Powerful PCs, software put specialized tasks within reach

Tom Temin

It was only a couple of years ago that the people who decide what a supercomputer is abandoned defining them in terms of millions of instructions per second or other speeds 'n' feeds. Now, a supercomputer is defined as the fastest computer available.

You know the reason. Computing power per dollar means that today's supercomputer is tomorrow's high-end desktop PC. And it'll keep going that way, scientists say, well into the next century, until integrated circuit tracery gets down to the minimum width of a few atoms necessary to transmit signals.

For most users, the extra power has been devoted to changing the PC from purely a computing tool to principally a communications tool. Productivity software has also soaked up a lot of the new power. A full-featured word processor used to take a half-megabyte of disk space and need a 2K memory footprint.

Today's word processors'virtually all of them components in suites of nearly unimaginable size'pause and hiccup even on 400-MHz machines with 64M of RAM.

But there's more to the story than office suite software and hardware power chasing one another in circles. As stories in this issue of GCN/Shopper illustrate, virtual reality and computer-aided design applications, once only available to a few users, are going mainstream. That's not to say that everyone is turning into a simulator designer or mechanical engineer. More precisely, government agencies are finding new ways to apply once-specialized software to a wider range of problems for a greater number of users.

As Ed DeJesus reports in his story on CAD on Page 21, an average PC is CAD-capable right out of the box. CAD vendors have responded with light, easy-to-use versions for common tasks that cannot be performed with general office software.

Diagramming networks, planning building evacuation routes, making signs and detailing workflow plans all fall into this category, DeJesus points out.

Similarly, with the horsepower mostly sitting idle on so many desktops, authoring and running virtual reality applications no longer requires expensive, specialized hardware, as John Breeden II's story explains on Page 27. Thus, VR is making its way into activities such as training, collaborative research and space planning.

Child's play

A dozen years ago, retouching photographs electronically meant a job shop with specialized consoles that charged $300 an hour. Today, any kid coming out of graphic arts school can use Adobe Photoshop like it's a box of crayons.

Not 20 years into the PC era, desktop power is continuing to make inroads into how we work.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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