Prediction: The computer will go the same way as the steam engine

By Matt Cornock

Computers will go the same way as steam engines. That’s my latest off-the-wall prediction (with no real scientific backing). Whilst recently looking at how institutions and organisations are cutting their energy consumption, it became unsurprisingly obvious that lighting and heating had a third energy consumption counterpart: that of computers (and the associated hardware).

Most offices, and still a significant number of home computers (PCs or Mac), are desktops with typically large monitors (which do use up electricity quite happily) and hefty power supplies capable of pulling in excess of 450W if the computer is really packing a powerful graphics card, processor and multiple hard disks. Some of these computers are also left on for quite a lot of time, whether in use, left idling, or downloading vast ammounts of data overnight (for legitimate reasons we presume). Most office jobs these days require the use of a computer all day long. As you can see, the energy consumption is already adding up. When you add further infrastructure networks into this, e.g. server rooms, cooling of server rooms, routers, internet hubs etc., it’s clear that IT and computing as we know it has accellerated energy consumption. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would like to point this out when he gets emails from angry car-haters who want to ban all combustion-engine transport and force the world to use Gee-Wizs (lets not think about the coal-fired powerstations which charge them up).

Anyway, the point of this posting is to consider the way the steam engine revolutionised the 19th Century, but over the course of the 20th Century it became an expensive, energy consuming, dirty machine. Similarly, computing has revolutionised the latter half of the 20th Century, however I feel as if in fifty years time (maybe sooner) it too will be seen as responsible for creating a dirty, energy gobbling world and costs will become prohibitively unsustainable. This is not to say that computing will die out completely, but just the way that computers and in particular the notion of a desktop computer, is powered and used in daily life.

With the launch of many products attempting to rival the desktop computer, perhaps this most power-hungry of computers is on its way out? So called energy-efficient laptops which have just the right amount of digital oomph to run an internet browser and word processor is actually all the majority of people need. If you look back five years, a lot of computing marketing was based on speed of processor, bigger-is-better, you have to upgrade, etc. etc. Now however, computer consumers are just looking for the cheapest product to get the job done. Businesses and organisations too will move in the direction to cut power consumption, and in the climate of 24/7 working, laptops may indeed become the preferred computing solution. This is of course excluding the computer geeks and gamers who thrive off raw computing power, as to the specialist markets of media editors and high performance requirements.

As the boundaries of computing merge into other products, such as games consoles (e.g. Wii), netbooks, digital readers (such as Kindle, Sony Reader), mobile mini-computers (e.g. iPhone and to a lesser extent BlackBerry), and hybrids of all these such as the iPad, perhaps the old steam-engine desktop has had its golden years and will just be for the enthusiasts,

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