One perk (or bad habit) of being in your late 50's is to look back at where you have been. It can be fascinating to do that in regards to computers. The first computer operating system, or the master program that instructs the computer what to do, I ever used was on IBM mainframes. Of course, then it was all about running “Jobs” on the system to calculate values, or update life insurance policies or some-such. When I bought my first personal computer, it seemed nothing short of miraculous. My very own computer! The first was a Radio Shack Color Computer. It had some kind of resident ROM compiler. You could type your own Basic programs, and run them or save them. Or you could buy ROM cartridges to play games and such. There was really no interaction with an OS. You either did one of a narrow set of things, or it didn't work – period.
My next computer was a bit more friendly. Purchased in the late 1980's, this one was an IBM-compatible Laser system, complete with a screen and a printer. But no internal hard disk. The OS was DOS 3.3, and it ran on a 5 ¼ inch floppy drive. The second, identical floppy drive was to copy programs onto. There was no Internet to play on, no streaming video anything. Just type some stuff with a word-processing program that set me back around 30 bucks. Or play a primitive flight simulator program. Or play around with DOS a bit. Yes, there was by then some substance to the OS. Not much, but some. I think I sold it at a garage sale a couple years later, for a big loss.
In any case, I always wanted another, but never got one until 1991, in Florida. I charged one on a credit card, and installed it at the beach house near Largo. I had a lot of fun with it for a couple of weeks, until I sold it. That system did have some kind of hard drive, and ran Windows 3.0 . It had a built-in modem, and I got onto a primitive BBS called Prodigy. Still, I did enjoy reading some messages on different forums. Did not last long, since I had to sell it for moving cash. But for some reason I was always having to reboot that system – it seemed to lock up a lot.
My next computer ran much better. Running Windows 3.11 (My first NOS) It was a 486 DX2-50 Ambra. 8 megs of RAM, and a hard disk with 420 megs of ample room (for the time). And a 14.4 modem built in too. I got on AOL first, then poked around on that for a time. And from there, it was a short hop to BBS's, and finally, the Internet. I dialed an 800 number with Win terminal to a computer in Des Moines, and accessed the Internet through that. I also got on some BBS's in New Jersey and San Francisco. Those were amazing days. I would grind through a long workday cleaning offices. Then go home, and roam the world through my phone line. Get on Gopher and hop through universities, or Lynx – text-based web, and hop anywhere and everywhere. One time I finally downloaded a .9 beta version of Netscape, and then the Web really came to life, pictures and all. From then on, I never looked back.
But another move prompted the sale of the Ambra. My next PC was a Packard Bell 100 Mhz Pentium, purchased in 1995. With that machine, I used to sit up and surf the net until late into the night. I got on Common Link local BBS and chatted some, and AOL chat rooms. I actually met a few new friends that way.
The 100 MHZ was sold after a time. My next computer didn't come for another year. It was an Apex system, with a Cyrix/AMD processor, 166 MHZ, and Windows 95. By then I was studying DOS books. So I got much better at copying, moving and organizing my text files. (I even started an online 'zine, and put out 8 or 9 issues of that, posting it on Usenet Newsgroups.)
I found that the more I learned about PC's, the less I realized that I really knew. It would have been better to focus on one narrow discipline in the computer field. But I wanted to know it all, at least for a while. I did learn some about assembler language, visual basic, and a bit of C. And some Unix/Linux commands, as I was installing various flavors of Linux on later PCs.
After the Apex 166, I purchased a house with a spare bedroom. Now I had a dedicated computer room. And bought a 200 MHZ DIT, a 300 MHZ Gateway laptop. And finally, a 500 mhz Ohio Scientific. I just couldn't get enough of computers. I had them all networked, and was copying files from machine to machine. It was great – until my money ran out. Then, I was turning around and hocking them all. For a while I learned quite a bit about network operating systems and the like.
But filing for bankruptcy, and moving into a guys living room does play havoc with your computer budget. Somehow I managed to purchase an Emachines computer. The Emachines had Windows ME onboard. Buggy – the thing crashed a lot. But it served me well for a few years. Until I got some credit back. Then purchased a Windows XP system – a Dell. It had 2 gigabytes ram, and a decent enough HardDrive – probably 250 GB. With a 3.00 ghz Pentium processor. It had a great flat screen on it, and I really enjoyed it. Downloaded music, played around with web pages. And tried my hand at some creative writing. I always retained my ability to use PCs, even on my down days. But some career instability made it tough to hold onto anything. Finally learned that it is best to hang onto PCs for longer than one or two years.
After the XT system crashed and burned, I bought a little Netbook computer. Bare bones, Linux OS. But after getting sick and tired of that, I went back to Win-tel, and bought a Dell laptop – on credit, of course. My last two PCs, one Dell-AMD with Windows 7 on it, and one a knock-ff with Windows 7 also, were bought with help from the inheritance I got from family. I still have those. If I ever buy another PC, it will most likely be using a credit card or account. I sure know a lot about PC's – have forgotten more than many know. But it has cost me dearly. There are some benefits, sure. But could I have done nearly as well by, say just using a free library PC and a Yahoo or Gmail account? Probably. At least I have produced a lot of writing projects, and gotten things published, by virtue of having home PCs and a printer. I doubt I would have gotten nearly as much material put out by trying to use a library computer. Such is life.
I recently met a friend whom I had not seen in 30 years. It was fascinating talking about the changes wrought in 30 years. But most everyone is computer literate now – we have to be, to get on the internet, do our banking and pay our bills etc. And programs are all moving to mobile platforms now. Smartphones are pushing PCs out of the mainstream of “computing” and this has been underway for quite some time.
A “Motorola Razor” flip-phone was the first color-screen phone I owned. I was able to e-mail myself photos that it took, and pull a stock quote from the Internet with it. This was an advance over the monochrome Nokia phones so popular a couple of years previous. My present phone is a 6-year-old Iphone imitator. Cannot now afford to buy the very latest phones – Like the PC in earlier days, they are very expensive. Unlike in earlier days, I don't want to go broke trying to own one.
But my PC's do so much more than that first Color Computer ever could. I take it for granted that I can remotely connect with thousands of websites, download pictures, videos and complete books. Or stream movies and TV shows right to my Smart TV. The future has arrived, and in many ways it is pretty darn good.
As a song once said, “What a long, strange trip it's been.” But in many ways it was exciting and wonderful, too. Who can say what the future holds for computing and communication devices. But I hope it is cheap, whatever it is – I want in on it as long as possible.