I've been thinking about old computers again this evening.

Specifically, I've been thinking about productivity software, desktop publishing, music and multimedia software.

All those computers that *weren't* primarily used for games.

How were they used? What can they be used for?

When folks pick up an old computer that is not well suited as a gaming machine, what does it do?

What would you do with a Xerox machine, or a PERQ? Or a Lisa?

A pdp-8 or 10 or 11?

What would you do with a PS/2 with monochrome graphics on an MCA bus?

Or a 1st generation 8080 PC with 256k of RAM?

Think of all the laptops and PDAs and palmtops and Word Processors that are out there. These things that *had* purpose, but don't anymore.

If you come across one, what would you do with it?


I use my Omnibook as a wordprocessor, or specifically as a connected to a dot matrix printer.

I use my mac plus as a development box in hypercard, I was previously using it as an email box.

I've used my c64 to connect to BBSs.

I have an amiga that I'm hoping to use as part of a video editing rig.

But these things were useful for so much, and the thing I see talked about the most often is games.

Games are good, but there's more than games.

The way the modern web works precludes older computers from participating, but that's about the edge of it.

I can do basically everything I do on computers, generally, from DOS or win31/95/98 on a Pentium MMX, including most of the things that require the internet, assuming I'm willing to make some affordances, or cheat with the occasional serial terminal.

But, by and large, I can do all the things I want to do on an old computer without too much trouble.

The things I *can't* do on a modern computer are not about the computer, they are about the software.

Some stuff that I want (modern SSH libraries, STL slicers, etc.) don't exist on older OSs. Hell, when was the last time you tried to install a new OS on a 32 bit computer?

Unless your in BSD land, you basically can't. Void and Puppy "work" but you're missing so much.

And this isn't one of those "we stopped innovating" things.

It's worse than that.

General purpose computing has regressed.

(hardware, of course, keeps getting better. But software? All of it is bad and getting worse. Whatever shall we do?)

@ajroach42 by the time we had our first win31 machine and our first laser printer we were doing pretty much everything people do with them now, just slower, with fewer pixels and fewer colors and fewer shiny bits of functionality. that's part of the frustrating bit for me, watching the revolution transition to evolution.

@ajroach42 @djsundog Yeah but Doug had a DARPA grant, a dozen grad students, and a custom high-speed line from Ma Bell keeping his hacked-together demo working. We got a videotape of it, not shipping code. For everyone else, doing NLS is hard even now.

Dave Winer's a dick, but Frontier was getting close, and Brent Simmons started making a new Frontier-like but gave up and got a corp job. Nobody seems willing to make the thing and it's hard to market.

@djsundog @ajroach42 and now I have to buy a new $400 hand-computer every 3 years just to be able to make phone calls 😩

@ajroach42 use old software in sandboxed environments where they can't access the internet

@ajroach42 Steve Jobs' goal whether he realized it or not was to turn general purpose computers into appliances, and he largely succeeded.

And that's where we are.

@contraculto @ajroach42 Jobs was obsessed with making computers "accessible" without having to use the command line, which is why he borrowed the GUI from Xerox. Maybe his intentions were true, and maybe he thought it would revolutionize things, but what it did was dumb computers down to the point where they became appliances, like the modern smart phone. So many people use them for their main computing device these days but they're really quite hobbled.

I won't even go into Jobs' ego.

@ajroach42 obvious answer and probably not what you were looking for, but I used an old laptop as just a dedicated word processor for a long time. It's kind of the same psychological effect as having a separate room you work in.

@ajroach42 I see a lot of people bringing up the trouble with proprietary hardware/firmware, and yeah, that is an issue, but it's also an issue with new devices. If anything I think many devices have become more difficult to repair or hack for use-extending purposes. It's just that older devices have fewer people working on them, saving their parts, etc. But I'm hardly an expert.

@ajroach42 I have to disagree. I've been using computers since the early 80s, TRS-80, Commodore, IBM, etc. I have nostalgia for these old machines, but.....they sucked at a LOT of things. Rampant proprietary hardware, unreliable software, floppy disks...

While there is certainly bloatware out there...the productivity tools are just *better* today. I've never lost hours of work with autosave on a modern word processor.

There is a difference between *can* do a job and being good at it.

@gedvondur Lots of hardware has improved significantly! Storage is faster and more reliable, batteries are better. Many kinds of hardware are significantly more power effeceint.

Some pieces of software are faster, but many things are as slow or slower than they used to be, they use more resources than ever, with less to show.

It's not all good or all bad, but it's worth remembering that things could be different.

