Tech Industry

10 things I DON'T miss about old technology

The good old days of 1980s technology weren't always good. Read about 10 things few (if any) people will miss about that era.

 

lead image
Photo: thewip.net
 As a follow-up to my piece 10 things I miss about old technology, I wanted to present the flip side of the coin and talk about some elements I'm glad became extinct thanks to modern evolution. I hope you appreciate and enjoy the list!

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
  • VCR
  • Videotapes
  • PC (Radio Shack Tandy 1000 SX)
  • Monitor
  • Keyboard
  • Printer with paper and ribbons
  • Disks
  • Stereo
  • CD player
  • Tape deck
  • Speakers with cables
  • Tapes
  • CDs

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

 
Figure B
Photo: www.vintage-computer.com
 Having to dig through a computer manual or book looking for information was tedious compared to the much more portable, searchable PDF files we have today. Not only that, you had to keep them as long as you owned the related system or program, just in case. If you were a traveling field technician, this meant a trunkful of paper you might or might not ever use, which would get progressively beat up, torn, or illegible.  Now I keep all my PDF files in my Dropbox account and access them as needed. If I don't think I'll ever use the file again (such as guidelines for VMWare vSphere 4 after we've upgraded to version 5), I can delete it. Chances are I can find it again online if I do need the document later.

3: Physical media

Figure C
Photo: www.floppydisk.com
 On a related note, I've saved countless hours not having to paw through piles of floppy disks or CDs trying to find the right one to play a game, load a file, or boot an operating system. Back when I was a kid, I even recorded games onto cassette tapes, which were tedious to play back. It might take 15 minutes to load a game -- and if there was a defect on the tape, forget about it.

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!

 

 


About

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.

47 comments
RMSx32767
RMSx32767

I prefer printed documentation ; I can write in it, or put in post-it-flags, and it's always available.


Coss71
Coss71

Someone help me out here; there were 2 or 3 "game" in DOS and their names escape me (oh the joys of getting old) one was a snake you had to steer around the screen, another was a physics game that you would launch rocks over a hill to destroy the "enemies'" castle.  It's this second game that Angry Birds is based on.  When I first saw AB I knew it was a copy of that early DOS game.

n4aof
n4aof

How many remember taking a Seagate ST-228 and reformatting it in RLL to make it into an ST-235 without having to pay extra (since they were physically identical anyway)


wingnut1024
wingnut1024

We used 110 baud acoustic coupled modems. Good thing everything was text based. No GUI. Imagine how happy we were when we were given 300 baud units.

I've been in this industry toooo long.

wingnut1024
wingnut1024

#4

We used 110 baud acoustic coupled modems. Good thing everything was text based, no GUI. Imagine how good we felt when the modems were replaced with 300 baud units. ;^)

alfred
alfred

In the mid 1970s I needed a database for my engineering team's work and with difficulty persuaded my employer, the government, to supply a computer. I got an 8 bit PC with a wonderful new hard disk accessory. It was a case about 24" x 36" and 18" high. containing one fixed hard disk of 10MB and one removable hard disk of the same capacity. The removable hard disk was in a case 14" square by 2.5" thick. It worked and proved its worth by having the data in the database needed as evidence when an accident occurred relating to lifting equipment.  I recently bought an SD card of 64GB. The old disks probably cost several hundreds of times as much.


While old equipment was slow and unreliable I sometimes miss the manuals. For modern equipment information is minimal and usually couched it terms which mean something to geeks who are keeping track of all recent development but are incomprehensible to those who are just intelligent users.


ctdbach
ctdbach

Files larger than 1.44M were impossible to transport on those 3.5" floppies.  I did it by using pkzip or lha to archive them across 2 or more disks.  Then ALWAYS make a copy because you know one of the disks in the set will go bad.

jkregan
jkregan

Am I the only one who remembers setting up serial printers when RS-232 seemed to be more a vague suggestion than a standard and we frequently had to make custom cables using a breakout box and a soldering gun? 


