Hardware

10 things I miss about old technology

Take a trip down memory lane as Scott Matteson shares some of his favorite memories about technology from way-back-when.

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I've been reading the excellent book Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie by Rob O'Hara and it has brought back a lot of happy recollections of computing in the 1980s. Since Rob was born in the early 1970's like me, we both played a lot of the same games on the same computer systems. This book, in conjunction with shopping for tech gifts for my family (namely, iPad Minis for the kids), has provoked some nostalgia for the things I enjoyed during the olden days (hereby defined as the 1980s and 1990s) of technology, when I was a kid. Let's take a look at my 10 favorite things!

1: The thrilling sense of novelty

As I recall, the very first computer I ever saw was my friend Patrick's Apple II in what was probably 1978, when I was seven years old. At the time, the only computer I had really heard of was the Eniac, which to my mind existed purely in the realm of scientists and engineers.

Suddenly out of the blue here was a living, breathing (so it seemed) computer in my friend's home. Even though Patrick told me his Dad had spent over a thousand bucks on the Apple, seeing it live brought technology front-and-center to my mind — actual people could own actual computers! They might be as expensive as cars, but you could really go out and buy one. A whole world of possibilities became available; who knew what doors might open? This was quite likely one of the elements that propelled me toward a career in IT.

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An Apple II computer, link courtesy of www.cs.columbia.edu

2: The first computer in my house

It wasn't long before I pestered my beleaguered parents into buying a computer, the next year. Rather than opt for the pricy Apple, they chose an Atari 400 for about half the cost. It had a keyboard and a slot for inserting computer cartridges, and it let you play games using attached controllers (joysticks). You could hook up a tape recorder to play and save games from cassettes, believe it or not. My parents had the foresight to buy a Basic computing cartridge (along with several games), which I used to get started writing elementary programs that I saved to tape (more on that below).

You can still buy an Atari 400 on eBay, as a matter of fact. The cost is about a tenth of what it once was (not factoring in the difference between 1979 and 2013 dollars), so if you've got $54.99 lying around, this baby can be yours!

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An Atari 400 computer, link courtesy of oldcomputers.net

What makes this one unique is that having a home computer was a special and unexpected event. Nowadays kids grow up with them in the house; it's just like having a TV, refrigerator or dining room table. However, the Atari 400 meant I could actually work with and create stuff, rather than just sitting there passively watching TV.

3: Playing games on the frontier

Let's be honest, here: Eight-year-olds don't get excited about computers so they can learn the wonders of VisiCalc. It's about playing games and using the technology to have fun. My friend Patrick's Apple ran several Scott Adams text adventures, such as Mystery Fun House, which were addictive. There weren't any graphics, so you had to use your imagination and type commands like "go north," "chew gum," and "give ticket to bouncer," then read the resulting descriptions. That being said, my Atari 400 could also play several graphics-based arcade games, such as Missile Command, Donkey Kong, and Pac Man (the Atari 400 version was much more playable and realistic than the raw Atari 2600 one). I came to appreciate both worlds.

Sure, people still play plenty of games in the modern era. But there was something about those pioneer games (literally, in some cases, as in Oregon Trail) that really shone. It was a new era for the masses. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but you didn't have to get a doctorate from M.I.T. to figure the games out, nor rack up monthly expenses, spend hours building your chops, or go on exhausting scavenger missions so you could get to the good stuff. You just loaded them up and had fun.

My school library had an Apple II that offered a game called Lemonade Stand, which was fascinating. (It never occurred to us we were actually learning about economics.) I had a Dukes of Hazzard game at home, which allowed you to play the Duke boys and jump over creeks and canyons. The graphics and story were about as limited as you can envision, but back then it was worth many hours of playing time.

But the Infocom games were the Holy Grail. These included examples such as Zork, Zork II, and Planetfall. They were definitely the best form of entertainment on a Friday night when I was 10, and there weren't any cheat codes or online hints (though I believe there was a toll "dial a hint" number if you really got stuck). Solving puzzles in these games after a long brainstorming session was hugely rewarding, even if it just got you into the next room with a new roadblock to circumvent. The Infocom games remain playable to this day. You can even play them for free online.

