You've probably heard of Moore's Law. It's the notion that the number of transistors in dense integrated circuits will double every two years. When Intel co-founder Gordon Moore threw out the idea in 1965, he had no inkling that his observation would hold true for the next 50 years. In 1971, the Intel 4004 microprocessor contained about 2,300 transistors. In 1990, the Intel 80486 processor offered a staggering 1,000,000 transistors, and a modern 6-core Intel i7 processor crams several billion transistors onto a single die.
Analysts have highlighted the amazing rise in desktop computing power for decades, but many have missed the point -- it's not neccessarily about creating faster, more powerful machines. When I first started playing with computers in the early 1980s, they were cumbersome and expensive. My father gravely pointed out that we couldn't afford a $1000 home computer (the equivalent of $2,600 in 2014 dollars), but he was willing to rent me an old Commodore PET from the local microcomputer emporium for a month. In 1981, computer ownership was out of the question for all but the most die-hard fanatics.
Fast-forward 34 years and it's possible to purchase a name brand Windows 8 notebook computer for only $150. While it won't set any performance records, it's an ideal lightweight travel companion (which is why I recently bought one) or a decent starter machine for someone on a Mac & Cheese budget. In 1981 dollars, that computer would have cost a mere $58 -- about the same price as a couple of Atari 2600 video game cartridges.
While bleeding-edge computing power still costs thousands, the industry has progressed to the point where a $150 notebook (or even a $59 smartphone) can fulfill the computing needs of many. And things are only going to get cheaper; the $100 laptop that was once the holy grail in third world educational circles will soon be something that anyone can pick up from a local big box retailer.
The recent availability of decent "good enough" computers is important for the millions of people here in the developed world who still don't own a computer or have access to the Internet. It's a good thing for parents who want their kids to have phones but don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on a gleaming new iPhone. It's a good thing for seniors who rely on the Internet to stay in touch with family and friends.
Information is power, and access to information has never been easier or cheaper.