Last week, we were waxing nostalgic, thinking about all the things we miss about the early days of computing. This week, we’ve woken up. Let’s face it: Lots of things back then sucked.

At the risk of sounding like crotchety grandfathers, we’ll say it: “These kids today have it soft, dag nab it.” If you were born after the first Star Wars movie, you might not be aware of just how cushy your computing life is. For proof, we offer five examples.

1. The Tower of Babel

Say what you want to about the impressive rise of Linux and the Macintosh, but Microsoft Windows and the PC architecture remain the dominant standards in today’s computing world. Both alternative operating systems read FAT32 disks to maintain some sort of Windows compatibility, and the Mac’s innards resemble those of a PC more and more every year.

Back when Bill Gates was still working on his first billion, though, it was like the Wild West out there: Any given household might have a computer from Commodore, Apple, Texas Instruments or Radio Shack–to name a few–that could share hardware with or read floppy disks from other makes only with the intercession of some kind of kludge or adapter (if you were lucky). Even if you were dealing with two computers from the same company, there was no guarantee that they’d be compatible.

2. Unitasking

It’s 1982. You’ve finally finished your term paper and you’re printing it out, along with the accompanying charts. Good for you. You might as well take a break–not because you’ve earned it, but because you have no choice. As far as the computer’s concerned, any task is all-consuming: While it’s busy churning out the pages, it can’t do anything else. And getting output from a dot-matrix printer takes a while, with printing speeds rated in characters per second. (Pages per minute? That’s crazy talk!) Also, the racket the printer makes is great if you need to drill through a brick wall into the bank vault next door, but otherwise — not so great. The only drawback of the multitasking operating systems that came along later is that they eliminated a great excuse for goofing off.

3. Download Dilemma

Downloading in the Web era is pretty easy: You click a link, and…actually, that’s pretty much it. But in the days before Mosaic hit the scene, you had your choice of download protocols, sporting names like Kermit, Sealink, Punter, XMODEM, YMODEM, and (wait for it) ZMODEM. (Some also included variants, like XMODEM-1k and ZMODEM-90.) Consequently you had to find out which protocol the system you were connected to used, and make sure that your software used the same one. In many cases, you’d have to activate the downloading process manually once the sending computer initiated the transfer. No wonder people didn’t get around to trading music until much later.

4. Weightlifting

True story: Twenty years ago, when I was working at a computer store, it took three people to get an incredibly hefty NEC laser printer up the narrow stairs to the second floor. Not only is the laser printer that now sits on my desk more powerful than that old NEC, but I can carry it under my arm. Electronics in general have gotten smaller and lighter in the interim, but arguably computers and their accessories have been sticking more strictly to the Slim-Fast diet. There are exceptions, of course–the original Macintosh had a built-in handle for easy toting, and the Sinclair ZX80 weighed less than a pound–but overall, you had to eat your Wheaties if you made a regular habit of rearranging your office. Still not convinced? Consider that the “luggable” Osborne-1, the first portable, self-contained computer, weighed nearly 24 pounds…and people considered it a mobile breakthrough.

5. Bickering

Which system had better games, the Apple II or the Commodore 64? Which was better for low-cost desktop publishing, the Amiga or the Atari ST? From half-joking jibes to all-out flame wars, debates over people’s computer preferences sometimes seemed inescapable. RAM, storage, graphics capabilities, expansion options–all were used as ammunition in a seemingly endless and pointless series of battles between computer users seeking to justify the money they’d spent for their particular choice. Fortunately, the sophisticated computer users of today would never waste their time and effort on this type of childish and futile argu– Oh, wait, never mind.

Advertisements