Friday, February 06, 2004

The term "Computer" is out-moded

OK - I may be going out on a limb, but for how they're generally used today, the term "computer" is pretty out-moded: it's, like, so 20th Century.

Most people don't sit down to a computer to specifically "compute" anything, except maybe spreadsheets. People generally use computer systems for personal productivity: correspondence, communication, research, channelling information, creating art, design & music... Rarely does anyone except a scientist consciously "compute" anything.

So the "computer" becomes the engine for this productivity. Just like a combustion engine powers a car... But we don't call a car a "combuster" and we don't just sit inside it and watch it "combust": We GO places and do things with it. Same with computers... I mean, sure, it works by crunching numbers and manipulating the results, but we don't just feed them equations and watch them compute munitions trajectories anymore. General use systems need to be called something else.

My department (Academic Computing!) wrangles computers daily... But the funny thing is we often don't refer to them as computers. We call them "systems" or "stations" or "seats" - we associate their use with people - we may refer to a specific component, like a hard drive or a software package. The closest industry term that refers to how they're used is "workstation" - but that's so generic and could just be a wooden desk & cubicle.

The other thing that really drives the point home is to see a network go down and then watch hundreds of people get nothing done. Their interface for basic productivity vanishes when a computer dependent population is disconnected. Seeing this makes you realize the "computer" now occupies a significantly important spot in personal productivity. Such an important thing need a more appropriate name...

Depending on what software is installed, a computer is chameleonesque: you can design buildings one moment, you can send a picture of your daughter to a friend in Japan the next, you can play a movie after that, you can write and record a sonota, then you can print a billboard and then jump into a virtual 3D world to kill villans, while chatting with your best bud. And it goes on. This isn't merely crunching numbers anymore...