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19 October 2011

10 Comparisons Between Star Trek and Modern Technologies

For those of us who were around to watch the original Star Trek series on television, we remember thinking how cool it would be to have some of the great gadgets they used. The future is now! Many of their ‘futuristic’ ideas have become available in some form, since then.
  1. Communicators to cell phones – Flip open devices that allowed you to communicate with others from almost any location. Of course, there was the occasional atmospheric interference that cut off your connection to the other person. Lots of similarities in these two.
  2. PADDs to tablet computers - Personal access display devices were used in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They were flat panel touch screen devices that were used for a multitude of tasks and gaining access to all kinds of information. Although the PADDs were a bit undefined at the time, they have definite similarity to the ipad and other tablet computers.
  3. Ear piece headset to bluetooth technology – Wireless headsets were worn on the bridge of the Enterprise. They were small and attached to one ear. Bluetooth headsets are used in environments today that are not near as sophisticated as the star ship’s command deck.
  4. Portable data disks to floppy disks/data drives – Thin, small pieces of plastic were inserted into the computer consoles of the star ship, which were close in size to the 3-1/2 floppy disk. Today we have even smaller USB data drives for transporting data.
  5. Voice commands to voice commands – The ability to give verbal commands to electronics is a true reality today, even though it isn’t used as often as it was on Star Trek. Computers and many cell phones have the capability of being directed by voice command.
  6. Tricorder to modern thermometers – The tricorder could scan a person’s body and provide readings on a number of different things. There have been some similar devices created, but the closest one to be seen in many homes today is the modern digital ear thermometer. The thought of getting a temperature reading from an infant so easily was not even thought of by mothers during the first years of Star Trek.
  7. Transporter to GPS – No, we haven’t been able to ‘beam’ anyone up or down, but we can locate people just as specifically with a GPS as the transporter was able to lock into the location of people it was called on to retrieve.
  8. Diagnostic scan to CAT, MRI and ultrasound – Dr. McCoy could lay you on his diagnostic table and perform a scan of your body to come up with a diagnosis. We use several different scanning technologies for diagnosis today.
  9. Phasers to Tasers – In Star Trek, they pointed their phasers at the enemy and were able stun or disable them with a blast of energy. The reaction to being struck by a taser looks very similar to what you saw by those who had been hit by the beam of a phaser on the television show.
  10. Video Screen Communication to Skype – We may not talk to people on a screen quite the size of the one Captain Kirk used on the Enterprise, but we easily communicate from screen to screen using Skype. The big screens are used, though, for teleconference speaking, all the time.
No one guessed at the time that Star Trek first aired, just how fast some of those technologies would develop. We still aren’t traveling at ‘warp speed’, and we haven’t found the Vulcan’s with those pointed ears, but Spock could show up any day now.
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17 October 2011

R.I.P Steve Jobs - Memorial

On October 5, 2011, we said goodbye to arguably the person most singularly responsible for the way we have been using computers (and, more recently, entertaining ourselves and making phone calls) for nearly 30 years.
Steve Jobs – Geeks.comIn the interest of full and fair disclosure, I should state up front for the record that I have never personally purchased an Apple product. It was (and is) easy at times to poke fun at the “Cult of Apple”. Like so many of my contemporaries, though, many of my formative computing cycles came on an Apple ][, and I have always admired the design (and marketing!) of Apple products.

Visionary Innovator

Steve Jobs – Geeks.comIn the hours and days following the death of Steve Jobs, there were a lot of comments in the world of social media asserting that he had never actually invented anything. This is not only completely untrue (Jobs is listed as the primary or co-inventor on almost 350 US patents or patent applications), but completely irrelevant: claiming that Steve Jobs was not an innovator because he “didn’t invent anything” is like saying that Nikola Tesla wasn’t an innovator because he didn’t invent electricity, or that Henry Ford wasn’t an innovator because he didn’t invent the internal combustion engine.


