Disk Prices

I happened to compute the price per byte for a disk drive I bought Tuesday.  Then it occurred to me to compute the price per byte of the first hard drive I ever bought.

Then it occurred to me to compute the ratio.


The price per byte of that first disk drive was very nearly three million times higher.

Three.  Million.

That’s a lot.

I like living in the future.

Perpetuating the Data — Carleton Costs

Since he implies the information wasn’t online (or at least he didn’t get it from online), I’m going to post this so it’s there to be found.

These are “comprehensive fees”, meaning tuition plus room and board for a full-time student, meaning 9 months of the year.  In addition to this, you would have had to buy textbooks, clothing, paper and typewriter ribbons and pens, and transportation to wherever  you spent the summer.  Plus living expenses for the summer (most people got summer jobs to pay for that and save to cover some of the year). Plus anything beyond absolute necessities you were going to have, like stereo systems and records and cameras and film and going to science fiction conventions.  Or taking dates to dinner.  Or whatever.

So, here’s the inflation of college tuition form 1972-2009 as viewed narrowly at Carleton College.  This information came from the college archivist in response to a query I posted on the alumni email list.  I attended Carleton 1972-77 (with some time off in 74-75).

Not from online, but by going back to the printed catalogs:

[edited to add 58/59 and 62/63 numbers from a later email]

1958/59:  $1,700
1962/63:  $2,250

1972/73: $3,825
1973/74: $4,000
1974/75: $4,200
1975/76: $4,600
1976/77: $4,900
1977/78: $5,277
1978/79: $5,725
1979/80: $6,175
1980/81: $6,940
1981/82: $7,980
1982/83: $9,260
1983/84: $10,200
1984/85: $10,900
1985/86: $11,880
1986/87: $12,800
1987/88: $13,640
1988/89: $15,230
1989/90: $16,950
1990/91: $18,250
1991/92: $19,620
1992/93: $20,900
1993/94: $22,155
1994/95: $23,375
1995/96: $24,425
1996/97: $25,410
1997/98: $26,325
1998/99: $27,195
1999/00: $28,230
2000/01: $29,340
2001/02: $30,780
2002/03: $32,445
2003/04: $34,395
2004/05: $36,975
2005/06: $40,467
2006/07: $42,864
2007/08: $45,645
2008/09: $48,039
2009/10: $50,205

Eric Hillemann
College Archivist

Cannabalizing Your Current Business

In his recent article, Seth Godin quotes some executives as saying “After all, they argued, how could they wipe out their current business just to succeed online?”

His article bothers me just a little, though; it seems to take for granted that succeeding online is the only possible choice, that there is no alternative to online success. This seems to me too narrow a view, at least in general. (Seth’s article is primarily about the benefits of single-mindedness, and I have little to disagree with there; this is more a spin-off on another topic than a disagreement.)

The decision the business he was talking about was facing is in fact a hard one. Sometimes new paradigms, business models, products, marketing approaches, or whatever, succeed, pushing businesses relying on earlier approaches onto the scrapheap of history. But sometimes they fail, too, quite spectacularly. Netflix is a huge success, but DIVX (the non-returnable rental DVDs) were not.

If you have an existing business, and the new business model cannibalizes  your old business, you’re risking something when you decide to commit to the new model.  For a new startup, there’s no risk (the risk is born by the investors, really); you can go full-bore for the new model and try to make it work, knowing that that’s the only way for your business to survive. This, of course, is one of the benefits that single-mindedness can convey.

Of course, if the new business model does succeed, then you’re toast if you don’t pick it, too.

By some theories, Digital Equipment Corporation should have owned the single-user computer business. They made the best time-sharing computers (which was a way to give people the experience of using a single-user computer while actually sharing central resources; economically a good idea when computer power was terribly expensive), and their PDP-8 was largely deployed in single-user configurations in laboratories, industrial, and later business settings.  Lots of things we take for granted today, like file extensions and command-line options, I first met on DEC computers.  They had software for that world, and experience.  All they had to do was build cheaper hardware to put that software on, and move it out into the mass market.

But to seriously pursue that course, they would have had to cut the heart out of their current business.  If they failed to increase their sales by several orders of magnitude, they would have killed themselves by cutting their profit margin drastically (and to even try, they would have had to invest in high-volume manufacturing capability and re-engineer their hardware for mass-production). So, in the end, they didn’t try it. And the company which invented the minicomputer and which, when I worked for them in the 1980s, was the second-largest computer company in the world, competing head-to-head with IBM in business sales and often winning, ended by being bought by Compaq, a PC-clone maker that hadn’t existed for most of DEC’s lifetime (and which was failing itself; it ended up being owned by HP shortly after).

If DEC had made the other decision, would they have survived?  I really don’t know.  Quite possibly not; the change in engineering and manufacturing required, and hence probably in corporate culture in large parts of the organization, would have been overwhelmingly massive, and expensive. And the decision to try that would have guaranteed that they could not survive in just their existing markets.

At the time they had to make the decision, nobody really expected the microprocessor to become the main kind of computer, and nobody had any clear ideas what sort of market there would be for $5000 computers that were powerful enough for business use (PDP-8s were around $50,000 then). Visicalc was still in the future. Moore’s law was in effect, but nobody had quite made the connection that it didn’t really apply to the CPUs of old-fashioned computers built from wire-wrap modules (the interconnect speeds were going to surpass what any of the cheap reliable technologies could provide over those distances). The size of today’s computer market was simply not anticipated at that time. The PDP-8 is famous for many things, but one of them was being the first computer ever to ship more than 50,000 units (DEC distributed a poster about this at the time).

Buggy-whip manufacturers didn’t do all that well when the automobile took hold. The entire horse tack industry took a big down-turn, the total market for horse support gear collapsed when the horse population collapsed. But it was by no means obvious at first that automobiles were going to become important. That didn’t really happen until Henry Ford’s model T, at the earliest.

DEC made an attempt to play in the “workstation” market which developed in parallel with the early development of personal computers, but Apollo and later Sun pretty much kept them out of that market, and that market turned out not to last very long. They also developed one of the important RISC architectures, the Alpha, which was for a while even supported by Microsoft Windows NT (and note that the Alpha was a 64-bit architecture introduced in 1992).  Still, with slightly different luck and decisions, they might have made the transition to workstations and then to servers (where Sun is still holding on, though now as a division of Oracle; Apollo also ended up owned by HP). This was in some sense the first commercial wave of the single-user computer market, and it’s interesting that the big wave did not develop out of players in the first wave.

These strategic business decisions are often not at all obvious at the time  you have to make them.  Even some of the ones that are obvious in hindsight were quite obscure at the time they had to be made. The inevitable course of history is very often not clearly visible looking forward, only backward.