On the other hand, try to make a christmas wreath using flash drives instead of 80 column cards, a little glue, paint and, of course, glitter.

rdmayo
rdmayo

I remember seeing a sales engineer carrying a "portable" PC on a plane.

It barely fit under the seat then. No way would it fit now.

I remember a work computer (Encore) that had 9 circuit boards just for the CPU. A dual processor model had 18 boards.... Now, how many cores on one board?

JHREIGHLEY
JHREIGHLEY

This is related more to mainframe computers (which I do NOT miss).

If you had more than one vendor supplier, and you had a problem, the mainframe vendor would ALWAYS blame the other guy's hardware, no matter what the problem was.  I had a bank of tape drives hooked up to a mainframe.  The mainframe started having memory problems (iron-core bits, remember those?).  When I called the tech, he blamed the problem on the tape drives.  Now how the @&^$%& did he arrive at THAT conclusion?

wlportwashington
wlportwashington

I don't miss having to configure the IRQ's and DMA's when installing a new piece of hardware nor do I miss having to memorize the Hayes control set when using a hi-tech 1200 baud modem.

kismert
kismert

I am happy you didn't turn this into a slide show. It was pleasant to read an old-fashioned, long article.

dhamilt01
dhamilt01

I don't miss BSOD because I still get them even with Windows 8.1.

w

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

Once again a PC-centric approach to technology. There is a world of tech outside of PCs.

cwayneu
cwayneu

Yes, wonderful (or not so wonderful) memories. I started in this business in 1973. This was a really great article, and many more references were listed in the comments. We have truly come a long way. I remember buying 100M (yes 100 megabyte) disk drives for about $25,000, and 8M of "core" memory cards for about $10,000. My phone has more horsepower today. ;-)

drmtiede
drmtiede

Hey, this pretty much resumes my thinking...


As a student at work for an airline a computer w/o harddrive, only 5,25 floppy, green on black screen. When my father could afford, a real computer with MSDos, I dreamt about letting him use it for computergames I had to copy from friends (no money). In University I updated my first own computer, upgraded from Dos 6.2 to a pirated Windows 3,1 or something, 20 or so floppies. Research papers written with a word perfect with no mouse interface; Oh boy I feel old and I m just over fourty...

GSG
GSG

I don't miss having to use a boot floppy, then swapping that floppy with another to start the Word Processing program, then putting in yet another floppy to save the file.  Oh, and if you needed data off of that spreadsheet, well, shut down the word processing program, insert the spreadsheet program floppy, and so on and so on. 

And trying to print anything took forever.  A ten page document on the dot matrix printer took forever.

skf
skf

Be aware that some of the low cost is due to our exploitation of Chinese child labor and the construction of safety nets in those Chinese factories so that suicide attempts are not successful.  We sure have come a long way from the 1800's and those jobs programs for blacks that some called slavery, haven't we?

remoulton
remoulton

re: #8 - I worked with 8088's and the Tandy 1000's and they seemed lightning fast compared to my first computer - a Commodore 128 modded with a 2MHz processor(!).  It had a free program called Swift Word Processor which I used for years.  "Swift' was pure hype - took 2.5 minutes to load from the floppy (no HDD) even after the CPU upgrade.  And, as the 128 only supported a 40-column display, sentences wrapped around; don't know how many hours I wasted accommodating THAT limitation.

When I got my first actual PC, I was still limited to a 28.8 modem, so when cable came along (I was the first one in town to get it) 5Mb/s was almost instantaneous!

skyeenter
skyeenter

Lugging a Osborne 1 weighing 22 pounds, billed as a portable computer.  Enough said.

midlantic
midlantic

I remember working with my Commodore 64 and tag-teaming with my neighbor who had one also. We would trade games and code back and forth over our 14 k connection. An 8kb file would take 15 minutes to share.

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

When I was in college studying Computer Science back in 1988, one of our professors told us that one day we would be listening to music and watching videos right on our PCs. We laughed and thought our professor was crazy.

gbravin
gbravin

You are right! But some pc, OS and software producers are thinking that manuals and other PDF books must be well hidden, and they must be searched and nailed before reading them! I find that this attitude is not paying on the long time!

