How valuable is Moore's Law?

Over the last few months Computer Weekly has asked readers about their early experiences of computing and their first computer.

A number sent in stories of how they learned programming on the home computers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. And while it has been a nice trip down memory lane, reminiscing about an age when home computers were new and exciting, what has been more fascinating is the stories from the decade before.

One reader described his work as a student engineer, hand-building a 40 character alphanumeric display printed circuit board, that was needed for the control system of the UK’s first nuclear power station. A 3 inch by five inch PCB was required for each one of the display’s 40 characters.

Another email came in from a reader who was a company accountant, recalling how he programmed an IBM mainframe using RPG in 1972. “Source code had to be handwritten onto coding forms, which were given to data entry staff to enter onto 96 column punch cards. As our computer was still being built at the IBM factory in Milan, I had to take decks of cards at night to IBM’s Wigmore Street premises to be fed into one of their computers,” he wrote. If errors were found, cards needed re-punching . These were then fed back into the computer and compiled again.

Thankfully, no one has to hand-write code and use punch cards anymore, and the advent of the microprocessor and microelectronics has made displays and interactivity the modus operandi of computing.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question of whether computers have made people in society more productive?

Questioning Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law has led to the development of computers that are infinitely more powerful than the machines of the 1960s and 70s. The former RPG mainframe programmer said the machine he used cost £30,323 in 1973 but could be leased for around £8000 annually. In today’s money that is equivalent to £87,339 a year, which does not seem very expensive, given that the 1973 mainframe ran the company’s accounts. £87,339 is a drop in the ocean for a company today that needs the capacity of mainframe computing or equivalent to run its accounts.

Moore’s Law has driven progress in semiconductors, providing a doubling of processor speed every 18 months to two years. For the same cost, a business can buy twice as much computing power, but does that make it twice as productive? Clearly not. The equivalent IT costs of a business today are far higher than they were 50 years ago. Arguably, the return on investment is far less.

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