Unfortunately, I just don't have the time to play detailed, intense computer games these days, but I miss the weekends invested in figuring them out 30-plus years ago.

4: Writing games

It wasn't a hard leap to go from playing games to writing them, thanks to the Basic cartridge I mentioned. Graphics were possible in Basic — graphics so elementary I hesitate to even refer to them as "basic." But I largely stuck to writing text adventures, such as sequels to existing games like Escape from Traam or my own homegrown variety.

I had a target audience of one: my friend Mark, who also liked the genre. But writing the games and getting them up and running (or debugging the Basic syntax if problems arose) was the foundation for figuring out how things work in technology for me. And it was rewarding seeing my friend get a kick out of the process, which I believe helped grow my enthusiasm for the genre of writing itself and trying to entertain people.

5: Eagerly awaiting upgrades

In 1986 my family progressed from the Atari 400 to the Radio Shack Tandy 1000 SX with an 8088-2 CPU. This was a big deal, since it had two floppy disk drives! It also meant I could use DOS and access/save files more readily. To improve the situation even further, my Dad upgraded the memory in the Tandy to the maximum amount (640K), turning it into a veritable workhorse for its time. I even took it off to college a few years later.

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A Tandy 1000 SX computer, link courtesy of www.themoderndaypirates.com

I don't think an OS/hardware upgrade has ever meant as much to me since then, except possibly the arrival of Windows 95. Sad to say, as a system administrator I now view upgrades with a lot more skepticism, not to mention cynicism. For instance, "What has been rearranged or taken out?" is the first question when facing a Windows/Office upgrade, followed closely by, "How are my users going to respond to this?" Nothing wrong with healthy, meaningful change, but nowadays I don't quite get that "Christmas morning" sensation I once had when considering a new product or system. There's a lot more rolling of the eyes as I try to figure out why the Start menu had to be changed, for instance (Windows 8!). It's also tedious to transfer data, settings, and so forth, whereas my switch from Atari to Tandy was veritably seamless, since I had little data to worry about.

6: Owning content

The 1980s weren't just about computers, of course. Home video was also part of the game, and getting a VCR for the first time was like owning a piece of Hollywood. I remember the thrill of taping TV shows and being able to watch them again and again. The first such example was an episode of the show Silver Spoons. This was followed by several movies that aired on TV, which I watched them over and over because the movie choices were much less diverse than they are today. I can still recite much of the dialogue from 48 Hours and The Road Warrior, since the edited versions of these films were broadcast on public television and ended up on my Betamax.

Obviously we can own content today, so this is not new — and much of us do so to the tune of several terabytes of data. But back then, the thrill of actually being able to watch and rewatch stuff at my leisure was phenomenal. As far as I knew, nobody had ever been able to own a movie they could watch whenever they wanted, unless it was on the original tape reels/primitive home movies.

7: Getting online at home for the first time

I'll admit it: I didn't get in on the bulletin board (BBS) craze despite being a tech aficionado. I never had a modem while living with my parents, nor would it have been a possibility, since my Mom was a diehard phone talker. So when the Internet came along and started getting big in 1992, it was like deja vu all over again. We got Internet access at my hospital job for research purposes via a text-based interface, but I recall finding a game where you could talk to a dragon (with the purpose of convincing it not to eat you). Rather than having access to one computer, suddenly I had access to hundreds or more using Archie and Gopher. I would stay after work using the Internet to explore the landscape and see what it held. Even dry public medical data was compelling, since I might be reading it on a Chicago or Montreal server.

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A US Robotics modem, link courtesy of www.recycledgoods.com

As with the first computer I had in my home, I was psyched beyond belief to get online from my apartment using a 14.4K modem on what I believe was an IBM 386. I could talk to the universe, download programs, send messages, look up information, and more, all from my desk. I no longer had to rely on my work Internet access to travel the world, so to speak. It was like having my own personal Oracle of Delphi. That sense of novelty I described earlier also applied to email messages. How cool it was to get a message from someone before all the spam and phishing crud came along — or the stack of email messages that now translates to "must do before 8:00 AM" tasks.

