Tuesday, February 8, 2005

The Quest For Smallness

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal entitled, Miniaturization Is Key To Computers' Growth, But Parts Sure Are Tiny (subscription required). This article tries to describe just how important miniaturization is to growth in the computer industry and just how far processing has come in the last two years. Use the following visualization from the article to visualize the rate at which storage and processing capabilities have changed:
It's hard to appreciate how far this miniaturization has come, mostly because the units of measurement involved -- nanometers and the like -- don't have much relevance in our everyday world of yards and miles.
One way to comprehend it may be to imagine a parallel universe in which computer components get larger, not smaller. On this Planet Bizaro, the CPU in your computer, based on the progress since 1972, wouldn't be the size of a matchbook, as it is today, but would cover the area between a football-field goal line and the nearest 12-yard line.
That's nothing compared with what has happened to your disk drive. The very first drive, from the 1950s, had a diameter of 24 inches. Today, the diameter in our alternate world would be more than 2½ miles, crushing much of your hometown.
Disk storage is one of the gold medalists in the race to smallness. That first drive, brought out by IBM, held 2,000 bits of data for every square inch of disk space, or about enough to store the text of a short memo to your boss.
Pretty amazing? No?