iPad versus Cray: Portable supercomputing

John Markoff, of the New York Times, recently wrote a short article about the iPad being faster than the 1985 Cray 2 super computer.  This article was widely re-reported on the web.

I’ve been pondering this over the past days, and I find myself more amazed every time I think about it.

Clearly, there are more powerful computers available than the iPad, even at your local Wal-Mart.  And as reported in the article, there are certainly better values for processor speed.  But the amazing part is the form factor (ultra-portability) combined with the battery life.

Although processor speeds will continue to improve–or cores will be added, requiring less speed and more efficient use of energy–we’re quickly reaching the point where the bottleneck of computing is the speed of the Internet rather than the capacity of the processor.

Frasier Speirs, on Twitter, mentioned Douglas Adams (the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a former writer for Dr. Who) in two tweets:

“Douglas Adams: We no longer think of chairs as technology…before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs.”

“Frasier Speirs: That’s my test for edtech: replace “iPad” with “chair” and see if your statement is sane.  “A chair for every child?  No thanks.”

We’re on the verge of having computers (whether iPad, Android, Win7, or WebOS) that are as plentiful as chairs.  Schools in Africa are going all-iPad (another mention from Speirs).

The biggest challenge, of course, lies in the need for additional and improving software.  In music education, where are Finale and Sibelius?  SmartMusic?  Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory?  MusicAce?  [Fill in your favorite program here]

In nearly every case, it isn’t that the iPad can’t run the software–it’s that the companies either don’t want to, or cannot, invest in writing software for the iPad because the user interface is so drastically different.  That’s one thing iPad owners require: programs written to take advantage of iOS and its User Interface.  Simply porting a program from Mac or PC to iPad is often an undesirable situation.  And not only is the processor as fast as a 1985 Cray 2, I would imagine that the graphics processor is on par with a mid or late 1990s high end processor.

Sure, there are programs and applications (gaming, for example) where desktops, notebooks, or consoles are a better solution.  But for the mass majority–tablets can meet and exceed our needs.  Isn’t that amazing?


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