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The bad old days of tech
I grew up using Apple, Atari and Tandy computers in the 1980s and have worked in technology since 1993, so I’ve seen well over 35 years worth of changes in the tech spectrum.
Many of the same basic functions of computers and devices remain unchanged–productivity software such as word processing and financial spreadsheets, performing calculations, programming code, communicating with others and playing games. However, the hardware and platforms on which these functions operate seem as different to me now as a 747 compared to the first plane flown by the Wright brothers.
While in some ways I feel the 1980s and 1990s were a golden era of computing for me. However, once I realized the fun and potential of computer systems and how I could earn a living from them, it’s been a relief to see technology evolve to help accommodate my needs. I wrote an article a few years ago listing 10 things I don’t miss about old technology, but as I look back over the decades, here are 10 more things I don’t miss.
1. The computer lab
Way back in the early era of personal computing (late 1980s), simply having a home system wasn’t necessarily good enough if you needed a computer to get work done. Even then writing papers by hand was a thing of the past as far as I was concerned.
The Atari 400 we owned had no printer or word processing software, so I had to slog over to the high school computer lab if I wanted to write a book report or term paper. I had to do the same in college until I finally got a printer for my Tandy system (which had only enough memory to store and print seven pages worth of material at once, forcing me to utilize brevity).
Going to the lab wasn’t necessarily all bad since I might bump into friends, turning the visit into a social experience. However, that sometimes worked against me since interruptions and distractions were rampant. Waiting for a terminal to become available during peak usage times, dealing with the background noise and suffering the headache-inducing fluorescent lighting that seemed to be required in every lab I’ve seen made for a laborious experience. I was glad to finally achieve full computing capability from my dorm room, even on a system with limited capacity.
2. Having to upgrade hardware
During the 1980s we went from the i286 processor (1982) to the i386 (1985) then the i486 (1989). Back then if you wanted to make the most of your technological experience, you had to upgrade. It was a choice between driving to work at 15 mph or 30 mph or 45 mph.
This of course involved cost, hassle, and time spent setting up programs and copying data, at least towards the end of the decade when hard disks became more widespread.
Moreover, system cards such as graphics controllers were weak compared to today’s models, so when newer versions came out it was often urgent to upgrade in order to keep up with changing application standards.
Nowadays, I feel very little need to upgrade my computing hardware other than replacing it via the normal attrition process. It’s been years since I discovered a program I wanted to use required more processing power or memory than my system currently possessed. Granted, some gamers experience this problem today, but the corporate world remains free of such limitations.
3. Waiting in line for software launches
I still remember the Windows 95 launch and how people queued up to receive their copy of Microsoft’s much-anticipated new operating system. I was one of them, since I felt as a technologist it behooved me to get the fastest possible jump on learning the new operating system and seeing if it made sense at my business (we were running DOS 6.2 if you can believe that).
Much like the computer lab, the line offered some socialization in the form of fellow tech enthusiasts eager to check out a new product, but all things being equal I vastly prefer downloading operating system updates directly or working with .ISO virtual disc images (a great free program called Virtual CloneDrive can easily mount these in an operating system) rather than standing in line.
Sure, people still line up to buy hardware such as new Apple products, but that’s more of a consumer choice than an IT professional requirement.
4. Media defects
Another reason to be fearful of packaged physical software? If the media went bad, you were out of luck.
While Windows 95 and 98 both shipped on compact discs, they also came in floppy format for the brave of heart. Windows 95 consisted of 21 floppy disks / 13 1.68 MB DMF floppy disks. Windows 98 came on 38 1.68 MB DMF floppy disks.
Whether you were attempting an operating install from a series of disks or a CD, if the media was damaged, you were out of luck. It was especially painful to feed several floppy disks into a PC, almost reach the end of the installation, then hit a bad disk error (yes, I experienced this).