@gedvondur @ajroach42 One thing that stands out about that statement you made, the part about not losing hours of work with autosave on a modern word processor, makes me think you haven't used a modern word processor.

Or, you know, the modern floppy disk, the sd card. Or usb stick. Or any form of flash memory.

Looking at my apartment, other than the older machines (which I have a lot of) I see a lot of hardware I have to just toss, because it's proprietary and can't be repaired. Be it an Ipad, various Android phones/tablets, usb 'no longer supported' items...

And yes. I still have them because I am ATTEMPTING to get them to do something useful. But they are designed to RESIST that (company profit = buy new thing.)

So I'm going to have to say that I'm not sure your argument holds any water. None of the things you suggest have changed.

Except word processors are WORSE; web based word clones that lose your crap and then you don't even have a local copy.

@gedvondur @ajroach42 That said - it's not that it's worse, or better. It's that while it has changed, it's stayed the same.

However, with the additional complexity of things, it's more difficult - and therefore, people who are "busy" or "lack the knowledge" are basically encouraged to just go get a new thing, and dump old things. And the time of the new thing being supported or usable is increasingly short.

I don't think it will remain 'the same' much longer. Everything points to it getting worse, and worse...

@Truck @ajroach42 Heh, I've been using word processors since 40 column on the C=64 and I write for a living.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that the word processor I use today is better than the one I used 20 years ago. Or even five years ago.

Is the support cycle for consumer software and hardware short? I'd say that's a fair assessment. Enterprise? Better supported, longer cycles.

I'm not sure a blanket "its gets worse and worse" is warranted.

@gedvondur @Truck

Our experiences have been different, and I must acknowledge that my experience is not universal.

Some of the software I use on a daily basis is much better than it was 15 years ago, but I can't think of any improvements in the last 10.

I'm glad your experience has been better.

@ajroach42 @gedvondur @Truck I was making exactly this 15-versus-10 year argument earlier this week.

My first smart phone brought me capabilities I hadn't previously had. My newest smart phone ... does the same things.

The environment I use on my desktop computer today is not meaningfully different from what I used in 2005, however, and you can see the close resemblance from there to what I used in 1995.

@ajroach42 It is nice that I don't have to close applications to free to entries in the color palette for web browsing, though. ;-)

@ajroach42 @gedvondur Yes, my statement was unreasonably harsh and I also am glad your experience has been better.

Still disagree, but did not need to react with such a negative tone. It's been bothering me since I posted it.

@gedvondur @ajroach42 I've concluded from my experience that Peak Computing was right around the year 2000. Before then systems were suboptimal in some way and since then it has been a slow descent into the steaming pile of technocrap.

We could have just continued refining the software we had and making hardware more efficient and cost effective and we'd all be running super-dependable $50 pocket computers that we could dock to decent keyboard and plug into our TVs and do everything we need to do.

Except #crapitalism requires constant pseudo-innovation to maintain ever increasing revenue streams so here we are after 2 decades of the industry finding ways to convince people usable computers must always cost at least $500 if you don't want to sacrifice utility.

@gedvondur @ajroach42 the previous toot was posted from a 7 year old PC to a masto instance running on a 10 year old server. It all performs just fine despite how bloated Firefox, Mastodon etc. are. It isn't a stretch to consider that if effort was put into efficiency all of this could be done with the computing power of 20 year old desktops, well within the capability of super low cost low power SBCs.

@msh @ajroach42 I can see your points, provided the only goal was efficiency, as you define it.

In 2000 I couldn't group-edit a power point or document with a group of 30 people in real-time. Today I can. That's actually useful. My team is global.

The issue here is that your preferred use case can be done with old hardware. There are more use-cases than that and the vast majority of them do not use software efficiency/size as a base need.

@msh @ajroach42 At the end of the day, nobody, not me, not you, can envision the myriad of use cases out there. Some of them will validate your viewpoint. Many of them will not. The vast majority of people do not think about things the way programmers do.

@gedvondur @ajroach42 except that you actually could do group editing in 2000. I know because I did just such a thing in university in the late 1990s with a system that supported 50 users. Instant Update and similar systems existed. The high cost of such systems and limited accessibility to always-on, low latency higher-bandwidth connectivity was the reason this wasn't widespread.

There is a lot of underestimation about what computers could really do in 2000. if the actual computer tech just became cheaper and more efficient and more reliable it would also be more accessible.

@msh @gedvondur Englbart demo'd collaborative real tome document editing in 1968.

It's been possible for a long time.

Was it pleasant? I assume not. And it certainly wasn't commonplace.

