The Internet Protocol Journal - Volume 9, Number 3

Book Reviews

Electronic Brains

Electronic Brains, Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Mike Hally, ISBN 0-309-09630-8, Joseph Henry Press, 2005.

Electronic Brains is a personal account from the early days of computing that describes the childhood of a technology that is little more than 50 years old. The book originated as a BBC radio programme, still accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/electronicbrains.shtmlPop Up Icon. Mike Hally traveled over the globe looking for the first “computors” and the stories from the dawn of a new age. This book contains the results of the investigation, giving a firsthand testimony of hard work, passion, and amazing developments that shaped the second half of the last century.

Organization

Chapter 1, “From ABC to ENIAC,” presents the development of what is commonly accepted as the first computer, the ENIAC, a computer that replaced calculating machines and people making the operations in ballistic trajectories analysis by hand. Credit is given to John Atanassof and Clifford Berry, the developers of ABC, possibly the first operational computer in the world.

Development of the UNIVAC, the computer famed by predicting the result of the 1952 U.S. presidential election, is presented in Chapter 2. Designed by Eckert and Mauchly, the developers of ENIAC, UNIVACs were commercial computers used for processing census data and so well marketed that the term “UNIVAC” was used as a synonym for “computer.”

Chapter 3 looks at the development of the Rand 409, maybe the first mass-produced computer. The 409 was a medium-sized computer, with a price tag of US$100,000 that compared favorably against UNIVAC’s $1 million, achieving a sell rate of one per week.

“Computing in Great Britain” is the focus of Chapter 4, where credit is given to Maurice Wilkes and Alan Turing. A worthy detail that gives a glimpse of the technical difficulties overcome is the description of memory based on mercury delay-lines, where binary data was stored using sound pulses on tubes filled with mercury engineered in such way that the delay from transmitter to receiver allowed the electronics to do the calculation before the data in memory was needed at the receiver side.

Perhaps the strangest computer development is set forth in Chapter 5. The Lyons Electronics Office (LEO) was a computer developed by a large catering company to expedite its clerical operations. LEO was possibly the first commercial computer in the world, so successful that the catering company began to produce and sell it to other corporations.

Chapter 6 describes the efforts by USSR scientists to develop computing technology. More than one development was made; it is not clear which was the first soviet computer, and the developments were secret—in some cases very specialized, such as a computer with ternary logic instead of the currently used binary logic (ENIAC used decimal logic).

Chapter 7 focuses on computing developments in Australia, work that did not last because the funds were scarce and sometimes the budget was assigned to other sciences, such as radiophysics. Here we can see that computers were used for purposes totally different than their uses in cold-war countries; for example, they were used to answer crossword puzzles—strange if we consider that the disk had a capacity of 3 KB.

A strange computer, formally known as Hydraulic Economics Computer, is described in Chapter 8. It was not a typical computer—it was a system developed to show the interrelation between macroeconomic variables using colored water, pumps, and valves. Universities, central banks, and Ford bought the computer, and four of them survive in different parts of the world. The emergence of IBM is the subject of Chapter 9, which presents IBM as a late adopter of computing technology that eventually became the leader of the computer age. We learn that the first computer produced by IBM was the IBM 701; after that came the IBM 1401 and then the IBM 360—the system that consolidated IBM as the ruler in the computing world.

Summary

From the ABC to the well-known ENIAC and UNIVAC, Electronic Brains is a testimony to the people who worked day and night to accomplish something that few others understood. Motivated mainly by passion and with little to no economic support, team spirit is a common factor in all the computer developments: “...it was like a brotherhood! We would help each other in case someone got stuck on a particular activity. I would have gone anywhere with those guys. I’ve never had such unified job environment. We knew we were pushing back the frontiers.”

Electronic Brains is an enjoyable book that I recommend to any person with interest in computers and technology. Computer historians could scoff at the rather simple analysis of technical details, but this is not a technical book. The value of Electronic Brains is the first-hand account of early undertakings and the multiple-country investigation that is presented. With many anecdotes, this book will serve as a witness to the pioneers of a new era, the computing era.

