The unrelenting pace of computer technology boggles the mind. For some individuals, businesses, and governments, it boggles the wallet as well. That's one of the reasons a surprising number of organizations refuse to continuously upgrade their computer systems — even though every salesman in the industry tells them it's the right thing to do.
I have often wondered how many of these vintage machines are still in use around the world. In the course of crafting history pieces for various publications, I encounter some entertaining stories of digital dinosaurs here and there (and I ask for them), but they are mostly light fare about a cousin who uses a Pentium I for word processing or a hacker buddy who won't let go of his VT100 terminal.
I decided to dig a little deeper and found some individuals and organizations that truly depend on vintage computers, day in and day out, and I compiled the resulting stories into a new piece just published over at PC World.com.
You'll read about one video game programmer's reliance on a Tandy Color Computer 3, a company that uses a circa-1948 IBM machine for accounting, an Apple IIe that organizes a warehouse, and an entire national military/industrial complex so dependent on 1970s DEC minicomputers that it will still be using them halfway through the 21st century.
What you read in my PC World article is not the end of the story. There are thousands of computers out there still chugging away in dusty corners, dark basements, and back rooms almost as if someone simply forgot to unplug them years ago.
- For example, a bus terminal in Brisbane Australia used a Commodore 64 for arrival announcements as recently as 2010. The terminal has since changed to a more modern system, however.
- The US Secret Service is known to use a mainframe computer system from the 1980s that only works 60% of the time. Not good. Supposedly this helped a couple crash a White House party a few years ago.
- Some organizations rely on old software that most PC users would consider obsolete. For example, many ATMs created in the 1990s still run IBM OS/2, an operating system that competed with Windows. The New York Subway system's MetroCard service runs on OS/2 as well. San Francisco's citywide transportation system switched from OS/2 to Windows as recently as 2008. Good choice?
- And finally, some traffic construction signs supposedly still use TRS-80 Model 100 laptops to control their massive lighted displays. But don't go digging around in them expecting to find a relic. You might cause an accident.
Even if no remaining traffic signs use the Model 100, the very possibility imparts a sense of optimism among those familiar with technology. After all, most of those systems weren't designed to last more than a decade, and yet they continue operating, despite strong commercial and cultural tides flowing against them.
It's satisfying to see good engineering at work. And on a deeper level, I suspect many of us can personally identify with those old machines because we all want to be useful as long as life will allow.