Sunday, March 04, 2007

Goodbye CompUSA

CompUSA, the "computer superstore", is closing more than half of its stores including all of them in the Chicago area. Tough competition came from many directions: Internet retailers, big box electronics stores like Best Buy and Circuit City, and price wars from Office Depot and Walmart. Despite having a CompUSA store a few blocks from me I rarely went there, though it was useful to quickly get a new fan for my PC when the old one died.

What does the closing of CompUSA have to do with computer science? Absolutely nothing, and yet everything. Computers have gone past devices you had to understand, ripping them open to add memory and other components. Now they get sold as a commodity not much different than televisions.

We do still have computer stores nearby. The local mall has an Apple Store and a Dell kiosk. But these are just showrooms, ways to exhibit their products, not places to go to get nuts and bolts to keep the computers going.

A field "Television Science" would never have flourished, but unfortunately many young people view Computer Science in a similar way today. That does not bode well for the long-term future of our discipline.


  1. That bodes well for us (students or fresh graduates) in near future, at least. Less competition.

    Another point I want to make is, the number of people in a field is only the result of how promising/flourishing a field is, not the reason for it.

  2. The problem isn't the product so much as CompUSA's business model, which focuses a lot on dealing with the naive user. With laptops whose guts are inaccessible being the big sellers, the machines have become commodities and that commodity market is open to everyone down the food chain, including Sears and Walmart. By targeting more tech-savvy customers, places like Fry's Electronics seem to be doing OK.

  3. The field of information theory is booming. And for the last decade or so, there's been a significant subfield of it which could be called "cellular telephone science." Previously, there was a subfield which could have been called "modem science," which is now no longer studied much, I believe since it's considered a more-or-less solved engineering problem. These would have been bad names, for the same reason that "computer science" is.

    I have no idea whether Shannon imagined cell phones in 1948, but they were certainly not anticipated in the early days of the field, which actually was too computation-intensive to have many real applications for the first decade or two of its life. This lack of applications may be why the field is named "information theory." Either that, or the founders of the field were a lot more savvy than the early computer scientists.

    Clearly, those who named the fields "computer science" and "computer engineering" did not properly anticipate the consequences of their decision for P.R. in the 21st Century. Cybernetics, anyone?

  4. Instead of changing our name, I propose that we tell anyone who asks the basic insight of our field: that "computer" is such a broad concept that it encompasses the internal logic of every machine that ever has been or will be built. (In the 1930's, this would have been a hard idea to explain; today, the hard part is to explain why it isn't completely obvious.) From the Church-Turing perspective, far from being analogous to "television science" or "cell-phone science," "computer science" is simply a more modest rendition of "everything science."

  5. If we were "Computation Science" instead of "Computer Science" would it really change anything?

    The real embarrassment is the name for the premier research society of the field: Association for Computing Machinery?!! Couldn't someone have thought of a better name?

    At least SIGACT changed the meaning of ACT from "Automata and Computability Theory" to "Algorithms and Computation Theory". Maybe we can do the same for ACM.

    Any suggestions?

  6. I was just browsing through some different terms looking for something that might fit better than "computer science" when I came across this trivia bit under the Wikipedia entry for informatics:

    Informatics was registered as a trademark[6] in the United States by Informatics Inc.[7], which traded from 1966 to 1985. This fact prevented the Association for Computing Machinery from becoming the Society for Informatics. As of October, 2006, a search of the United States Patent and Trademark database reveals no live trademarks on the word "informatics" alone (although many combinations including that word do appear).

    I think "Society for Informatics" has a nice ring to it.

  7. soc. for informatics and soon the joke will be on soc. for lunatics

  8. Sorry, Kurt. Just like the SIGACT name change, the ground rule is that you can't change the ACM acronym.

    BTW: There is no evidence despite that Wikipedia post that the ACM ever seriously wanted to switch to Soc. for Informatics. After your post, I searched the ACM digital library and found that there were proposed name changes about every 10 years until the 1980's, with the most frequent proposal being just "Association for CoMputing".

    I am looking for something less lame to fill out the acronym.

    (It seems that one reason to change the name was the confusion about what type of organization the ACM was during congressional testimony. This motive has dissipated with the founding of the CRA - Computing Research Association - which has replaced the ACM as the representative of CS research in the halls of power in the US and Canada.)

  9. As a strong-AI proponent, I might suggest changing the name to the Association of Computing Machinery.

  10. As a strong-AI proponent, I might suggest changing the name to the Association of Computing Machinery.

    The implication that this was the case was precisely the complaint for one of the rounds of attempted name changes!

  11. So why do you think Computer Science is unlike Television Science? What is common to, say, the subfields of Theory of Computation, Software Engineering, Human-Computer Interaction and Scientific Computing, except that they are all somehow related to computers? (List of subfields selected from the Wikipedia entry for Computer Science.)

  12. Just plainly, as Djikstra said:
    "Computer Science studies computers as Astronomy studies telescopes"

    Please,tell people not to confuse the apparatus we use to perform some task with the task itself.

    Computation, it's theory and it's application goes far beyond the current device we use. You can use paper and pencil and still can investigate if a method is going to work or not, or you can actually run a method using just paper and pencil.

    Moreover, when you "do" math, you can use a computer or a whiteboard, or paper, but this elements are NOT the actual mathematics. The same applies here.
    We study methods for solving problems and how do they perform in time and space in order to know if they are "good" or "bad". I mean, one should prefer a nlogn search instead of a higher order one...

    It's very sad to hear people out there talking about "Computer Science".

    I would rather prefer Computation Science. Perhaps just Computability?

    On the other hand, I love computers, they are such interesting devices.

  13. What Rafa is describing here is mainly the Theory of Computation part of Computer Science which, sadly, is only a relatively small and insignificant part of the activities going on in Computer Science departments today. The issues described are only tangential to the interests of, say, Software Engineering, and essentially irrelevant to studies in Human-Computer Interaction (or, heaven forbid, Information Systems). Furthermore, I am afraid that many people out there in the "real world" actually consider the latter subareas of Computer Science more relevant to their daily concerns than Theory of Computation. (They are of course wrong, but that is beside the point.) So again, how is Computer Science unlike Television Science? It still seems to me that all these subareas of our presumed "science" actually have no common substance, and the only thing that brings them together is the technology. Thus the situation is exactly analogous to Lance's imaginary Television Science, which might have subareas such as "Television Engineering", "Television Design", "Television Programming", "Television Business" etc.