How Much Computing Power Do You Need?

I discovered this week that online shopping is not something new and exciting, but has been around here in England since 1984; five years before the World Wide Web saw the light of day at CERN, nine years before the first commercially available web browser hit the streets, and eleven years before Amazon sold its first book (which was, rather eerily, all about computers and is still available).

Our pioneering English retailer was Tesco who, following a request from the local council in Gateshead to help elderly people with their weekly shopping, set up a small experimental scheme by attaching a simple modem-containing box to a telephone and a TV set. The display was text-based with about the same information display capability as a DOS command window, and it took 30 seconds or more to display each page. But it worked, and archive film shows people placing orders and taking delivery (and even paying with real money).

I suppose I'm a computing old-timer. I've been playing with and writing about computers for more than 30 years, and more than 20 of those have been directly or indirectly related to the Internet. Though the more I dig into the history of online retailing, the more amazing it is. Here in England we're known as a "nation of shopkeepers", but it seems we are also a nation of online shoppers. On average we spend more online per person than anywhere else in the world, which is amazing when you consider that in our tiny group of islands you're never very far away from a real shop. Though, considering my own shopping behavior (look on first, and get the car out only if I can't find it somewhere on the web) I probably shouldn't be surprised.

The recent TV program about the 1984 experiment also described how rapidly some of the major players in the market have grown. A small London-based company that started by selling a wide range of items on TV, and whose name ASOS came from "As Seen On Screen", are now the largest online clothes retailer in Australia. Without any physical presence there and about as far away from its home base as you can get. And the Government here is in the process of privatizing the Post Office because it needs massive investment; not for delivering letters, but to compete in the fast-growing market of delivering parcels from online retailers.

You have to wonder how far all this would have got if we'd still been using the original 80 characters by 26 lines display and waiting ages for each page to load. Mind you, some old technology still seems to be working fine according to the news this week about the Voyager space probes. Voyager 1 is some twelve million miles away now, and travelling at eleven miles a second. And still working fine after more than 35 years!

Anyway, now that we all do our shopping on the Internet, and buy from retailers located across the globe almost without noticing it, the notion that the world is getting smaller becomes truer by the day. Meanwhile, a note in the article about Voyager 1 says will not reach the halfway point to our nearest star for another 40,000 years. I guess that shows just how small our world really is, or how big the Universe is.

And, supposedly, the on-board computer, built in the late 70's, has just a quarter of a millionth the processing power of a modern mobile phone. Imagine trying to do your mobile online shopping with that...

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