“Flight Against Stupidity And Bureaucracy”
Yesterday’s post was really about a couple of funny helpline incidents. But by way of introducing it I started to talk about my love affair and history with computers. Well I didn’t stop thinking about that when I finished yesterday’s blog post and so another post was born.
I hope you find this at least a little bit interesting. Obviously I do because I lived through it. To younger readers I’m sure it won’t mean much, but maybe they can have a laugh at the archaic crap that at the time we all thought was just the greatest thing ever – and actually at the time so it was.
As I said yesterday, my first experiences with computers were on the big mainframes. We had them in university and quite honestly the stuff we were doing on them in those days you could probably do on a good scientific calculator now. But there we were punching cards and working out mathematical formulae and getting results that I’m sure no one understood or cared about but us. (I probably wouldn’t even understand them now either!)
Here are a couple of pictures of the big machines. Younger readers will note the handy compact hard disks used to store information!
Compare the size with one of today’s disks
My first tussle with the big boys was on something resembling this
And we inputted our data via either these punch cards
Or via these teletype machines that I called the “chuggers” in yesterday’s post (notice the paper tape at the left hand side that made everything work!)
Then the personal computer era began.
My first introduction to that was a Commodore PET. It was around 1977 or 1978, I think. A fellow student and friend of mine at the time, a Malaysian Chinese guy who’s family were super rich (I don’t think he ever told them the proper exchange rate so his monthly allowance was huge!) bought one of the first of these machines and he loaned it to me for a few days when he was away on vacation.
I was enthralled. Dear knows why. If you look at the video at the end of this post you’ll see just how basic the technology was.
But ignorance is bliss. There was nothing better around.
Needless to say I could not afford a Commodore PET, nor for that matter an Apple II which was making its debut at more or less the same time and was vastly overpriced as Apple stuff still is. In it’s defense the Apple II was a cut above the norm even in those days as regards looks and it had a floppy drive (which I think you had to buy as an optional extra) instead of the awful cassette tapes.
But something that I could afford was the budget priced, but very, very basic Sinclair ZX81. To call it a computer nowadays is a bit of a joke, it had little or no memory, you needed a cassette tape deck, and a television to help it along, and it hadn’t even a real keyboard. But it did come in kit form and was fun to build and do basic Basic programming on.
Of course my thirst for bigger and better machines was only getting started. Next I was on to something called a Dragon 32, which as the name implied had a massive 32k of memory – yes, you young ‘uns, I said 32k, as in kilo – of memory. There was talk at the time that the company were working on a 64k version, but hardly anyone believed that a machine with such a vast memory was possible or even desirable!
The Dragon 32 was another one fired up by a cassette tape and a tv screen connection, but it was okay for learing more programming skills and there were plenty of games available that amused everyone at the time.
Then for me came an epiphany, computer-wise. I was about to put my trusty, and maybe a little rusty, typewriter aside. I bought an Amstrad 8256 word processor. It allegedly could handle other tasks as well, but it was primarily a word-processing machine and it did that job pretty well and reliably using its inbuilt Logoscript software. You could store letters and documents on its floppy disks and it had its own printer as part of the bundle. All in all a good piece of kit for the time.
A while after that the whole game changed. And the game changer was the graphical user interface, GUI, and the mouse.
DOS was dead. We would no longer have to plow our way through screens like this
The Xerox 8010 Star Information System in 1981 was the first to use it.
But Xerox didn’t see the potential and didn’t capitalize on it. Steve Jobs and Apple did, and the Mackintosh released in about 1984 was the first to perfect its use commercially. It was a major change and brought computing into the reach of ordinary people instead of just the computer nerds and geeks.
Microsoft Windows soon dominated the PC end of the market with their 3.1 version doing a reasonably good job. Later versions like Windows 95, 98 and the appalling ME versions were rushed out and unstable. And, having learned nothing they followed that with a similarly unprepared Vista. All that did nothing for the reputation of the company.
They have made a lot of ground up with Windows 7 and 8 which seem to be a lot better both with regard to stability and functionality. And nowadays if you really hate windows you can run PC machines in linux based operating systems, just look for the penguin.
From the mid 1980s the PC market exploded. Many companies large and small, from the IBMs to brand new budget manufacturers (or rather, assemblers) were born. They all did basically the same job, used the same internal hardware and software and had internal hard drives that would store up to 100MB (yes, mega bites) and up to 4MB of RAM.
At first they looked like this
And then this
And then this
I had versions like pictures two and three. In fact I still have one of what I’ve called the modern generic desktop design in my office today. Of course the processing speeds and memory capacities of both the hard drives and the RAM have increased dramatically. Now it is not unusual to be able to buy a desktop computer with at least a terrabyte of hard drive storage and 8 GB (yes, giga bytes) of RAM, as well as extremely fast multi processors and large high definition flat screens.
All in all a great improvement. A lot of it not really necessary for the average user who just uses their computer for a bit of word processing and to surf the internet, but when it comes to computers most of us kinda have to have the best spec we can afford, rather than what we actually need.
And there was another revolution in computers. This one really took off during the late 1990s and it was the increasing popularity of the laptop. In earlier years the laptop had been the preserve of the business community and were priced accordingly, usually well out of the reach of the average consumer. As well as that the spec was well below that of contemporary desktop machines and no one like to pay more for less.
Then a few things sort of coincided. We had the near saturation of the desktop market with a subsequent slowing down of new sales. The cost of component parts like processors and memory consequently dropped as demand tailed off. And some of the smarter manufacturers saw this as an opportunity to create a brand new market that would allow them to sell affordable laptops with a near desktop spec to the same market that had previously only been interested, and could only afford, the bigger desktop computers.
I seldom if ever use my desktop at all now. All my work is done on my laptop. When I travel it comes with me. I’m writing this blog post on one like this right now
ASUS is a good machine. But I’ve also had laptops from Toshiba, Sony, Acer and Dell and for me they all worked perfectly fine.
As for the future?
Now that Steve Jobs is no longer with us will someone else invent things that no one wants, and that no one needs, and sell it to them at inflated prices, while generating their love and gratitude for it? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think that Jobs was unique in that respect. He was in the right place at the right time and the right man to take advantage.
What I can envisage is the continued development of faster and better processing; better internet communication speeds with more mobility; infinite storage capacity in the “cloud”; greater integration of all the bits and bobs we have at our disposal; and easier operation of it all through more voice activated control.
The future I think will be every bit as interesting as the past. If some ballax with an EMP device doesn’t fry all our chips, that is!
I kept my old typewriter just in case.
Finally, some hysterical historical videos.
Commodore PET circa 1977
Apple II circa 1977
Amstrad ad circa 1985