How limitations encourage innovation

Patrick Woodcock

Anybody who's familiar with green blinking cursors, loading screens, PRINT and GOTO statements will view the one off comedy Micro Men (BBC4, 8/10/2009), the story of the birth of the British home computer business, with a hearty sense of nostalgia. Although the computers at that time were comparatively simple, one thing that does stand out is the ingenious and novel solutions they came up to compensate for the limitations of the technology. An example from the programme includes the people at Acorn designing and building the BBC Micro computer in just one week.

Consider the space exploration game 'Elite' for the BBC Micro, which appears to be a huge game with 8 galaxies that each have hundreds of stars. This amount of information could not be stored on the tapes/floppy disks of the time so they were generated using clever algorithms. Another ingenious method to save memory was to display the top part of the screen in black and white and only the bottom in colour, switching between the two modes each time the screen was refreshed.

Though memory and processing power have vastly increased, the current era of software design has its own unique limitations. The web has been responsible for some major innovations but it has also brought with it some limitations and obstacles which have helped create new ingenious inventions. One of these is jQuery, which we use extensively, which simplifies the designing of interactive web pages and user interfaces across browsers.

The programme shows how their frontier spirit planted the seed that has seen technology and computers become a part of our lives. This is exemplified by one of Clive Sinclair's comments: "What people seem to forget is that this is just a fad. All this nonsense about computers replacing shopping, saving people a trip the bank. These things won't save the world!"