1: Bulky hardware
I mentioned in my last article that one of the things I liked about older computers was that they seemed tougher, as exemplified by a Dell laptop that reminded me of the Terminator because it seemed unstoppable. The drawback to this was that older hardware was bulky and difficult to haul around. There weren't any flat screens -- just CRT monitors. Desktop systems were bigger and heavier. Plus, there were a LOT of components for different functions.
When I went to college in 1989 I had to bring all these items to support my computing, music, and entertainment habits:
- 13" color TV
- PC (Radio Shack Tandy 1000 SX)
- Printer with paper and ribbons
- CD player
- Tape deck
- Speakers with cables
It took hours to pack up, move in, and unpack. No wonder there was always a long wait to borrow one of the university's laundry carts!
Nowadays, kids going to college need two things: a laptop and a mobile device. Some probably just bring tablets. We've definitely come a long way to bring 14 components down to one or two. Yes, we still use printers, but they are needed much less often than they were 25 years ago, thanks to email, electronic documents, and online forms… as I bring up in my next point.
2: Printed manuals and books
3: Physical media
These days, I keep install files and operating system discs on external hard drives in .exe or .iso format. Rather than lugging around hundreds of floppy disks, I carry a single USB flash drive or just access what I need online via my Dropbox account. As an added benefit, I worry much less about bad disks. Sure, hard drives fail, but it's nothing to worry about if you have backups (more on that later).
4: Slow computers/connections
Not to sound arrogant, but I can't often take seriously the age-old user complaint that "my computer is slow." To paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, "I have worked with slow systems. I know what slow means. Your computer is not slow." In the early 1990s I witnessed first-hand an IBM 8088 PC struggling valiantly to load a copy of Word Perfect 5.0 from a 1.44 Mb floppy disk. It literally took so long that I could have eaten lunch and probably taken a quick walk around the block. A far cry from waiting 20 or 30 seconds for Firefox to finally open.
The same goes for Internet connections. When you've gotten online via a 14.4 K modem, any form of broadband seems like lightning by comparison. Downloading a 1 Mb file involved relying on a good book to read while I waited (im)patiently. Even 4 Gb .iso files download relatively quickly these days. I also don't miss sharing the phone line with my girlfriend (now wife) back when a dial-up modem was the only way to get online.
5: Expensive systems and parts
I mentioned in my previous article that I had a friend who owned an Apple II in 1978, which cost $1,200 at the time. That translates to almost $3,400 in today's dollars! Parts were similarly pricy, not to mention hard to find (and even harder to get to if you didn't have a car and lived in a city spanning more than 37 square miles). Case in point, I had a Tandy 1000 SX computer that suffered a broken keyboard during a move. The keyboard was shot, so I had to order another one from Radio Shack to the tune of $100 -- a big blow when you're a teenager earning $3 per hour. Nowadays you can just order what you need online for a reasonable price and have it shipped to your house.
6: Manually backing up personal data
Backing up data is never fun, but it's necessary. Copying floppy-to-floppy was a bummer. When consumer hard drives came along, I thought all my worries were over. Sadly, this was not to be (at that time). Every hard drive has a finite life span, as I found out when mine crashed and burned, taking with it many college papers. Copying important files to removable media became a habit, but even then if the media went bad and you didn't know it, you were playing with fire. I got to the point where I used Norton Ghost to clone an entire hard drive to a backup drive, then on one memorable occasion my primary drive failed and the backup was also hanging by a thread with a colossal number of bad sectors.
That all ended once I started using online cloud services like Dropbox for my data. I still rely on an external hard drive as well, to which I copy my files via scheduled tasks. But the tedium of copying the same files over and over exists no more. It all happens in the background.
7: Difficulty troubleshooting problems
Some might see this as a plus, since you were forced to rely on your own ingenuity. But when problems occurred with computers 25+ years ago, you were probably on your own (unless you could run ideas past others via BBS or calling friends on the phone).
- "Weird obscure error message"? Well, use trial and error to see if you could fix it.
- "Computer gives an odd sequence of beeps and won't power up?" Where's that manual, anyway? What do you mean, the "error code" page is missing?
- "Should I go with such-and-such word processing program?" I dunno; maybe ask around in the community and see what people think.
You get where I'm going with this: There was no Internet to Google error codes, check manufacturer websites, or read customer reviews.