But there's nothing practical stopping a computer made in 1995 from participating in collaborative real time document editing, other than software support. Toss in some modern niceties to replace hardware that has outlived its lifespan, like storage, and it could do the job.

@msh @gedvondur I don't work in PowerPoint often, I'm usually working on websites or articles, so for me the bar is lower. Collaborative text editing has been possible on consumer grade gear for decades.

We could do more. We under utilize available resources.

@ajroach42 Debian still builds for i386 and 32-bit arm linux.

@ajroach42 Debian should still be perfectly capable on a 32-bit machine, all packages available. It is "The Universal operating system" after all.

@makeworld most packages, maybe, but all? Seems unlikely but I guess I gotta find out first hand.

@ajroach42 my understanding is that Debian compiles everything they can for all supported arches, including ones much rarer than 32-bit. I guess there might be some stuff that inherently cannot work on some arches, but those packages would be quite rare. Good luck!

@ajroach42 One of the nicer things is the expansion units, often just a RasPi0 on the back, for old computers. FujiNet is on Atari, Apple ][, Coleco ADAM, etc. now and gives ssh, full Internet access, and bulk storage, which were the problem areas of using those devices. "How do I write a floppy disk with this file I downloaded? Can I even buy floppies or drives?!" Well, you don't have to now.

@ajroach42 I was thinking maybe you could play Nethack at nethack.alt.org, but yeah, you said other than games.

@ajroach42 This is a big thing for me too.

I remember discussing AmigaOS 4.1 (before it was released) at the 30th anniversary Amiga Expo with the Hyperion group. They were literally shocked that I would honestly consider AmigaOS 4.x for anything other than just dinking around. Like, why would you make a near real-time operating system, spend the time and resources to add memory protection (as basic as it is) to a single-address-space OS, enhance the filesystem, etc. just to diddle with it? No! If I'm going to spend $2K on a motherboard capable of running this OS, I intend on using this OS. They don't seem to get it.

@ajroach42 I mainly use old computers to *make* games, or other utilities, not to play games. I have consoles and handhelds all over the place, I don't need to use an old computer for that.

Right now my best typing device is this (years old but high-end) Mac, but I'd love to have a more focused device for it. RasPi's my best BBSing device, but I'd like an older, simpler one.

After my SpecNext ships, I plan to use that for a lot of productive stuff, as much in CP/M as native.

yeah a friend of mine was showing off his Spectrum Next, and I was all "ok the games are cool. Show me its best word processor." and there was nothing.

( supposedly CPM3 is coming to the spectrum next eventually which will fill this void)

@goosey @ajroach42 There's several Spectrum word processors, they're in the online library. But until I get mine, I can't tell which are any good.

Yeah i shoulda said "he had nothing"

The ql had the psion (?) apps which are supposed to be pretty awesome.

i love my old computers, and im not much of a gamer so really feel this.

support equipment is getting better recently. fujinet and other pi0 add ons already mentioned but for actual productivity use the "printer emulator" thing is kind of a killer app! You seem to have a nice dot matrix and a source for good ribbons for it but those are hard to find!

my Tandy WP-2 for instance. sweet little m100 sized dedicated word processor. no printer, therefore useless.

I do actually have my main CP/M machine printing to my laser printer, so i can use wordstar and get nice printouts (and had an idea to make it nicer last night).

until fairly recently i did all my productivity under msdos. wordperfect and lotus123, what else could i need?

claris works on an 030 mac was really eye opening for me, i began to see why people love macs. claris CAD was the first real CAD system I used. to bad id long forgotten everything i learned in high school drafting...

spreadsheets haven't really changed. visicalc, supercalc, or multiplan under CP/M can still do their job.

Everybody had flat-file databases. pick your favorite and run with it. If you really need relational searches, then you have fewer options.

Does RISC OS 5 on a Raspberry Pi count as rertocomputing? I think it sort of does... Anyway RISC OS has some very nice productivity software: Pipedream, fireworkz, ovation (pro), impression, photodesk, impact, datapower...

@goosey @ajroach42

as a Brit who was in 6th form (senior high school) in 1988-1990; the Archimedes and RISCOS were widely in use then, they certainly were powerful enough to use for business and creative purposes back then and would still be usable today for many things (and possibly better for some, as the comparative lack of integration with modern web-based tech could reduce potential distraction?)

@goosey @ajroach42 I mean, you COULD STILL game on these, but they would be games of that era. And I'm fine with that. I just mentioned how I'd love to play Space Quarks again, and once I get my IIGS working again, I can do that on the right hardware. Sure, emulation, but we all know that's not the same.

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