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Cloud computing? Been there. Done that.

Cloud computing is nothing new. It's just a fancy name for technology that's been around since the 1980's and before. Classics Rock Guest Columnist Michael Banks talks about computing in the clouds in 1983 with his Tandy 100 and CompuServe.

Cloud computing is nothing new. It's just a fancy name for technology that's been around since the 1980s and before. Classics Rock Guest Columnist Michael Banks talks about computing in the clouds in 1983 with his Tandy 100 and CompuServe.

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When I first heard about cloud computing in 2007, it was with a feeling of déjà vu. I had indeed been there and done that -- with thousands of other personal computer users -- as far back as 1983. That's the year high-volume cloud computing was kicked off by the debut of the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100.

Portable, but lacking storage

You may not have seen or heard of the Tandy Model 100. TechRepublic has a Photo Gallery on it if you want to see what it looked like - - inside and out. It was a minimalist microcomputer, a not-quite two-inch thick slab that measured about 12 inches by 8-1/2 inches.

The Model 100 came with built-in firmware applications: text editor, calendar/scheduler with an alarm clock function, BASIC, an address book, and terminal program -- plus a 300-bps modem. Four AA batteries powered it for about 20 hours. It could display 40 or 80 columns on a monitor or television set and had its own 40-character by 8-line LCD display.

This miracle machine's only real shortcoming was storage, particularly if you traveled for work. Like most, my Model 100 had only the basic 8K of memory, which didn't quite hold 12 pages of text. There was no slot in the side for a disk or card. I worked with a lot of files -- articles, short stories, books -- so I needed external storage. So did most other Model 100 owners. Many who spent hundreds of dollars for 24K of RAM still didn't have enough memory.

A cassette interface made tape storage possible, but the medium wasn't always perfect.  Besides, that would have meant hauling along a tape player that weighed more than the computer, and the reason for the Model 100 was portability. A Model 100 disk drive presented the same lug-along problems as the cassette and cost lots more. (Cost aside, I would probably have lost, damaged, or forgotten the peripherals, cables, or media at some critical point.)

But a  storage solution was built in to the little machine in the form of its modem. It was easy to get an account on an online service such as CompuServe or The Source. (In fact, I had free press accounts.) So before I left home on a trip I would upload my work files to CompuServe, using the service's own data network. When I was at home and wanted to work somewhere other than my office, I transferred files between my laptop and desktop machines using my virtual disk drive.

In essence, I was doing what they now call cloud computing 25 years ago.

Granted, the applications weren't on a server, but that could be an advantage. If you had no telephone link, you could still work with the data in the Model 100's memory. And even in the early days you could use online applications to write or crunch numbers if you really wanted. In fact, according to CompuServe founder Jeff Wilkins, using applications and storing data online were the two major attractions of the service when it as opened as MicroNET in 1978. (Most microcomputer owners couldn't afford a floppy drive anyway, and transferring data to and from a mainframe was about as fast as and more reliable than using a cassette tape.)

Going back to the future

Of course, people were cloud computing with dumb terminals and mainframe computers long before 1978. It was called "timesharing," and General Electric opened the first commercial timesharing service in 1965. And today one prediction about cloud computing is that we'll soon be using minimal terminals to run online apps and retrieve and store data -- just like in the 1960s.

I wonder what else from those days hasn't been reinvented yet.

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Michael Banks is the author of On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders (APress, 2008) in which he writes about the histories of timesharing services, databases like Dialog, and the consumer online services that paved the way for the Web: CompuServe, GEnie, The Source, Viewtron, AOL, Q-Link, Prodigy, Prestel, and many others around the world.

14 comments
999silver
999silver

I have fond memories of the Model 100. What a great machine for its time. Recall thinking, back then, "now, if they'd just come up with a telephone that didn't need wires, a guy could work from the middle of the lake."

david.pallmann
david.pallmann

You're kidding, right? Equating cloud computing to online data storage means you only understand 1% of what cloud computing is all about. I refer you to the parable of the 3 blind men and the elephant.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Bored with sequels? Rocky XXIII, In the Zimmer Frame, lost it's appeal. Well we have something new for you. Star Wars Episode I. Episode II , will feature the new fangled idea of having you data and applications local to your machine, so it's available no matter what. Cloud computing, what a yawn.

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

Another first for MicroNET was online software sales. CompuServe was already selling the use of mainframe apps developed in-house, as well as some developed by corporate customers (with royalties) When MicroNET was still in the "skunkworks" stage, fonder Jeff Wilkins decided to make downloadable software available for all micros. No physical store could carry all available software--nor even programs for every machine. No such limitations in Wilkins' SOFTEX online store, of course. The inventory never ran out, and the expense of packaging was eliminated. --Mike

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

Oh, yes--the idea of the freedom of the Model 100 with wireless access was something I knew had to happen, too. That was really the only thing missing. (All those wires from the cloud--messy!) --Mike On the Way to the Web

insignis
insignis

I see your complaint (I'm having a hard time justifying the SaaS aspect of the comparison, based on the content in the article). Bear in mind that I wasn't around for CompuServe or MicroNET, and am going entirely off the article--but it seems to me that those services had more in common with: Online storage: XDrive, Hamachi (that one might be a stretch) -- and if it included synchronization functionality as it sounds like it did, then also include DropBox. Online software publication and/or store: Steam, XBox Live/Arcade, WiiWare/virtual console, etc. Is there justification for comparing these bygone services with SaaS and cloud computing? I'm asking because I'm genuinely curious.

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

Episode II then might be titled "Decentralization" -Mike

seanferd
seanferd

once they operational and serving the parent company. Sound familiar?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Episode III - Centralisation Episode IV - Decentalisation Episode V - Centralisation Episose VI - Decentralsiation Episode VII Are you bored yet? :p

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

Oh, yeah ... "Beyond Timesharing" becomes "Beyond Searching." --Mike

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

or me for that matter. :p Comforting that. :D Cloud computing is over hyped technobabble, with no long term business benefit to well over 90% of consumers, major long term benefits to producers, though. There's a subtle clue as to why it's being touted so heavily in that statement......

jck
jck

I'm shocked no one else saw this coming, when Ballmer presented "HailStorm" all those years ago. Network-based software application availability..."software as a service". It's all having to do with how much they can sell you by convincing you the tech paradigm has switched and you need to switch with it. As for how to do applications, I believe in letting things do what they are designed to do. DBs warehouse, manage, organize and provide an interface to data. Applications massage, extract, use, store, and manipulate data. Networks carry data. Computers are independent operating/storing machines. Terminals are server-dependent. Having someone's server act as my hard drive...why? Why do I want to have my hard drive 3000 miles away in a datacenter in Redmond, or 12,000 miles away in Bhopal? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of having a computer? To have availability 24/7/365/10/100/1000? Does it benefit me: performance-wise? time-wise? application availability-wise? Companies should quit being cheap, put a $40 hard drive in the local PC, get free OpenOffice for their PC users, and get on with business. Cloud computing is a joke tho. I hope Microsoft takes a big ole business bite of it...and it chokes them.

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