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An introduction to computers and computer systems
An introduction to computers and computer systems

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5 Computers today

An image of a person taking a photo using their phone.

Nowadays, a computer is just another item stocked in supermarkets. And as computers have become cheaper and smaller, they have been incorporated into a kaleidoscopic range of devices that bear no resemblance to what was once thought of as a computer. Powerful computers now sit at the heart of objects as diverse as smartphones and games consoles, cars and vacuum cleaners. The cost of computer power continues to decrease, making it possible to incorporate computer technologies into almost any object, no matter how small, cheap or disposable. And these smart devices are ‘talking’ to one another – not just within a single room or building, but across the world via the internet, using the World Wide Web. Thus, even as the computer vanishes from sight, it becomes vastly more powerful and ever-present – to use a term you’ll become very familiar with, it is now ubiquitous.

As computers have developed, a critical change in their role has been their use in communication: many of the applications that run on personal computers (PCs) and mobile phones help us communicate with each other, and also with other computers. Computer and telephone technologies have converged. The following quote from Danny Hillis, a pioneer in the development of some of the fastest and most powerful computers, gives some insight into how computers can turn everyday objects into part of a communication system.

I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors [these are the major component of all computers] would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, ‘Where are they all going to go? It’s not like you need a computer in every doorknob!’ Years later, I went back to the same hotel. I noticed the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors.

There was a computer in every doorknob.

(Danny Hillis, circa 1999)

Of course you do not know exactly the configuration of the computers in the doorknobs of the Hilton; it could be that they simply verified that the card should give the holder access to that particular room. Alternatively, the doorknob computer could communicate with another computer, telling it that the occupant had just entered the room. This second computer could then ring the telephone to pass on any recorded messages, activate a display showing if the occupant had received an email or perhaps run the bath!

As you study this course you will find out how computers and the components within them carry out their allotted tasks, and you will also develop an understanding of how improvements in computer technologies have allowed computers to become smaller, more powerful and cheaper.