we do. This contrasts to old style computing, where the software we used was purchased and installed on the computer itself. Efficient hand-held devices now allow us to interact with the web while we are on the move – in buses, trains and while sitting having coffee – enabling us to be more productive.

Other developments include user friendly surfaces, which provide new ways of buying and paying for things and of interfacing with one another and information. While these are still expensive, it it likely that they will become more affordable in the future.  Microsoft’s surfaces is demonstrated here.

Other new developments.

Apps on a stick from Wired ‘How To’ wiki.

Wearable computers Business Week | Wikipedia


Sony reader

Sony reader


Electronic paper – the killer technology of tomorrow?

Cloud computing. The future is online.
ZDNet on cloud computing
BBC News… video

Worrying issues…

Government interference and spying: Zimbabwe , South Africa and the UK.
Privacy issues and ISP spying. The BT / Phorm issue. More on Phorm from New Scientist.



  • Continued shrinkage
  • merging technologies ||  more
  • More Web2 applications
  • Changing practice, changing applications
  • blogs, wikis, social networking, personal learning environments, collaboration, multitasking, typing not writing, voice recognition
  • wearable computers
  • Better understanding of today’s learners**, more provision and effective use in schools.
  • More user-friendly touch sensitive devices
  • Powerful technologies, potential for abuse by powerful organisations.
  • The end of a free Internet?

** See
1. Oblinger, D. (2003) Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials. Understanding the New Students.
2. Frand, J.L. (2000) The Information-Age Mindset. Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education.
3. Marc Prensky’s website.

Connectivism. How digital natives use technology to develop their own learning

Articles for summary and discussion

Ball, P. (2006) 2020 Computing: Champing at the bits.

Butler, D. (2006) 2020 Computing: Everything, everywhere.

Dempsey, J. (2007) The Internet at Risk. The Need for Higher Education Advocacy. Educause, Nov/Dec.

Hawkins, B.L. (2007) Winds of Change. Charting the Course for IT in the Twenty-First Century. Educause, Nov/Dec.

Ruttimann, J. (2006) 2020 Computing: Milestones in Scientific Computing

St George, A. (2007) Imaging Tomorrow’s Future Today. Educause, Nov/Dec.

Science Daily (30/3/2008) Future of Computing: Carbon Nanotubes and Superconductors to replace the Silicone Chip.

Inventor Ray Kurzweil talks about the future of technology.

Recommended readings on the Top Ten IT issues from Educause.

See these pics from The Guardian. More here.

Some interesting videos



Click to see iPhone feature


Augmented reality.


Augmented Reality and social networking. Some thoughts from web innovator Matthew Buckland.

Situated Audio Platform (SAP) – an Augmented Reality game.

Questions are being asked about the future of the web. Can we assume that the free access to resources and social networking we enjoy will continue?  Or will the web ultimately be commodified? The end of the internet?

What path will we take with respect to using the web as a tool for learning? The future of institutions. Some thoughts by Graham Attwell of Pontydysgu.

Resonant Energy Transfer – WiTricity – will be a useful invention when it is fully developed.







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