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

You must be kind of young yet. My experience with computers goes back 35+ years. Never had:


#6 - couldn't really do that, since my first computer experience was on IBM 360, carrying around mag tapes or disk packs were impractical. But the punch cards were our backups, as well as the papertapes.


#8 - ? The problem was that you were using apps. I was programming them, ever heard of overlays?


#10 - I was a soccer player for our school (although soccer wasn't that popular back then), still the girls were hanging around. I also did a lot of high adventure hiking and camping as well as hunting. I had no problems getting dates, so if that image existed, it was never put on me (or at least no one said it to me). Most guys wanted to know how our hunting trips went, so I was sort of known as the outdoors man/gun freak. That said, my first girl friend was a computer operater in my high school. When she changed jobs, we could actively date since she could have been fired if we were dating while she was working at our school.


While I'll agree with physical media, I'm talking mag tape (reel to reel). I sort of miss the 8" floppies (my son gets a kick out of them). I still have a couple of binders with them, software including WordStar. I sort of miss CP/M.


I don't miss:

1. slide rule (I still have it)

2. IBM 360 assembly reference card

3. Wide ribbons for drum printers

4. continuous form paper

5. reel-to-reel mag tape

6. the 20MB hard disk for my IBM PC/XT (i got it without HDD, got it third party - built in was only 10MB)

7. accoustic coupler modem

8. dot matrix printers (more modern than the IBM 360 drum printers - but still a pain to use)

9. submitting cards to operators

10. Odd questions like "I see you know about eletronics, mind having a look at my refrigerator?" (replace with whatever household eletrical appliance). I haven't heard that in a long time. 


bwexler
bwexler

Clearly you guys are youngsters.

No one mentioned the 8" or 51/4" floppy disks that actually were floppy.

The 300 baud modems with accustic couplers, where you dialed up on a telephone and put the handset in the rubber couplers.

CPM and MPM operating systems that were custom to each brand and model of computer, so you would have to buy the version of Wordstar that would work on your platform. What, you never heard of Wordstar, it was the premier word prossessor in the day. How about Calcstar and Datastar.

And a multiple user system wit 64 KB of RAM, 16 KB for each of 3 users and 16 KB for the multiuser overhead.

How about paying $500 for a 2 MB upgrade board and another $500 for enough memory chips to populate it, and the care it took not to bend the pins on each chip as you pluged it into the board.

How about the 14" Winchester hard drive with 29 MB of storage.

Now step into the way back machine. The IBM hard drives packs 16" 9 MB capacity removable packs.

Or how about 80 columb punch cards, or the cool new 3" 96 character punch cards for the IBM system 3.

We laugh about the hanging chads in the Al Gore presidential election in Florida.

They weren't so funny when you were trying to debug a program on a foot tall stack of punch cards, and don't even think about playing 52 pickup with them.

Try transferring the date on that nice new 128 GB thum drive or SSD onto a stack of punch cards, about 12 billion cards. That would really make your day.

cykes
cykes

Lucky ... I remember having my 2400 baud modem download a 1Mb file in 1hr 20 mins with compression and feeling like a King. Some years later I got my hands on a 28.8 and I was reborn.


The good ole days .... for all the pains you went through it gives us an appreciation for where we're at now.

Brian.Buydens
Brian.Buydens

Things I miss about old technology


1. My Commodore 64 booted instantly.

2. It never got a virus.

3. There was no computer spyware.

4. My TV doubled as a monitor saving me money.

5. No tracking software.  Incidentally, I just downloaded an add-on called Ghostery.  It tells me that when I post a comment to TechRepublic I am tracked by 35 trackers.  Interesting...

