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Capturing your life in a petabyte

THE YEAR THAT INSIDER was born was also a landmark year for the information industry. In 1984 the modern personal computer was born when Apple launched the Macintosh, driven by a mouse and a graphical-user interface with built-in networking capability.

 

During early 1984, I was in the process of raising venture capital support to setup OWL, the pioneering hypertext company which was dependent on the success of this new Macintosh-like workstation form of computer.

 

I recall telling bemused venture capital investors that “one day soon, everybody will use a PC”. Their lack of belief that they were likely to have one on their desk — their secretary maybe – was tangible. Their own preoccupation was in preparing to invest in a new technology called cellular radio which led to the creation of the mobile phone industry.

 

Well, it turns out that we were all right. The Macintosh did well and led to Microsoft launching its Windows graphical operating system for PC machines. As usual it took Microsoft a few tries to get it right, but by 1991 and the release of Windows 3.1 it was clear that the graphical interface was going to win the battle.

 

‘Moore’s law’, described by an Intel founder Gordon Moore, was – and still is – in full flow. According to Moore , the number of processors that could be fined on an integrated circuit would double every 18 months and the price would halve. Moore ’s law drove the massive growth of the personal computer industry in the 80s and the dramatic growth of the internet in the 90s.

 

In fact, the amazingly high performance of today’s computers could have been accurately predicted twenty or more years ago. 

 

A 70s computer dedicated to the needs of a major corporation was a very large, expensive machine and is comparable today to the processing power of a mobile phone — except that today it is very small, remarkably cheap and carried in millions of pockets and handbags.

 

It could also have been forecast decades ago that by 2000 the low-cost computer chip would be capable of converting, storing and transmitting audio and video signals. This technology has enabled digital satellite television, recordable DVDs and the personal video recorders which are now coming onto the market.

 

What predictions can we make for computer devices in the future, based on achievable technical improvements? Predictions can be made on the basis of the amount of personal storage which will become available. Modem PCs typically have 80 or 120 Gb (Gb – one thousand million characters of storage space) installed. One thousand gigabytes is a terabyte (Tb) and personal computers with terabytes of storage should arrive in around eight years from now.

 

One hundred terabytes is about equivalent to the entire contents of the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, so it follows that by around 2015 it will become possible to carry its equivalent contents on an ‘ordinary’ personal information device.

 

If we extend Moore’s Law to about 20 years hence, we can speculate that your personal information device will have one petabyte (1000 terabytes) and be capable of storing a digital video and audio record of everything you experience for an entire lifetime. Every school class, birthday party, vacation, movie and TV programme, every business meeting could be recorded and recalled and replayed.

 

Whether or not this is something we want is another matter.

 

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