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
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
- Printer with paper and
- 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
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
3: Physical media
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
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
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
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,
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
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!