Archive for the 'Technology Commentary' Category

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] A 1985 Solid State Drive

Monday, November 5th, 2012

SemiDisk Solid State Disk SSD Disk Drive Emulator Ad - 1985This IS your daddy’s SSD.

Back in January, I traced the evolution of the Solid State Drive from its 1978 origins to the present in a PC World slideshow. From that experience, I learned that SSDs, as a product class, were far older than most people realize.

Case in point: Seen here is an advertisement for a 1985-era SSD called the SemiDisk. The company behind this early SSD, SemiDisk Systems, sold a wide range of “disk emulators” (as they were called back then) for platforms like S-100 bus systems, the TRS-80 Model 2, and the IBM PC. All of them used solid-state RAM chips to achieve read and write speeds far beyond those of rotating platter drives at the time.

The 2 megabyte SemiDisk for the IBM PC retailed for $1,795 in 1985. That’s about $3,860 today when adjusted for inflation. Amusingly, at that vintage price rate — about $1,930 per megabyte — a 256 GB SemiDisk SSD would cost over $494 million today. Yep, that’s a 494 followed by six zeroes.

Of course, you can buy a 256GB flash-based SSD right now for under $180. Not bad.

[ From BYTE, September 1985, p.329 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: When did you buy your first solid state PC drive? How big was it?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Osborne 1

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Osborne 1 Portable Computer ad -  1982Two out of three doctors recommend Osborne 1 for muscle fatigue.

We’ve come a long way from what many consider to be the first commercial portable PC, the Osborne 1 (seen here), and the recently announced Microsoft Surface tablet.

Here’s a brain twister for you. If you packed a case the size of the Osborne 1 (think small suitcase) with Surface-sized portable tech, how powerful would the machine be?

[ From BYTE Magazine, February 1982, p.31 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What was your first portable computer? When did you get it?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The iPad of the 1980s

Monday, March 12th, 2012

1980s iPad - TRS-80 Model 100 Catalog Page - 1984It’s the MICRO EXECUTIVE WORKSTATION, people!

iPad, schmyepad. In the 1980s, we had hair on our chests, far fewer seat belts, and we walked backwards downhill halfway from school every day in the monsoon season. AND WE LIKED IT. We also used the TRS-80 Model 100 — a sleek 3.9-pound, 2-inch thick machine that could run 20 hours on a single set of four AA batteries — for all of our mobile computing needs.

Imagine 8 kilobytes of RAM. Imagine a full travel keyboard and a 240×64 display that could fit in your lap. Imagine downloading stock prices at $12/hour from CompuServe at 300 bits per second over two acoustic couplers. It’s not a fantasy — it’s life in 1983.

Below, I present for your perusal a stat-by-stat comparison between the mighty Radio Shack wonder and today’s iPad, then I ask you: which is truly superior?

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan of the Week ] The iPad of the 1980s » ]

Ancient Computers in Use Today

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Ancient Computers In Use Today - Kevin Huffman's Apple IIeKevin Huffman and his trusty Apple IIe.

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.

Read “Ancient Computers in Use Today” at PC World.com

[ Continue reading Ancient Computers in Use Today » ]

Benj Talks Piracy and History on Public Radio

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Why History Needs Software PiracyYesterday I made a live appearance on Word of Mouth, a show on New Hampshire Public Radio, talking about my recent piece, “Why History Needs Software Piracy.” You can listen to the audio of the interview online. The interview appeared at the top of the show and lasted about 9 minutes.

It was my first live radio interview, so I’m not sure if I made any sense. Even if I didn’t, you can check out the dulcet tones of my telephone speaking voice.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The CD-ROM Caddy

Monday, January 30th, 2012

CD-ROM CaddyCompact Disc Protection

Here’s a computer artifact you don’t see very often these days: a CD caddy. Many early CD-ROM drives (released roughly 1985 – 1993) required the use of CD caddies, which were designed to protect CD-ROM discs from dust and rough handling. With a CD inside, they look a lot like a bigger version of a 3.5″ floppy disk, albeit with a clear window on one side.