5. Storage limitations
I was excited when I finally had a system with an internal hard drive (which I believe consisted of 40 Mb worth of space), thinking all my issues running out of space on floppy disks were over. Sadly, I was mistaken. Storage is like your walk-in closet — no matter how much space you might have, it will fill up.
I actually had to delete programs and data I found less valuable than others just to free up enough room to maintain my computer habits. I now regret having to scrap some of my college papers and other writings on one occasion when I had no spare floppies to back them up on. I foolishly decided to delete them since they’d already been handed in, but the consolation is the days of maxing out storage space are gone (at least for me).
6. Jumpers and dip switches
If you don’t recognize what’s in the above image, consider yourself lucky. Jumpers and dip switches were a way of configuring hardware by enacting or remove certain settings. For instance, changing processor speed, activating or deactivating on-board motherboard components or specifying whether a disk should be a master or slave.
Jumpers worked by putting a small plastic “cap” on the prongs seen in the above left photo; this would enable electricity to flow between the prongs which the computer would then see as specific request to turn on a feature (or turn off if the cap was removed).
Dip switches are more obvious in their functionality; adjusting the various tiny levers to be on or off would achieve the same result as jumpers.
Nowadays these settings are generally controlled in the computer BIOS (Basic Input Output System), so jumpers and dip switches are rarely seen. This is a good thing since if you lost the cap to the jumper it was highly inconvenient, and having to open up the computer to tweak settings is doubly so.
7. A physical server for each function
Even as recently as 10 years ago, if my IT team and I intended to implement new products or services in our environment, we had to procure physical servers. Virtualization had been around for a little while, but we hadn’t fully proved it out and were reluctant to run critical applications on it.
Worse than having to select, buy, have shipped then “rack and stack” servers is having to do so for each function offered in our environment. For instance, we might need a file server, a email server, a database server, and a backup server just for one project. As you can imagine, these took time to get up and running, were costly, and required ongoing overhead in the form of storage space, electricity, cooling and component repair.
Virtualization has changed everything. While physical servers are still used to host the virtual machines involved, you can spin up new servers very quickly and with much greater cost efficiencies. Sure, some applications with intense resource requirements do run better on physical hardware, but I’d say 90% of servers can very easily be virtual.
8. Being chained to the work or home PC
Mobility has freed us up from having to work exclusively on a PC to get things done. In 2000, the company I worked for didn’t even have a VPN so if there were system issues I had to drive an hour in.
Back in the day the same applied to the home PC; if you needed to access a file, look something up, or communicate with someone while you were on the go, you had no choice but to wait until you got home. Nowadays our phones provide access to most of the same functions and data (depending on your configuration) as desktop or laptop computers.
9. Having to call tech support
At first glance this one might seem out of place since you can still call tech support across many companies both business and consumer related. However, note the use of the word “can.” You can call them, but for the most part you don’t have to since email and chat and web-based functions provide more convenient and quicker access to help (in my experience).
Phone calls are limited. There might be long wait times, a language barrier interfering with assistance (even in a given country regional dialects can inhibit communication), dropped calls or – my personal nightmare – having to listen to the same “on hold” music over and over.
With chat-based support you can save a transcript of what advice was offered. The tech on the other end can copy and paste commands for you to run into a chat window, attach documents or links, and other useful tech-based functions to which a phone call can’t compare.
10. One-way pagers
I saved the best for last. I’ve been on call as an IT guy for years; it goes with the territory. Unlike the smartphone, the one-way pager represented all the negative elements of being on call without any of the positive, such as being able to respond or get more information.
Being paged at home was not as much of a big deal as being paged while out and about. You had to drive around to find a payphone in those days, and even then this could be a challenge. After all, you didn’t have a mobile device with a clever “Find the nearest payphone” app. There was no way to tell who was paging you or what the context involved; the message merely represented a number for you to call back.
Of these 10 items, I can safely say the pager should be relegated to the dust heap of history. Yet amazingly they still live on, and certain companies actually continue to provide paging devices and services!