8: Lack of fanboys/bias

One great thing about the 80s and 90s was that everyone in the tech realm seemed to be on the same side. People who liked computers didn't seem to argue much over whether Apple was better than IBM. Nowadays, simply expressing your preference for an operating system can earn catcalls and allegations of incompetence from the Windows/Apple/Linux corners of the tech universe. It seems to me some folks spend less time enjoying technology and more time telling others why their technological choices stink, simply put. Tired accusations of "drinking Kool-Aid" and "marching like lemmings" abound now. I miss the kinder, more tolerant days.

9: Simpler license structure

Perhaps I'm suffering from historical revisionism, but I recall that when I went to a store to buy a program or game during the 1980s, it then became mine. I wasn't buying a "license," but the actual software. If I had two computers, there was no problem using the program on both of them as far as I knew.

Then things changed. Sure, they changed because of piracy; let's be honest. People began passing around disks for their friends to copy. I don't have a problem with companies trying to prevent their products from being used for free, so long as they do so in a meaningful fashion and don't get greedy. However, sometime in the early 2000s, the rules suddenly seemed to change. We were told we were never buying software, but only a license to use the software on a single machine. If we had two machines, that required two licenses. Okay, fair enough (although I can logically only use my desktop OR my laptop at once, unless I engage in a weird "writing two papers at once in Word" scheme on both systems). But then came the Draconian activation methods and tortuous "jumping through hoops" schemes developed by software manufacturers. Users were deemed "guilty until proven innocent." Even Apple, the definition of user-friendly by many people, uses the atrociously bad iTunes mechanism to manage and restrict content usage, which always has me reaching for the Advil once I'm done using it (normally to help one of my kids).

10: Lack of security concerns

I didn't run into a computer virus until 1990, 12 years after I first saw a computer. The 1980s weren't a time of worrying about hackers, rip-offs, or moronic Nigerian scams. Everything was carefree and wide open. These days there's a constant barrage of onslaught from ne'er-do-wells looking to separate you from your money, or worse. I recently read that Americans are less trusting than in the past and, sadly, I'm convinced this is in part due to the online jerks trying to capitalize on other people's generosity... or gullibility.

Bonus item: Tougher hardware

Call me a sentimentalist, but I'm convinced they made electronic gear better even just a few years ago. As I mentioned, the same kind of Atari 400 my parents bought more than 30 years ago can still be found online. VCRs seemed to be indestructible — I had one that lasted well over 10 years even after suffering various moving-related mishaps — and the videotapes themselves could be fixed pretty easily with scotch tape if they broke. Nowadays, if a DVD has a minute scratch on it, that seems to render it unplayable — as witnessed by the beat-up DVDs my kids rent from the library, which always seem to freeze right at the good parts. In fact, while on a car trip today, my children complained several times that their DVD players froze.

I also loved the fact that I could shut off a VCR halfway through a movie, then power it up the next day and pick up right where I left off. No interminable DVD player startup process, no forced ads, no threatening warnings, no skipping chapters.

And it's not just the 80s or 90s that seemed to have the tough stuff; Dell laptops from just five or six years ago were unstoppable. I went on a business trip to Vegas this fall and brought a flimsy lightweight laptop, which died on me when I got there. I called my company and asked them to ship me a 2007 Dell D-630 laptop I had in my cube, which I knew was a tank and would work fine. Sure enough, it made the trip out and performed flawlessly. I could probably throw this laptop off the roof of my building and it would work okay after a crash landing.

In summary

If you lived through this era, I hope this has retrospective has brought back some fond memories and maybe helped you relive the first impressions you had of an inspiring new world. If you weren't around then, I hope it has been an educational tour through my mental museum (and I haven't sounded too crotchety; I'm only 42 but can do a good impression of 60 sometimes).

It wasn't all glory and wonder, though. Some progress really is valuable. In my next article, I'll talk about the opposite: "10 things I DON'T miss about old technology."

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Your take

What fond memories do you have of technology in the olden days? Share your stories with fellow TechRepublic members.

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.

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