Thursday, July 13, 2006

Shoeboxes of Data

After my formal computer education, one of my very first real job interviews was with a company that produced computer output on microfiche.

For the uninitiated, microfiche is kinda like microfilm, except that the media is a 4x6 card instead of a roll of film. It’s a medium that has all but disappeared in common business practices today. It has been regulated primarily to government archives and libraries. But in the early 1980s, it was definitely bleeding-edge technology.

Until then, the process of creating microfiche was strictly photographic and analog. The document was printed on regular paper and then the pages were photographed one page at a time to create the fiche. It wasn’t much better than actually standing at a photocopier and recreating the entire report by hand.

But this company was using a new-fangled technology called com or “Computer Output Microfiche”. In this process, the fiche was created digitally, directly from the data source — usually a computer tape. It was much faster and cheaper than the analog process and it could create an unlimited number of perfect images.

In my job interview, I was indoctrinated by two guys who were the microfiche disciples of the company. They extolled the virtues of microfiche over conventional means of storage and lookup. They made a convincing argument that disk storage was particularly expensive and ineffective. After all, it required expensive online disk drives and indexes and the energy and upkeep to keep them running. And horror of horrors, online disk storage required that people have those expensive crts at their desk. We can’t have that, can we?

Ah, yes, crts. Cathode Ray Tubes. Dumb terminals. Essentially, a tv screen with an oversized typewriter keyboard attached. That’s what people had before there were pcs on every office desk in the universe.

The compelling argument in favor of microfiche was that you didn’t need a $7,000 television set on every desk when you could have one $500 microfiche reader that would serve the entire office. Need to look up a customer’s account? No problem. Just walk over to the microfiche cabinet, find the appropriate card, insert it into the reader, search for the customer’s page, copy the information to a notepad, and walk back to your desk with the customer still on hold.

That was 1980. It took about five microfiche cards to hold about a meg of data.

I have a memory card on my keychain that holds about a gig of data. That’s a thousand meg or 5,000 microfiche cards — enough to fill ten shoeboxes.

For less than a thousand bucks, I can walk to my office supply store and pick up a one-terabyte external hard drive that will plug into the usb port on my laptop. I can tuck the entire drive into a corner of my briefcase. A terabyte is a thousand gig. A thousand keychain memory cards would fill about ten shoeboxes.

Conventional wisdom used to say that bigger was better. All we needed was more shoe boxes. And bigger shoeboxes. In the ultimate irony of technology, we have come to realize that bigger is smaller. And instead of a shoebox, all your really need is a shirt pocket.

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