I make no secret of the fact that I love old computers, and that I think modern computers have lost their way in terms of providing utility to users. To that end, I write about, and think about, computers and the way to move computers forward, without losing site of the fact that computers should serve their users. I grew up with hand-me-down computers, from Atari to Apple to Dell, and in the process I got to experience a sizable portion of computer history very quickly, in my teen years.
This left me with Opinions.
I write about things that are informed by these opinions often. When I talk about building a World Wide Web analog without the internet, about reviving the BBS or when I lament the fact that Gopher was doomed to obscurity by the modern web, it is in response to my experiences with an array of computers from the dawn of the home computer revolution up through to the modern age. There was a time when computers were magical.
I had come, in recent months, to suspect that I might just be an old fuddy-duddy. I'm approaching 30 years old, and I had begun to feel like I was looking at modern computers and modern software through the lens of someone who was being left behind, shouting at the sky, shaking my fists at the kids on my lawn. I was coming to the conclusion that my love of these computers of my childhood, and of ones that I had never had the chance to interact with, was some kind of rose tinted nostalgia.
I had not fully subscribed to this theory, but it seemed more likely that I was romanticizing something that was actually Not Great that it was that nearly every modern software and hardware platform had inexplicably gotten shittier.
I am now prepaired to say, with conviction, that every modern hardware and software platform has gotten shittier, and that it's not inexplicable. I'm going to try to explain how I came to this conclusion, and give some potential explainations.
First, let me lay out a little bit about my technical literacy and my profession, this might help explain some of the assertions that I'm going to make. I started using computers, and the internet, in 1995. Our family computer, my first computer, ran Windows 3.11 (for workgroups). Later, in the late 90s, I was given an Atari 400 and reams of books and magazines on basic, followed shortly by an Apple II GS and dozens of disks of software.
For a teenager and an aspiring computer programmer, the 00s were a great time to learn.
(It must be said, at this point, that 'useful' and 'appropriate' are relative terms. In 2009 I gave a good friend a computer that had been built for Windows 98. It was running Puppy Linux from a CD, and saving data to a USB flash drive over USB 1.1. It did word processing, email, and basic web browsing. It had a whopping 64MB of RAM, and was covered in glitter, googley eyes, and carpet samples. But it was free, and it wasn't useless, and that was important.)
Some of these shortcomings are legitimate bugs. Some of them are bafflingly short sighted or poorly considered architectural decisions. Just as many are cases of a divergence between the needs of the user and the abilities of a program. Modern programs are often feature incomplete, poorly supported, and difficult or impossible to customize. Modern computers are often slow, and cranky. I'm responsible for handling the fallout of this unfortunate situation.
I've seen how revolutionary a computer can be, if it is designed with the needs of the user in mind, and how disastrous the same can be when it is not. I've seen computers used to empower people, and used to oppress. I've seen computers be Good, and the consequences of when they are not.
So that's who I am, and my experience with computers so far. Those are my credentials, and my qualifications.
The Computer Chronicles was a TV show that ran from the early 80s through the early 00s. Over it's nearly 20 year run, The Computer Chronicles covered nearly every facet of the newly developing Computer industry. It was hosted by people with Opinions.
The guests were, frequently, people who were proud of the things they made, or the software they represented.
Watching the developer of CP/M and DR DOS talk to a mainframe engineer who worked at IBM in the 50s about the future of computers as seen from the 1980s was eye opening.
On the one hand, this show serves as an excellent introduction to, or reminder of, the capabilities of computers 35 years ago. It helps us see how far we've come in terms of miniaturization, while also demonstrating again that, in many ways, there is nothing new under the sun.
Before the advent of the internet, reporters were writing their stories on laptops and sending them in over phone lines, 25 years before the release of the iphone HP released a computer with a touchscreen, three years before microsoft released he first version of windows Apple and Visicorp demontrated GUIs wih features that Windows wouldn't be able to approach for another 9+ years.
