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Transformed: Visualizing the 50 Year Evolution of the Personal Computer

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A few decades ago, personal computers were bulky, beige objects, with hardware that now seems impossibly low-powered and overpriced. They’ve since evolved into devices that are drastically more powerful and stylish. We thought we’d explore how PCs have changed by visually comparing some of the milestones in their technological evolution.

Let’s start with a classic peripheral device: the computer mouse. By December 2008, Logitech had sold 1 billion of them. And, while many people have now abandoned computer mice for trackpads and touchscreens, they’ve undeniably played a pivotal role in the history of the personal computer.

Computer Mice 

There have been hundreds of computer mouse designs over the years, so we have shortlisted nine that we think represent some of the major milestones in their evolution.

Englebart

1963 – American Inventor Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart combines two wheels with transducers to translate horizontal and vertical movement into X and Y coordinates, creating the first ever mouse.

1968 – The first mouse was shown to 1,000 computer professionals, the 90 minute debut was described as the “mother of all demos.”

1982 – Logitech releases its first mouse, the P4, sold for $299 (about $800 today).

1991 – RF transmission allows for the first wireless mouse.

1995 – The scroll wheel is introduced.

1996 – Microsoft releases the IntelliMouse, bringing the concept of scrolling to the masses.

2009 – Apple introduces the Magic Mouse, merging multiple buttons back into a single button and incorporating trackpad technology, allowing users to control it with gestures.

Laptops

The first laptops, the size of a sewing machine, didn’t quite fit on your lap, they would be better classified as a portable computer. These examples best represent how the laptop computer has changed since 1981, when the first microprocessor-based, mass-produced laptop was released.

1981 – Developed by Adam Osborne and designed by Lee Felsensetin, the Osborne 1 is introduced, the first commercially available portable computer. Weighing in at 24 pounds with 64 KB of memory, it sells for $1,795 (about $4,500 today).

Early Laptop

1982 – Compaq releases the Compaq Portable, the first clone of the IBM PC.

1984 – The TRS80 is introduced, better representing today’s modern laptops. Weighing in at 4.25 pounds with 24 KB of RAM, it sells for $999 (about $2,200 today).

1989 – Apple’s first laptop, the Macintosh Portable, is released at a cost of $6,500.

1992 – The IBM ThinkPad 700C becomes the first laptop with a 10.4 inch activematrix color display.

2000 – Screens expand to 14.1 inches with the introduction of the ThinkPad T20.

2001 – One of the earliest widescreen laptops is introduced by Apple, the PowerBook.

Storage

The storage of data extends back to the 1920s and 1930s with the advent of magnetic tape and drums. Even by the mid-1950s, storage capacity had increased greatly, but a 5 MB hard drive was still far from being portable (see photo to the right). The history of portable storage is more recent, with rapidly growing capacity and shrinking sizes.

1971 – The floppy disk is first introduced.

1975 – Alan Shugart, previously from IBM and Memorex, creates Shugart Associates and releases the low cost 8 inch floppy disk which holds 800 kilobytes of data.

5MB HD

1978 – The 5.25 inch floppy disk is introduced with 1.2 MB of storage.

1981 – Sony introduces the 3.5 inch floppy disk with 1.44 MB of storage.

1994 – Iomega vastly increases storage capacity with its 100 MB zip disk.

1997 – Recordable CDs offer an even greater 700 MB of storage capacity.

1999 – MSystems files a patent for what we know as a USB flash drive.

2001 – Recordable DVDs hit the market, offering 4.7 GB of storage.

2004 – Micro SD cards reduce the size of storing data, taking up a fraction of the space.

2013 – Kingston announces a 1 TB USB flash drive.

Currently, we are in the era of cloud storage, with seemingly unlimited amountsof space for extremely low costs. This present paradigm wasn’t always the case. Storage capacity and cost have changed significantly in recent decades. The graph below shows, on a logarithmic scale, the average cost per gigabyte since 1980.

graph

Apple

At one point, the Apple we know today was teetering on the edge of collapse, until an all-in-one desktop computer helped turn it all around.

1998 – Apple introduces the all-in-one iMac G3.

Steve Jobs

1999 – New colors of the iMac G3 are introduced, appealing to users’ desires for simplicity and personality

2002 – A radical design shift was made possible by the relatively flat LCD screen. Affectionately coined the iLamp by supporters, it led to the iMac design we know today.

2004 – The iMac G5 was the first to house all components in its ‘screen’.

2005 – Apple moves from its PowerPC processor to Intel chips.

2013 – Thin is in. The latest iMac is just 5mm at its slimmest point.

The Future

In 1981, Bill Gates made the following bold prediction:

“No one will need more than 637K of memory for a personal computer. 640K ought to be enough for anybody.”

If that isn’t evidence of how difficult it is to predict the evolution of the PC, nothing is. However, certain advancements do seem pretty certain, if not imminent:

Internet: Richard Branson has joined the race to put a constellation of satellites into orbit, which would blanket the entire world with internet access. And Gartner, Inc. predicts that by 2020, the “Internet of Things” will be a reality, with 26 billion devices online, including light bulbs, door locks, and cars.

Storage: Very high-density SATA drives of more 10 TB are on the way, as is increasingly more affordable solid-state storage, which will eventually become the norm for servers (but not for a while!).

Displays: Apple’s Retina displays seem to have packed as many pixels into flat screens as we’ll ever need, so maybe the next step in the evolution of displays won’t involve flat screens at all. It looks like it might be bringing the display closer to us, whether that’s on our wrists, integrated into our glasses, or even—in the more distant future—created using neural implants.

You: The collaboration of technical minds drives the transformation of computer technology. You can stay ahead of the curve alongside thousands of other professionals right here at Experts Exchange. So what’s the next stage of your personal evolution going to be?

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Image Sources:

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