Some Perspective

Computer technology is a fast-paced industry. Even though I’m directly involved in it, I’m still sometimes unaware of just how quickly it evolves. Today I was thinking back to my first semester of college, which began 15 years ago this month. Yikes. I already feel some perspective coming on, the kind where you find yourself saying things that begin with, “In my day…”

In techie circles, whenever you reminisce about some old computer you used to own, or what life was like at 9600 baud, someone invariably counters with their own, even older, or slower, computer/modem/whatever. “Oh yeah? In my day, we carved our own circuit boards out of WOOD!” I’m not out to win any competitions; I just enjoy looking back and appreciating how far we’ve come. What follows is some anecdotes about how I remember encountering the technologies that would one day become my profession.

I went to a a small liberal arts college that was certainly not at the cutting edge of technology, but had what I think was an average set of computing resources for the time. In 1992, there was no wifi. Very few, if any, people had laptops. Not all students even had a computer. If you wanted to use a computer that was networked, you had to go a computer lab. No one had heard of MP3. The portable music player you were most likely to see would be playing cassettes.

My computer was a 286 that ran at a cool 16 MHz, had 4MB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive. I remember that the CPU didn’t even have a heatsink. A CDROM drive would have been a luxury. I had no modem (and no money to pay for an online service even if I had one). It ran Windows 3.1, and I used it mainly for writing papers (and playing Wolfenstein 3D.) I had a dot-matrix printer that was so slow, I had to budget printing time when working down to the wire on an assignment. Professors had started insisting on true-type fonts, because the built-in printer fonts were too hard to read. My printer took anywhere from 30-60 minutes to print out a reasonably-sized term paper.

My first exposure to email was about mid-way through the year, when a friend told me about it. There were a number of computer labs around campus, but the one I used most was in the library. Access was mainly through VT220 text terminals, which we used to log into the university’s main system, which was an HP of some sort running HPUX. At the time, I had only been using a PC for a couple of years, and understood nothing of Unix or non-PC hardware. I learned by example– how to log in, how to start programs to read email, browse Usenet (back when it was actually useful) and Gopher. Only a handful of people I knew had email accounts. Most professors didn’t use it. I would go days without checking my inbox. Spam was unheard of. There was no instant messenger (unless you count the Unix ‘talk’ program).

The World Wide Web was in its infancy. At first, my only exposure to it was via a Gopher gateway. There was very little content. If I’d had a graphical browser (which I didn’t see for a couple more years), the whole web would have looked like this. Most people outside of universities and large corporations had never heard of the Web, or even the Internet, for that matter.

W&L had a single 56 Kbps line for internet access, for the whole school. Of course, when almost all applications were text-only, it wasn’t that bad. I think it was my third year (1994-95) that they upgraded to a T1. The fiber-optic internet service that I recently got is 10 times faster than a T1.

My freshman dorm room had a single analog phone line, direct from the local phone company, that was not paid for by the university. By my second year, the university had a real phone system. It was a ROLM system (don’t ask me how I remember that.) The phones had a serial port that could be attached to your computer to provide a Unix login on your PC, via a DOS terminal emulator that you could pick up for free on a floppy disk at the campus bookstore. Now I didn’t have to walk to the library to check my email or do anything else online, and it was faster– a whopping 19200 bps. Ethernet in dorm rooms didn’t arrive until the fall of 1996, after I’d graduated. Bummer. Not that I would have been able to use it anyway– by the time I graduated, I was still using a 386 and Windows 3.1. I didn’t even get a modem until after I got out of school. My next system was the first one I ever had with an ethernet port.

These days, we can hardly imagine a world without constant email, web sites, IM, wifi, MP3s and iPods. Laptops are standard for college students, and universities are much more wired than ever. Even the cheapest laptops come standard with wireless networking, a 10/100 ethernet port, and a screen larger and with higher resolution than my old 14” CRT, and they weigh only a few pounds. The printer around the corner in my office can spit out several pages of text in the time it takes me to walk over to it. We think nothing of downloading gigabytes of files that would have completely overwhelmed the storage capacity of even a high-end system 10 years ago.

What state-of-the-art stuff from 2007 will we look back on fondly from 2022, I wonder?

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