Do you always have to have the latest hardware and software to be productive? I don’t think so. Here’s why I don’t think so and what I plan to do to prove it. 


A guy down at the end of our street has an old Ford Model T. Every once in a while when the weather’s nice, you’ll see him running up and down the side roads in it. Even more rarely, he’ll be out on the main highway with it. However, I doubt he’s suicidal enough to dare to take it out on the interstate.

The analogy between automobiles and computers is beyond cliched, but at the same time it’s very apt here. I talk all the time about old equipment in Classics Rock and you get to see the insides and outs of them in our Dinosaur Sightings and Cracking Open photo galleries.  The question is, can you really do any work with old equipment?  Just as you wouldn’t dare drive a Model T out on the interstate, would you also not dare to try to do day to day work with something equally antiquated like a Tandy 1000?

Why would you want to in the first place?

Admittedly, there’s no reason to even consider ripping out new equipment and replacing it with 15 or 20 year old PCs. No matter how bad the economy is, there’s always enough money in the budget to keep current equipment running. So why even conceive of such an exercise as trying to do real work with an old computer?

One main reason is to reinforce the concept that you don’t always have to have the latest and greatest thing in order to be productive. The vast majority of users don’t use but a fraction of the features found in most modern applications such as Microsoft Office. This is one of the reasons why stripped down applications like Google Docs are getting attention.

Also, consider the fact that for most users whether you give them a computer with a quad-core processor or an old Pentium, most of the time the CPU will be sitting idle waiting for the next keystroke. Hardware isn’t as much a factor in productivity as it used to be. Things have gotten so fast that in Windows XP at least you often can’t tell that great of a difference between say a 2.8Ghz P4 with sufficient RAM and an equally configured dual-core machine.

What it takes to be productive in the 21st Century

As IT professionals, ideally we’re in business to make sure that our end users get their jobs done more efficiently. That means we need to be able to cover all of the bases when it comes to the basic needs of the end user.

At the dawn of the PC era, many of the functions that we take for granted today like full motion video, email and IM were either in their infancy or didn’t exist. Computers did simple things like replace typewriters with word processing and calculators with spreadsheets. Today, PCs are complete communication tools and users do multiple things at the same time.

The bare bone minimum things a computer has to do today include:

  • Email
  • Word Processing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Databases
  • Web surfing
  • Audio/video playback
  • IM

That means you can rule out any of the 8 bit machines of the first microcomputer era. Apple IIs and TRS-80’s might be able to do a few of the things on the list, but they’re too antiquated to do much more than be tasked with simple single things. Even if you move into the early 16-bit PC era, anything DOS based is also pretty much useless today. Again, you might be able to use it to do half the things on the list, but that’s about it.

That pretty much rules out all machines made before 1992 when Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1. Yes, Microsoft first introduced Windows 3.0 in 1990 which could push the date back 2 years.  And Yes, businesses ran quite well for 15 years that preceded it on old DOS and 8-bit machines.

With the first objection, Windows 3.0 was so bad that it made Vista look like Perfection. It was extremely buggy and only the truly masochistic would want to try to run it on a daily basis.

As for software and machines between 1977 and 1992, the problem is that work changed radically after Windows 3.1that user expectations are completely different. Users access multiple data formats with different applications running simultaneously. Add to the fact that there is no practical software in some cases for DOS, Apple IIs or TRS-80’s that fit the minimum standards. Sure you can get a DOS web browser, but being a single tasking OS, even with the help of something like Desqview, it would be torture to get anything done on a DOS machine today.

Making your bed and lying in it

Over the course of the next couple of weeks and months I’m going to try to configure up some older equipment with some old software and see if I can actually do anything with it. I’m planning to start with Windows For Workgroups 1.1 along with Office 4.2 and go from there to OS/2, Windows 95 and Windows 98.  I don’t think there’s any reason to try out Windows 2000 Professional because I’ve argued before that I think it was probably the best OS Microsoft made and is still useful.

If you have any suggestions about what to try, let me know in comments, and I’ll post the results of my experiments as time goes by.