by Arun Sinha

The Stamford Advocate (local daily newspaper)

It wasn’t that long ago when people who weren’t scientists or engineers started saying a strange new word, “kilobytes.” It was an unusual word, a compound word whose two components – “kilo” and “bytes” – were both unfamiliar. The word was often followed by a question mark, as if to indicate that the speaker wasn’t quite sure what it meant and couldn’t believe that he was even saying it.

But in a few years, the unfamiliar word became familiar to millions. It entered normal conversation. It was no longer followed by a question mark, unless grammar dictated so. Familiarity lead to comfort, then to contempt. These days, the kilobyte gets no respect. How often do you hear anyone say “kilobytes” any more?

That’s because the kilobyte was quickly supplanted by the megabyte. As in, a thousand times a kilobyte. Now we were talking. A kilobyte was a measly 1,000 bytes (1,024 if you were using the binary system), but a megabyte took us into seven figures. We love seven figures. That’s when we start paying attention.

And we could relate to the prefix “mega.” We already knew about megalomaniacs and megahit movies and megamillionaires with megabucks. We liked owning megabytes. In fact, we grew so fond of them that we affectionately shortened them to “megs.”

Progress marched on. Gigabytes followed megabytes in short order. Again we were faced with a new word, “giga,” but this time we were up to it. A thousand times a megabyte – no sweat, we could handle it. “Gigabytes” is now part of popular parlance, and yes, it too has been shortened, to “gigs.” It’s not uncommon for one to say, for example, “A 120 gig hard drive.”

The gig, though, may soon be a thing of the past. When Google can give a gig of e-mail storage to the masses for free, it tells us that a gig is not as scarce or distinctive as it once was.

Technology companies are making devices that hold ever-increasing numbers of bytes. Numbers large enough to put megs and gigs in the shade. And a new family of prefixes that tell us exactly how large these numbers are has started creeping into consumer literature. You may as well get to know them:

  • The terabyte (equal to 1,000 gigabytes)
  • The petabyte (1,000 terabytes)
  • The exabyte (1,000 petabytes)
  • The zettabyte (1,000 exabytes)
  • The yottabyte (1,000 zettabytes). And no, that’s not a typo for “lottabytes.”

For those who haven’t been keeping count of the zeroes: a tera is 1 followed by 12 zeroes, and a yotta is 1 followed by 24 zeroes. Will we ever need that much storage capacity on our computers? Tempting as it is to answer “no,” when it comes to technology: never say never.

However, the purveyors of peculiar prefixes aren’t done with us yet.

Back in those quaint old days of kilobytes, personal computers were sometimes called microcomputers. “Micro” was used not in its literal sense, “one-millionth,” but in the sense of “really, really small compared to those computers that take up a room and you’re not allowed to see.”

So what would we call a really, really small microcomputer, if such a thing existed? A nanocomputer, naturally, since the next step down from “micro” is “nano,” or one-billionth. Such a computer does exist, though chiefly in research labs around the world.

Also known as the molecular computer, it uses atoms and molecules to perform calculations. Which makes “nanocomputer” a bit of a misnomer, as the nano scale is too big to efficiently represent the size of the playing field that atoms and molecules occupy. Instead of nano, we should be saying “pico,” a trillionth. Come to think of it, I like the sound of “picocomputer.” And if we’re into pico, can femto (a quadrillionth) be far behind?

On the other hand, maybe we should be grateful the computer folks are sticking with nano. They could get really exact with their molecular dimensions and name it the “Angstrom unit computer.”

An Angstrom unit, by the way, is one ten-billionth of a meter. And a meter, of course, is 39.37 inches.

There! Finally, something that doesn’t need a prefix.

Arun Sinha is president of Access Communications, a digital marketing, content creation and web development company in Stamford, Connecticut, USA. Visit for more information on copy writing, websites, and Internet marketing.

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