Forbes ASAP, June 7, 1993
In the spring of 1989 when Michael Bookey first visited the Middle School in Issaquah, Wash., to help the school system with its computers, he was reminded of his early ventures into Communist China. After 20 years of working with computer networks, to enter Issaquah seemed to me like encountering an exotic tribe of primitives untouched by the modern world.
The only sign of modern technology was a forlorn computer room full of Radio Shack TRS-80 machines, most of which had broken down. Then he learned that as a remedy for this problem, the district had recently voted a levy of $2.7 million for outlays on high technology.
Lacking any better ideas, the school system had decided to distribute the money equally among the teachers, to spend as they wanted. What they wanted turned out to be VCRs, incompatible CD-ROM drives and a random selection of computers, printers and other gear to be scattered through the schools under the influence of a flock of computer salespeople attracted to the site by the pool of mandated money.
To Bookey, this remedy seemed worse than the disease. It meant that the bulk of the money would be wasted, further estranging both taxpayers and students from the most powerful technologies of their era. Bookey wanted school officials to know that the most powerful technology is not computers, but computers joined in networks.
Explaining the magic of networks, Bookey asks you to imagine a car plumped down in the jungle. Checking it out, you might find it a very useful piece of equipment indeed. A multipurpose wonder, it would supply lights, bedding, radio communications, tape player, heat, air conditioning, a shield against arrows and bullets, and a loud horn to frighten away fierce animals. In awe of the features of this machine, you might never realize that the real magic of a car comes in conjunction with asphalt.
For the first 10 years of the personal computer era, according to Bookey, we have used our computers like cars in the jungle. We have plumbed their powers for processing words and numbers. All too often, home computers have ended up in the closet unused. We have often failed to recognize that most of the magic of computing stems from the exponential benefits of interconnection.
In the microcosm, the interconnections come on individual chips, as ever smaller transistors crammed ever closer together work faster, cooler and cheaper, enhancing both the capability and the speed of the processor. The microcosm strewed some 100 million personal computers around the world and endowed individuals at workstations with the creative power of factory owners of the Industrial Age.
Just as the microcosm generates exponential gains from increasing connections on chips, the telecosm generates exponential gains by increasing connections between chips, powerful microcomputers in themselves. These links between increasingly potent microchips will soon dominate the world of communications.
The networking industry therefore faces a drastic transition from a people-to-people regime to computer-to-computer. This change is so radical that it resembles a mutation that creates a new species. People communicate in domains of time and space entirely alien to the world of computers. To a person, a one-second delay on a voice line seems hardly noticeable; to a computer, one second may mean a billion computations that would take hundreds of human lifetimes to accomplish by hand.
Most important, people can transmit or receive only a small stream of information at a time. They want relatively narrow bandwidth connections for a relatively long period, a 64-kilobit- per-second voice link, for example, for a 10-minute phone call.
Computers, on the other hand, can handle hundreds of millions or even billions of bits a second. They often need many millions of bits of bandwidth for a short time fractions of seconds. As industry shifts from a human scale of time and space to a computer scale, the systems and structures in existing telephone and broadcast networks become almost irrelevant. Essentially, all other forms of networks: voice, text, video and sound, are rapidly giving way to various new forms of multimedia computer networks.
Driving this overwhelming force of change is the alchemy of interconnections, working in the telecosm with the same logic and feedback loops as connections in the microcosm. hile dumb terminals such as phones and TVs use up bandwidth without giving anything back, computers are contributors to bandwidth, not consumers of it.
In general, the more computers, the more bandwidth. Not only is the network a resource for each new computer attached to it, but each new computer is also a resource for the network. Each new computer expands the potential switching and processing capacity of the system by a large multiple of the increasing demands it makes on other switches and processors.
As ever more powerful computers are linked ever more closely, whether in digital cellular microcells or in webs of fiber and coaxial cable, usable bandwidth expands explosively. Governing the expansion of networks, the law of the telecosm is just as potent as the law of the microcosm. Indeed, in enhancing the productivity of organizations, the telecosm consummates the microcosmic miracle.