Lessons from 1980s home computing

The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated the massive digital divide that exists across the UK.

In a paper published published in August, Gemma Burgess, principal research associate & acting director of Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR) at the University of Cambridge wrote: “We need equal access to the internet across all geographies and social groups. If access to the internet is a universal entitlement, this means that access cannot be left to the market. National and local government must find ways to ensure that all areas have equal broadband access and that internet access is subsidised or provided free for the households who cannot afford it.”

Her research found that during the lockdown, disadvantaged children were highly unlikely to have access to the internet, which they needed to do their online coursework.

There is clearly a need to make broadband and computing devices more affordable. But there is also a need for companies that develop software for education to be cognisant of the limited funds disadvantaged families have at their disposal. What is more important, fast internet access connecting a high spec laptop, or food, heating and somewhere safe to sleep?

Bloatware

For years, software developers have become lazy at optimising code. They tend to assume the software they develop is free to use as much computing, storage and networking resources as it needs. Programmable infrastructure and IaaS makes this worse, because now, the application simply requests what it wants.
The art of writing lean code has been forgotten. When home computers began appearing in the 1980s, 16 Kbytes of RAM was considered a luxury; the ZX81 only had 1 Kbyte. These days, even a few words typed into a Notepad text file seem to take up more than 1 Kbyte of space. How did that happen?

As for connectivity, programmers have forgotten that connectivity is not always there and loading web pages can sometimes feel like the clock has been turned back to when the internet was accessed through a dial-up modem at 9.6 kbps.

As people start getting back to work, and schooling kicks off following the pandemic, nothing should ever be taken for granted again. As for educational software developers, they should draw inspiration from the games developers of the 1980s: software must be designed to run acceptably on low-spec devices and be able to operate when connectivity is slow, inconsistent or unavailable.

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