6. I didn't have to constantly update my operating system.

7. No spam.

8. No malware.

9. Others?  (I need two more to make up the magic 10).

tjsummers51l
tjsummers51l

@n4aof 

I remember using a hole punch to make single sided 5 1/4 floppies into double sided  :-)

tjsummers51l
tjsummers51l

@wingnut1024 

I do sometimes miss being able to read the text on the screen as it loaded over a 1200 baud modem.

n4aof
n4aof

@rdmayo  I built my first computer from a kit -- and no I don't mean that the case, motherboard and drives came separately, I mean soldering dozens of IC's, resistors, and other components onto several circuit boards and wiring those boards together. It came with 48 KB RAM expandable to 64KB (yes, RAM was measured in KILO bytes back then) and a single 5.25: Single Sided Single Density Hard Sectored floppy disk drive (go ahead, look up what Hard Sectored meant for a floppy disk).  I added a pair of DSDD 5.25" floppies salvaged from a Xerox 820 to get just over 1MB of total storage (which was plenty in the days when a 5MB hard drive cost well over a thousand dollars.


The expansion card to take the RAM from 48KB up to the full 64 cost almost $300, which was a lot of money back then. The way to get around that was to just get the memory chips (eight of them, one for each bit), bend one pin up to isolate the MSB address line, piggy back these chips on top of the last bank of chips on the main memory board soldering the pins in place, then solder a single wire (usually a straightened paperclip) across the pins you had turned up and run a jumper to the address line on the board.  Voila! All the RAM an 8 bit operating system could address!


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heathkit_H89 

jwherman
jwherman

@rdmayo yes, I remember the DEC version.  It was not so lovingly called a "luggable". 

n4aof
n4aof

@JHREIGHLEY 


Vendors pointing fingers at each other has NOT changed at all.  The hardware guy swears it is a software problem, the software guy swears it is the fault of some other software, etc. etc.

blakepiercy
blakepiercy

@skyeenter I was an Osborne authorized technician, transportable was a more accurate description of that beast.  Along the same lines Sanyo made a suitcase sized one, I remember the ads for it showing a pretty woman walking through an airport with it.  Sanyo had to take the guts out so the lady could carry it.  Ah the days when computer types (still hate to use the word nerd) had to have deceptive upper body strength! lol

alfred
alfred

@midlantic You were lucky. The first modem I used was an acoustic coupler to the telephone hand set and when things were going well I could get 300 bytes per second.

D Walker
D Walker

@Suresh Mukhi  I was listening to music and watching videos on My PC in 1988. Midi music (I think) and postage stamp size (usually b/w) video only a few minutes in length at most. Now days some replace their TV and radio with PC or tablet or smart phone and get good quality if on a good connection.

setanta5
setanta5

@ManoaHIOverlays!  Arghh!  I had forgotten those.  Ghastly.  And as a programmer trying to retain data between different overlays.  Shudder...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

@ManoaHI I'm supporting dot matrix printers with continuous form paper even now; there's no better technology available if you're going to print multiple-part forms.

At least they don't still say "Mannesman-Talley" under the hood!

Worth2Cents
Worth2Cents

@bwexler And only a sadist would choose not to number their cards with a pencil. It wasn't always the bullies that made you drop all your cards. That raised crack in the sidewalk was just as mean.

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

@bwexler I do remember those days, of the 8"(I don't know about you, but i really like CP/M and miss it) and 5.25" floppies. I still have some, more for posterity since I don't have the drives. Yes, I remeber IBM punch cards (Holerith) as well as paper tape (baudot). But I sort of miss them. So they don't really appear on my list.

jcurtis
jcurtis

@cykes You were lucky! My first modem downloaded at 1200 baud and uploaded at 300. The only BBS available to me at the time meant a long distance call and cost the earth. At some point I got a fixed cost deal where long distance cost me 50p a minute!

JamesAltonSanders
JamesAltonSanders

@Brian.BuydensWith everything supporting HDMI, I don't know that #4 is necessarily limited to old technology anymore. Also, USENET has had spam for decades, if that counts.

setanta5
setanta5

@jcurtis@cykes"...and you tell that to young people today, and they don't believe you" to quote Monty Python

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