As a computer scientist, I’m out to comprehend lots of computing-related technologies, to a greater or lesser extent according to needs and interests. As a professor, I would ideally like to have a pithy thumbnail overview of the most prominent technologies in my pocket, readily available to pull out in just about any context with a student, colleague, or acquaintance.
On the other hand, I’m a selective adopter of new technologies, and increasingly selective over time. Early on, naturally, I devoted hours to immersing myself in computing technologies in a quest for general comprehension. Over time, I began to assemble a core collection of computational tools for getting my work done. The earliest were the Pascal programming language with its well-conceived structures, and the VMS operating system, which showed me that the command line could itself be a problem-solving tool. Pascal has been superseded by a modest collection of exemplary and/or expedient languages (C, C++, PHP, recently Python), most of which I teach. I discovered UNIX in 1983, and it instantly became my technological home base. Continuing now with Linux, I don’t foresee switching to another base. After struggling to typeset my mathematics thesis with nroff and an impact printer, I invested my time in learning TeX, a choice that has paid off handsomely. The wildly extensible emacs remains my most effective way to look at a file or transform it.
I selectively invest in hardware tools, too, although I can’t expect them to serve as long. I spent $2500 on my first laptop in 1995, a Sharp PC-3010 with one of the early touch-pad pointing devices. The 486 processor ran at 66 MHz. I decided against buying a module to extend the standard 4MB of main memory, which would have cost $499 for the 8MB module, $899 for 16MB. (In retrospect, this probably cost me days of productivity over the life of the machine, because it turns out I’m perpetually starved for memory.) I quickly dispatched the MS DOS 6.22 that came pre-installed on its optional, removable 320MB hard disk ($599; the alternative was to make do with the floppy drive alone), and laboriously hand-installed the Linux kernel version 0.99 I had used most recently for teaching my Operating Systems course. This machine became my daily companion, and then a frequent professional lifesaver, actively used for at least seven years.
I eventually used Windows towers at home (Me, then XP), largely as terminals for connecting remotely to a Linux system at work (via VPN and VNC). Emacs and TeX were my productivity tools; I still author most of my web pages directly in HTML or XML using convenient (for me) tools I started building back then from emacs, shell scripts, and eventually PHP, PostgreSQL, and XSLT, all on Linux. The Windows system was mostly an annoyance, and if I really needed to get something done on the home machine, I’d start up a Cygwin Linux-like shell.
But when my scholarship suddenly took a quantum leap in collaboration about three years ago, I needed to pass documents around to others fluidly, and Google docs doesn’t provide the fine-grained formatting control required for many publications. So, I had to start using a lot of Word. Also, I needed a portable computer that I could count on to work reliably for presentations at remote locations, as well as a Word and cloud-doc authoring machine. A college-supplied Macbook Pro satisfied those requirements admirably.
At this point, my Ultrabook arrived. I had an opportunity (one of the “first three callers…”) as an Intel Black Belt to receive an Ultrabook, in the hope that I would blog about it. It’s an Acer Aspire S3 with an appealing and reassuring metal shell, 3 lb, with 500 times the processor, 1000 times the main memory and 1000 times the hard disk (plus some solid state disk) of my old Sharp laptop, and its list price is about the same as that 16MB memory module add-on for the old Sharp.
After the first week of switching to the Ultrabook for my productivity uses, I have to say: it just works. It was easy to setup, which is a good thing – transitioning to the start of an overloaded semester, I really haven’t had time to spend on figuring out how to get things to work. Almost everything I use, though, is a free and quick download from the web, and installing has become so convenient these days. (I do this kind of thing seldom enough that I honestly can’t say whether this is due to Ultrabook design or improvements in the way Windows interacts with the web.) I did have to borrow an external CD drive in order to install Office and virus protection from the disks I had, and I needed to consult with our campus IT folks once for some problem getting connected to the secured campus network (other network connections elsewhere have come up easily). Apart from that, there has been no hassle in starting to use the machine productively.
I am pleased to find that Windows 7 has also just worked for me. Frankly, I am somewhat surprised, given my personal skirmishes and battles with prior versions of Windows. After the first week, I have had one spontaneous crash that I couldn’t see a reason for; I half expected more, given my prior experience as a Linux user pushing Windows applications in strange ways. As a user, this transition has been comparable to my move to the Macbook Pro – intuitive interfaces, features that function as expected, plenty of performance for my document-handling and communication tasks (email, skype, VPN/VNC, etc.).
Finally, the form factor works well for me in many situations. To tell the truth, I prefer having a physical Ethernet jack and optical disk bay in a laptop, like a boy scout wanting to be prepared for whatever contingency comes up. But I seldom actually use those features in my daily productivity work. Those few pounds of weight make a difference: I find myself much more likely to grab this thin notebook than my other laptop when heading out to a meeting or class, and it is significantly easier to juggle with folders and books. Of course, a pad (which I don’t have) would be even lighter and smaller. But I like having a real keyboard, because I take a lot of meeting notes and often have to do some authoring.
Even though I understand the technology, and have watched a lot of it unfold, I can’t help but be amazed at the progress of computing. Maybe I can be amazed because I have knowingly watched it happen. We have all become acclimated to exponential improvement in hardware performance: we blithely expect today’s Ultrabook to perform 500-1000 times better than a 1995 laptop. It also performs 100 times as fast on 10,000 times the memory of the Cyber 7600 supercomputer I used in graduate school circa 1980, and weighs 1/100,000 as much. I accept that, but I’m still astonished.