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ArticlesEight Ways to the Future

December 1996 / Cover Story / Eight Ways to the Future

Technology leaders agree: Change is the only sure thing about computing in the next decade.

Robert L. Hummel

Twenty-five years ago, IC engineers fired the first shot in a technology revolution that changed our world. Their ammunition: the first commercial microprocessor.

Today, the revolution lives on as the rate of microprocessor-induced change in our lives accelerates rather than shows any signs of subsiding. Faster processors at relatively low prices, new and better semiconductor manufacturing techni ques, and more imaginative software could make the next generation of computing even more eye-popping than the first.

How significant has the microprocessor's impact been? Many people rank it among the top inventions of not only this centur y but of any century. For some people, microprocessors surpass even the wheel among mankind's achievements.

"When we add human vision, innovation, insight, knowledge, and wisdom in the form of software to the microprocessor, we can see that [the impact has been] so much more than even the wheel," asserts Marc Andreessen, vice president of technology for Netscape Communications. "And we've only begun to scratch the surface of what the microprocessor makes possible," he adds.

Other experts, including Intel's Andrew S. Grove, now president and CEO of the company that gave us the first commercial microprocessor, see the computer-on-a-chip as part of broader and more significant technologies. "I would compare the microprocessor unit (MPU) to the invention of language and not the wheel. Both language and the MPU are allowing us to think and invent in new ways."

Dan Dobberpuhl, senior corporate consulting engineer at Digital Semiconductor and a key architect of the Alpha processor, believes that the more significant inventions were the stored-program digital computer, the transistor, and the integrated circuit. "The first microprocessor represented the technology evolution of those three basic inventions," Dobberpuhl says. Adds Doug Engelbart, legendary inventor of computing technology and founding director of the Bootstrap Institute: "If you look at the whole array of digital technology, the microprocessor is just a part of that. Nanotechnology will eventually take us way beyond [microprocessors]."

Whether you believe the microprocessor compares to the wheel, or to a more modest invention -- like, say, movable type -- its impact has touched nearly everyone in the last quarter of a century. What will the next 25 years bring? No one we know is foolhardy enough to tackle that question. But we tracked down four other technology experts (in addition to Andreessen, Grove, Dobberpuhl, and Engelbart) whose decisions can shape, shake, or shatter the computer industry in the more immediate future. We asked them t o peer five to 10 years into the future. In the sidebar "The Future of Microcomputing", they discuss how microprocessors may spawn more powerful PCs, ubiquitous portable computing devices, home LANs, and a global information network that may even make the world a better place to live. Of course no one knows for certain what the future holds, but if the ideas of these individuals are any indication, computers and our lives will continue to become more intertwined with each passing year.

Our participants are:

Marc Andreessen , Vice president of technology, Netscape Communications Corp.

At age 22, Andreessen cofounded Netscape and used his undergraduate work on Mosaic, a prototype Web browser, as the foundation for Netscape Navigator.

David Chaum , Chief of technology and chairman, DigiCash B.V.

Chaum is the founder and chairman of DigiCash, a developer of electronic cash payment system s. He formerly was the head of the Cryptography Group at CWI, the Dutch nationally funded center for research in mathematics and computer science. Chaum also founded the International Association for Cryptologic Research.

Dan Dobberpuhl , Senior corporate consulting engineer, Digital Semiconductor, Digital Equipment Corp.

Dobberpuhl led the company's RISC development effort, which produced the Alpha processor architecture. He was a design leader for a variety of VLSI projects, including the PDP-11 and MicroVAX 2.

Doug Engelbart , Founding director, Bootstrap Institute.

Best known for developing an innovative wooden mouse in 1963, an integrated hypertext/groupware system, and numerous other concepts now at the core of computing, Engelbart's work at the Bootstrap Institute centers on bringing companies together to collaborate on new technologies.

Federico Faggin , President and CEO, Synaptics Inc.

As an Intel engineer, he created the physical layout of the 4004, the first commercial microprocessor. Later, Faggin founded Zilog, the developer of the Z80 processor, and in 1986 he helped launch Synaptics, which develops pattern-recognition and neural network systems.

Andrew S. Grove , President and CEO, Intel Corp.

Grove became Intel's president in 1979; in 1987 he was named chief executive officer. He holds several patents on semiconductor devices and technology.

Jerry Rogers , President and CEO, Cyrix Corp.

When Rogers helped found Cyrix in 1988, the company was primarily a designer of math coprocessors. Four years later, the firm started making microprocessors.

W.J.(Jerry) Sanders III , Chairman and chief executive officer, Advanced Micro Devices.

B efore cofounding this semiconductor firm in 1969, Sanders held a variety of positions in the engineering, sales, and marketing departments of Motorola Semiconductor, Douglas Aircraft, and other companies.

Robert L. Hummel is a programmer, consultant, and author. You can reach him at .

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