And, of course, I'm reminded again of Douglas Engelbart's 1968 "Mother of all Demos", in which he demonstrated the mouse, the GUI, instant messaging, networked gaming, and basically every other important development of the following 50 years.
It took 5 years for Xerox to refine and miniturize Engelbart's ideas to the point that they thought they could market them, and another 10 years before Apple refined and further miniturizaed the same ideas, and brought us the Mac.
Nothing is ever new.
There were others working around the same time on similar ideas, or at least from a similar philosophy. Working to make computers, if not intuitive, at least comprehensible. I think this is a noble goal.
The computer is often thought of as a tool, but it is more like a tool shed, in which we store a collection of tools, a source of power, and a workspace.
That is to say, in the 60s and 70s, computers were weak and slow and computer users were also computer programmers. A small, tight knit circle of developers and computer scientists were responsible for the bulk of the progress made in that time, and the idea of designing tools for non-technical users was never considered.
This last bit isn't exactly true: making computers accessible to and usable by students specifically was a big deal (and recieved enormous amounts of government funding), and it's exactly this research (rather than the defense research) that became the basis for the most important stuff in computer history.
BASIC came out of an attempt at Dartmouth to give non-technical users access to a computer they had obtained -- first, Dartmouth students, then later, undergraduates at other universities along the east coast, and then ultimately, high school students and prisoners across the north-eastern united states. The process of making these time-sharing systems usable molded BASIC into a state where, years later, putting it on home computers was a no-brainer.
PARC's Alto & Smalltalk programs grew out of the same project at the ARPA level (though ARPA got rid of it not long after), hence the focus on catering to school children.
A small tight-knit circle of developers and computer scientists were absolutely responsible for the bulk of the progress made during that period, but many of them cared deeply about non-technical users; the people who didn't (and still don't) care about non-technical users are not the researchers but the corporate devs, since in many ways business protects software from needing to become usable & functional.
@ajroach42 I'm kind of sad that one part of that demo never caught on, that being the chording keyboard. Having a one handed chording device makes quite a bit of sense when combined with a mouse in the other hand.
@ajroach42 my sister used to regularly use a brailler which gave me a bit of a bug for the idea at a young age (if you haven't seen one, there are 8 regular keys (for the 6 and 8 dot varieties of braille), a space bar, and on some models a single character advance/backspace keys or else a clutch&slider to move along the line. If you want to type an "r" you simultaneously press keys 1, 2, 3, and 5 to emboss those dots at the current position.)
@ajroach42 with the six dots of English Braille you can type all 26 letters of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, and several common two and three letter combinations. Numbers are done using a character that says the following is a number and then a-j are reused for the ten digits. Likewise there's a capital sign that says the following letter is a capital. So despite six dots only having 64 combinations, standardized English Braille has around 250 'characters'.
@LilFluff The microwriter used something akin to brail chording, IIRC.
I *really* wanted one when I was in highschool, but I'm less enamored these days. I'd rather see a modern recreation, I think.
@ajroach42 I started using computers in 1982 and had a similar experience to you. I think your experience is rare among folks who started using computers in '95, but not at all rare in someone who started using them 10-20 years earlier.
@ajroach42 I read what you wrote but have not dug through all the responses, so please forgive me if I say something that's already been mentioned.
I think a lot of the problem is that the nature of the people programming computers has changed. Back in the 60s-80s, nearly everyone writing software was a tinkerer. Nowadays "programmers" are mass produced, and by and large they are neither tinkerers nor engineers; they are laborers.
@ajroach42 So we now have a system for churning out software using laborers. Naturally, the vast majority of tools are built for those laborers.
@LilFluff Speaking of chording keyboards, you might find an interest in http://www.openstenoproject.org/
A social network for the 19A0s.
I collected cast offs from neighbors, from thrift stores, from office upgrades. I rebuilt them, installed useful or fun software on them, and sold them or gave them away. All of my friends had computers of their own, because I had access to these machines, and I cared enough to outfit them with the appropriate software.