Technologies We're Glad Are Dead

It's easy to cry over the products we loved and lost. But let's take time to appreciate the many ways in which technology really has improved, and the many geeky things we no longer need to worry about.

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Floppy disks were impressively destructible. Data could be lost with the help of a common household magnet (assuming you lived in a common household), by dropping a disk in front of a wheeled office chair or with the help of the family dog (Oooh, a treat!). The migration to 3.5-inch diskettes gave us somewhat better physical protection (Spike was less likely to choose one as a chew-toy) and a teeny bit more storage. But it also meant that everyone had to debate which size drives to install.

Early hard disks were backed up to diskette; it took 82 (count 'em, 82) 3.5-inch disks and two hours to back up my system. If you were rich, had an enterprise budget or owned a computer store (I was in the last category), you backed up to a tape drive. These required expensive software (it wasn't included), another hardware connection (usually an add-on board) and a human being to come into the office to change tapes, even on weekends: Technology has always found a way to irritate spouses.

Floppy disks each had their own format, none of which could understand one another; a CP/M computer couldn't read a PC-DOS disk, and you needed Media Master (only $79) to extract data from a DEC Rainbow diskette.

Then hard-disk options dropped you into a boiling kettle of alphabet soup: MFM, RLL, SCSI, IDE. Nobody could figure out what "SCSI termination" really meant (it sounded like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie), or how to troubleshoot the results when you didn't learn the answer.

Tape drives were no better; one backup program couldn't read data saved onto tape by another application. By the time the tape industry figured out a usable standard, we had CDs.

Why it disappeared: As hard disks got larger, the older formats disappeared and there were fewer choices to make. IDE for end users, SCSI for servers.

Next: PCs With 1,001 Options

PCs With 1,001 Options

The culprit:: When you went to buy a computer or install a network, you often got lost in a maze of hardware standards. It wasn't only storage. Initial monitor choices were pretty straightforward—readable monochrome or fuzzy color—but EGA and VGA made mere mortal computer users prefer to learn particle physics. That was just the beginning of the competing standards. Should I recommend Arcnet, Token-Ring or Ethernet? Cat-5 cables or the newfangled RJ-11? A Microchannel or PCI bus?

Why it was such a pain: It wasn't precisely that any of these options were difficult to understand. It was that we had so many choices to make — too many. We all had to know the minutiae of pin position on RS-232 cables and null modems (a subject I once understood and have blissfully dismissed from long-term memory). Such knowledge did not make me seem geeky at the time. Well, not much.

Worse, with so many vendors offering competing and "innovative" approaches, there was no way for any computer professional to know which way to bet. Especially since you had to support your mistakes (such as the Arcnet network I installed) as well as the wiser decisions.

Why it disappeared: As prices dropped and competition became fierce, the technologies that were reliable, cost-efficient and easy to support won out. (Or, depending on your cynicism setting, the vendors with the biggest marketing budget won.) IT professionals could make decisions based on technical merit.

Also, computer systems became more integrated. Early bare-bones personal computers always needed to be upgraded with more RAM, serial and parallel ports, a multimedia card and eventually a network card. Not to mention software drivers for each of them. As vendors integrated those functions on the motherboard and it became more common to preload an operating system with the support for those devices already installed, we no longer had so many choices to make.

I have no idea what type of hard disk is installed on my current computer, and I'm glad that I don't have to care.

A Simpler Life

When we old geezers discuss topics like "my first modem," the conversation still has a dollop of technical elitism. We're still oddly nostalgic for the days when the ability to whistle at 300 baud could make characters display on the screen, and we have a curious wistfulness about a time when deep technical knowledge distinguished us as experts. Despite hardware and software incompatibilities, we had more options, so we could pick the one that worked best for us or our users&even if "best" wasn't, really, all that good.

The computer industry worked very hard to make computers easy enough for an idiot to use, and on occasion we wish it hadn't succeeded—because we now have plenty of idiots using computers.

On the other hand, the technology really was too hard, and I applaud the computer industry for, over the long haul, simplifying the options. Plus, if I never again install another PCI card, it'll be too soon. Senior Online Editor Esther Schindler once owned a computer store in Deer Isle, Maine, began her addiction to online communities by dialing BBSs long distance at 1200 baud and was an officer in several computer user groups.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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