In a business environment, the ability to get advice and feedback from millions if not billions of other people is a crucial life preserver. True, I do feel now that it can be tougher trying to find meaningful answers than just a few years ago -- so many wannabe IT pros on free forums giving strange advice to people, like "check your DNS settings" for just about every issue under the sun. It's a wonder that male-pattern baldness isn't blamed on faulty DNS configurations. But if you wade in the river long enough, chances are you'll find what you're looking for. Not necessarily so back in the 1980s or part of the 1990s, before the online experience became king.
8: Hardware limitations
I mentioned in my last article that my father upgraded my Tandy 1000 SX computer to the maximum of 640K of RAM (this was probably around 1989). That helped, but writing papers on the word processor program -- which I don't recall the name of -- still limited me to seven pages at a time. This meant any paper longer than that had to be split into two files and worked on/printed separately. Now word processing documents can easily span thousands of pages, of course.
In 1997, I bought a Compaq Presario 4704 with 32 MB of RAM and a 133 MHz CPU. Back then it was the best system I could afford, but it crashed often. VERY often. I bought a copy of Cyberflix's "Titanic: Adventure out of Time," which was a sort of spy game set on the Titanic. My computer almost always crashed at the part of the game where the main character listens to a recording containing his instructions for the mission; the Compaq hardware was overwhelmed. If in fact the computer DIDN'T crash, I didn't dare stop the game or turn it off since generally I had a 10% chance of getting past that segment next time.
Sure, there are still hardware limitations these days; if you have an older system, it might not be able to play a brand new game. But at least you can upgrade more affordably.
9: Remote support headaches
Up until the arrival of remote control software, if you worked in IT and had to support remote users, you did it over the phone, old-school. Users had to read error messages to you (and invariably this would entail long paragraphs painfully enunciated, such as "A problem has been detected and Windows has been shut down to prevent damage to your computer. The problem seems to be caused by the following file…." This would go on and on until they got to the less-than-helpful part that stated "Technical information asterisk asterisk asterisk STOP colon zero x zero zero zero zero….." You would then have to figure out what you needed them to do. It was especially painful if you had to walk them through replacing hardware. True, it wasn't as bad as having a wisdom tooth out without anesthesia, but it was bad.
During the late 1990s I worked for a bank, and we were lucky enough to have a program we called Poly. It allowed us to view the OS/2 desktops and servers in use (yes, you read that "OS/2" part right). The servers were Compaq systems with two things on the front: a power button and the Compaq logo. On one memorable occasion I had to explain to a bank manager how to shut down the server, which was completely hung. Despite all of my best efforts, the manager swore there was no power button on the front of the server to press. I had to take a pair of Advil and politely request someone else at the bank to be put on the phone: "Do you see the power button on the front of the server?" "Oh, sure! Want me to press it?" "Yes, please." CLICK.
Nowadays we benefit from commercially available products like Logmein and TeamViewer for remote access to other systems, as well as Dell Remote Access Cards (DRACs), which allow you to power off/on systems and view their consoles. I've saved a lot of money on Advil since then.
10: The "computer geek" stigma
This wasn't a particularly terrible ordeal, but it significant enough to warrant mention on the list. Back in the 80s if you liked computers you were generally pigeonholed into the "nerd club," as if you couldn't possibly hold other interests such as sports, dating, or outdoor activities. Now, I'm not comparing this to the actual persecution many minority groups have suffered throughout history, but it could be a bit unpleasant being stereotyped this way. There was a general assumption that everyone in the nerd club just holed up in basements gloating over computer parts, wore broken eyeglasses mended with masking tape, and maybe ventured out of their disheveled lairs only to play Dungeons and Dragons or go to chess club.
Even in the 1990s if you worked in IT chances were people thought there was one and only one career path for you: tech support. Systems and network administration, programming, and data analysis were usually unheard-of realms to those outside the industry.
Things have changed now. Take a walk down the aisle of any airliner in flight and what will you see? Dozens of computing devices. Ride up in a crowded elevator and what's in everyone's hand? A smartphone they rely on hourly (if not more). We're all in the nerd club now. I'll admit I haven't set foot in a high school in almost 25 years, but I somehow doubt that kids who like computers are still getting the Revenge of the Nerds treatment.
And we're out of time
So that's my list. I'd be interested in hearing what you also don't miss about the old days in the discussion below.
For those of you keeping score, turns out I actually listed more things I do miss than things I don't miss. I guess I know now how I define the golden age of technology!
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.