When I ran across this caddy in my collection recently, it made me think a little deeper about why engineers invented them in the first place. Why were CD caddies so common at one point, I wondered, and why are they virtually extinct today?

I have decided that it all boils down to the price and preciousness of commercial CD-ROM discs.

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan of the Week ] The CD-ROM Caddy » ]

Why History Needs Software Piracy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Why History Needs Software PiracyOver at Technologizer, I’ve written an opinion piece that argues why history needs software piracy.

I had the idea for this piece a few years ago, so it’s nice to finally put my thoughts into written form — especially at a time when public debate over digital piracy’s role has reached a new high.

I don’t claim to be laying down the final word on the subject; instead, I view my piece as the beginning of a broader discussion about piracy’s role in the study of history. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Aim High: Air Force

Monday, January 16th, 2012

United States Air Force Computer Programming Advertisement - 1987A U.S. Airman types in coordinates while designing a weaponized golf course.

[ From Family and Home Office Computing, November 1987, p.39 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you served in the military (any country)? If so, did you use computers as part of your service?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Sharp Pocket Locker

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Sharp Pocket Locker Electronic Organizer Teen Girl Ad -1995Two teen girls compare notes on vampires that attend their high school.

Ah, the dedicated electronic pocket organizer — an ever-present, seemingly useful device for want of a market.

Since the early 1980s, electronics manufacturers have produced pocket-sized computer gadgets that store databases of phone numbers, addresses, calendar appointments, and not much else. These electronic organizers reached their peak (in terms of number of devices in the market) in the mid-1990s. At that time, the technology involved became cheap enough to market to kids.

Despite manufacturers’ best efforts, such devices have continuously failed to gain widespread use for a simple reason: none have demonstrably improved upon the paper address book. Not even the socially-hungry teen girl market, as targeted by Sharp in this 1995 ad for the Pocket Locker, could push them into the mainstream.

It was only when manufacturers rolled electronic organizer functionality into a more general-purpose device (think palmtop computer, PalmPilot) that the idea of electronically maintaining personal contact records in a mobile setting took off. Address books, calendars, and phone databases became separate programs that lived in a larger ecosystem of applications that could be run on the device.

Most palmtop computer-style PDAs offered significant advantages over the paper organizer. They synchronized with PCs to back up information, and they could use the stored data in conjunction with other programs for more useful effect — for example, you could actually email someone directly from a record stored in your digital address book.

Contrast that experience to the dedicated pocket organizer model, where the the information you entered became trapped in a tiny plastic box with a crummy display and a kludgy interface that would lose its memory if its batteries ran out.

Today, the organizer-as-software clearly won over dedicated units, and anyone with a mobile phone now carries an organizer software suite in their pocket. It’s only one of many functions that cellphones have absorbed on their quest to become the ultimate multipurpose pocket device.

[ From Pop-Sci For Kids, September-October 1995, back cover ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a dedicated electronic pocket organizer device? Tell us about it.

You Know It’s an Old Website If…

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

You Know Its An Old Website If...

Just a little while ago on Twitter, I started spouting out some one liners, Jeff Foxworthy style, about how you know if a website is old. I love coming across old websites, so it’s fun to spit these out.

I can’t guarantee that they’re funny, but I think they’re at least amusing. People liked them enough that I decided to post my lines here and ask you guys to continue the list. I may add more to it over time.

  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …every image on the site rotates.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …they refer to AltaVista in the present tense.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …you found it through a web ring.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …it says “Best viewed in IBM WebExplorer.”
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …your browser complains that there’s no MIDI plug-in installed.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …it forces you to enter the site through a splash page.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …it asks you not to hotlink the GIF images.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …every single link on the page ‘404s.
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …the owner claims it’s “under construction.”
  • You know it’s an old website if…
    …it brags about having 1,000 hits.

Now it’s your turn. Add your one-liners in the comments below.