It is beyond the scope of this Tech Tip to serve as an exhaustive compendium of all things Apple, all things Steve Jobs, or even as a complete list of all of Jobs’ groundbreaking and innovative contributions to the world of computers and consumer electronics, but here are a notable few:

The Mouse & GUI

This one almost goes without saying. Nearly everyone knows the story of how Jobs “stole” the ideas of the mouse and the GUI (Graphical User Interface) from Xerox PARC to develop the Lisa and, later, Macintosh computers. Remember using computers before they had mice? I do. Were it not for Jobs and the success of the Mac, which of course inspired Microsoft Windows, who knows how or when the mouse and GUI would have made their way into mainstream computing.


Steve Jobs – Geeks.comBefore 1984, you got any computer font you wanted – as long as what you wanted was the default system font. One of the biggest features of the early, black and white-only Macintosh computers was the ability to use different typefaces not only on-screen, but in print. This seems incredibly pedestrian now, but for a home computer user to be able to do this back then was revolutionary. My friends and I joked that “everyone with a Mac was a ‘desktop publisher’. ” The joke was on us, though: that was the idea all along.


This one’s for the EE (Electrical Engineering) Geeks out there, but no less relevant for all of us. Obviously, Apple didn’t invent the Universal Serial Bus. But they probably inspired it: The Apple Desktop Bus (invented by Steve Wozniak) was simple, inexpensive method for connecting a variety of external devices, including keyboards and mice, to a host computer. ADB had four pins: Data, Power on, +5 VDC, and Ground. Sound familiar? The first system to use ADB was the Apple IIGS in 1986. The USB working group didn’t begin development until 1994.


Steve Jobs – Geeks.comAppleTalk as a networking protocol has, for all practical purposes, been gone for a long time now, having been deprecated by Ethernet (TCP/IP). The point though, is that AppleTalk shipped with every Macintosh computer beginning in 1984. This meant that all Macs were “networkable” right out of the box. Ever try to network a few IBM “clone” computers together before, say, 1990? I did, and two words come to mind: “expensive”, and “nightmare”. Clearly, Jobs and Apple understood very early on the importance of easily and inexpensively connecting people, by way of their computers, together. After all, that’s what they set out to do.


Anyone remember the Apple Newton? I do. It was generally considered the first commercially-viable Personal Digital Assistant (remember those?) Incidentally, “personal digital assistant” was a term coined by Apple CEO John Sculley to describe the Newton. It didn’t work particularly well, and was later supplanted primarily by the Palm Pilot (and variants). But like a number of other products on this list, it was an industry first – a concept, if not a product, that changed the way we work with information and with each other.


The iPod, iPhone, and iPad aren’t category killers. Like the Newton, they’re category creators. There were no digital music players to speak of before the iPod, no “smartphones” as we define them today before the iPhone, and no tablets (other than in Star Trek) before the iPad. These devices have changed the way we listen to music, read books, watch movies and TV, and connect with our friends and family.


Steve Jobs – Geeks.comWithout a doubt, one of Steve Jobs’ single greatest contributions to the world was convincing the archaic, slow-moving music industry to not only break up its product (overpriced CDs) and sell songs à la carte, but also to stop insisting on useless, annoying, and fair use-infringing copy-protection schemes. He was still working on applying the same concepts to movies and TV shows.


A quick nod to the powerful, intuitive, aesthetically-brilliant software that powers Apple’s computers and mobile devices.

The Personal Computer

“PC” became a hardware, software, and ideological “them” to Jobs’ “us” at Apple, but of course it always really stood for “Personal Computer”. Jobs didn’t invent computers, or even personally-owned computers – I remember seeing ads for Tandy Corporation’s TRS-80 “PC” for $999 in 1977. I used an IBM “PC Jr. ” in 1985. But Steve Wozniak and Apple, through the vision of Steve Jobs, made computers personal.

Final Thoughts

In the end, Steve Jobs’ legacy is so much more than a vast laundry list of cool inventions and fun gadgets: Steve Jobs set out to change the world. He succeeded.

28 September 2011

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