—Claudio Gutiérrez
claudio.gutierrez.m@gmail.com

Business 2010

Business 2010—Mapping the Commercial Landscape, by Ian Pearson and Michael Lyons, ISBN 1-84439-105-1, Published by Spiro Press, http://www.spiropress.com/Pop Up Icon

This interesting book explores how trends in technology, economic factors, social changes, and evolving attitudes to technology will reshape the business landscape by the year 2010. The book describes its subject matter in terms that are understandable and interesting to both technical and nontechnical audiences. It is valuable to technologists because it expands their perception of the future beyond that which is available through traditional sources such as vendor roadmap sessions by linking closely commercial, technical, and social trends.

Organisation

The book is divided into three main sections. The first looks at the major influences on future business: technological progress, changing attitudes, social forces, and economics. The implications of these factors are then examined, and finally the application of the analysis to business strategy is examined. These ideas are then pulled together in a succinct and easily understood conclusion.

Pearson and Lyons focus on the effect of particular techniques. Some of these, such as self-organising systems and the mimicking of natural phenomena (“biomimetrics”), are fairly unconventional, but others, such as increased miniaturisation, wireless devices, low-cost computing and networking, the semantic Web, and artificial intelligence will be more familiar. The Internet and its potential effect on financial transactions and taxation features heavily. The authors note that attitudes to technology are changing and adoption cycles are reducing, describing the impact that technology has had on the physical labour market and the likely future impact on knowledge workers. The authors consider the economic implications of the exploitation of information, looking at the relative cost of creation and reproduction when compared with more traditional goods and services.

The next three chapters look at the implications of this analysis, starting by looking at numerous trade-offs and counter-balancing forces, such as the effect of the “browser wars” and the relationships between customers and producers. The importance of customer and worker information to a commercial organisation and the problems arising from its exploitation are described. The discussion then considers how the knowledge economy changes the importance of physical assets and commercial relationships, followed by an examination of the political and organisational implications of technology.

Finally the authors look at the business effects, starting with the ease of transferring information between systems. They note that corporate intranets make both the devolving of authority through outsourcing and the imposition of increased command and control through micromanagement easier.

Pearson and Lyons suggest that new technology alters the value chains that influence businesses, leading to more temporary business relationships, their replacement by “value-nets,” and the rise of the virtual company. This section concludes by looking at globalisation—how goods and services are paid for and some of the implications for taxation.

The authors ask the question—how can business adapt? They start their analysis by examining the interactions between the physical and mental worlds and cyberspace, noting that a strategic analysis works only if the forces acting on a business do not change too rapidly. As change becomes more rapid, there will be no time to develop business cases, because first-mover advantage will be the only advantage a business can have. Pearson and Lyons conclude that the critical factors in allowing cyber-economy to grow are ease of navigation and the effective use of branding. They conclude by examining who will be the winners and losers in business in the year 2010—and why.

Synopsis

This book is succinct and well-written, covering a complex but interesting field in just under 200 pages. The authors paint a convincing description of future business trends, exploring the technical, commercial, economic, and political pressures that will influence them. Their cause, effect, and potential response treatment leads the reader through the subject in a way that is both interesting and instructive. The authors are not afraid to be controversial and at times they take the reader into some very unfamiliar territory, adding extra spice to the book.

While other books are available that look at the future from a more technologically orientated perspective, this book is one of the few that manages to couple the developments in the commercial and technical worlds, thereby giving a more comprehensive viewpoint. In an age when technologists are increasingly being asked to take more of a commercial view, this can only be a good thing. The approach taken has much in common with that taken by Alvin Toffler in his books Future Shock and The Third Wave. An updated treatment like this is to be welcomed.

The Authors

Ian Pearson works for British Telecom (BT) as its chief futurologist; he is a well-known speaker on future technology trends and has published extensively in this field. Michael Lyons also works for BT and has more than 30 years of research experience in the telecoms industry. He has recently been working in the fields of decision support systems and long-term research issues, leading a research team in BT’s Research and Venturing department. Pearson is described as an “unfettered thinker” and Lyons as a “pragmatic modeller,” characteristics which give the book its balanced view.

—Edward Smith, BT, UK
edward.a.smith@btinternet.com