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The Man-Computer Symbiosis of J.C.R. Licklider proceeds apace

Thursday, 1 November, 2012

The news that Microsoft sold four million Windows 8 updates since the new operating system went on sale last Friday was put in context nicely by MG Siegler in a post titled “4 million in 3 days” when he noted, “Apple sold 5 million iPhones 5s in the first 3 days. Yes, Apple sold more $199-$299 iPhones in the first few days than Microsoft sold $40 Windows 8 updates in the same span.” And Jim Dalrymple added an extra layer of harsh analysis by putting that “4 million in 3 days” in the context of Microsoft’s base of 1.25 billion users: “That means that one-third of one percent of Microsoft’s user base upgraded,” he wrote in “Ballmer’s Windows 8 upgrade numbers aren’t that good“.

x Clearly, connectivity and mobility are where the action’s at and joining those two dots is proving a major headache for players such as Microsoft and Nokia. But it’s not as if they weren’t forewarned. Consider the vision of J.C.R. Licklider. As Director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, a division of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), from 1963 to 1964, Licklider put in place the funding priorities that would lead to the internet, and the invention of the “mouse,” “windows” and “hypertext.” In an extraordinary paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” published in 1960, Licklider outlined his concept of connected computing. Snippet:

“It seems reasonable to envision, for a time 10 or 15 years hence, a ‘thinking center’ that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval and the symbiotic functions suggested earlier in this paper. The picture readily enlarges itself into a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services.”

Out of ARPA came ARPANET, which was launched on 29 October 1969. Funded by the US Department of Defense, it gradually turned into the precursor of the “social network” and in 1979 CompuServe began to use its “backbone” to provide and email service to PC users. Notice was being issued that the era of the self-sufficient personal computer was coming to an end. A worldwide network was being born that would become central to society and out of this would emerge the likes of Google and devices such as the smartphone. But two more technologies were needed to complete the shift of power away from the desktop: the lithium-ion battery and flash memory.


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