Saturday, July 2, 2011

"No Really, I Need It For Work"

You have no idea how many times I've uttered those words in regards to my latest computer acquisition.  It comes up a lot, because I've been a user (more likely) or owner (less likely) of a LOT of different computers over the past 30 years.  Inspired by a retrospective on all the guitar gear I've owned in my life, the following little trip through memory lane will cover some of the computers I've had my mitts on, and was inspired by my recent acquisition of an Apple iPad 2--which was paid for by my employer, and I need it for work!

My first exposure to computers came from watching reruns of the original Star Trek in the early 1970's.  The show resonated greatly with me, and even though it was impossible to tell how the computers really worked, it seemed like common sense to me that people could/should use computers to answer any and all questions.

Unfortunately, the voice activated computers with colorful toggle switches were only science fiction when I got my first computer in 1982.  My father was in the midst of compiling a book listing every piece of software available for the Apple II, MS-DOS and CP/M operating systems, and he decided that I should learn how to use a computer.  His computer at the time was a powerful CP/M machine called an Eagle II. This powerhouse machine sported a 4 MHz processor and 64KB of memory.  Considering that my father was using it on a daily basis to write and layout his book, I needed something more appropriate for a young beginner.  So, one day when I was in 6th grade, my father came home with a Radio Shack Color Computer.

While my machine didn't come with a sideburned sci-fi author to give me lessons, and we had to hook it up to an old color tv, it did come with a cassette deck (for storage) and the joystick that Isaac Asimov is holding in the ad at left.  To my undying regret, instead of working hard to learn BASIC coding (my father got me every book in the local library about programming) I spent my time playing an Asteroids knock-off called Microbes along with chess and Zaxxon.  If you are interested, you can see the CoCo in action in the movie This is Spinal Tap, when the band are playing computer games on the tour bus.

The games were fun, (considering the .89 MHz processor) but I can't help feeling that I missed the boat.  So many people of my generation wound up being involved in software design, but because of my weak will and poor choices, I have been relegated to the status of "computer user" instead.  But I have tried to make up for it by using a lot of computers.

When I went to Hampshire College in 1988 I was part of one of the last groups of students to go to school with typewriters.  (Unlike my friend Sascha, who had the first laptop I ever saw in person).  But after struggling on my electric typewriter for a semester, my father bought me a "word processor" from Brother.  It featured a built-in daisy wheel printer, floppy disk storage, and a CRT screen for previewing work prior to printing.   As you can see, the machine was kind of big and bulky, but it worked pretty well.  You had to load in pieces of paper one at a time, there were no fonts, and you couldn't add images to your papers, but I wasn't looking for any of that, so I didn't miss what I didn't have.

For my fourth year of college, I had to complete a major project called a Division III, which in my case took the shape of a 75 page paper (about arbitration in major league baseball).  My father was, by this time, a Macintosh enthusiast, and while he had never used one, he read everything he could about the brand and was convinced that his kids should have Macs.  So he found a way to get my younger sister and me new Macintosh Classic computers.  This was a major step up.  It had a 9" screen that could show 16 shades of gray.  As far as I was concerned, the display was breathtaking!  My father splurged for 2 MB of RAM, so that my computer could run Apple's new System 7 (the first one that allowed a user to run multiple programs at once).  I remember being very impressed with the 20MB hard drive, and wondering why anyone would ever need so much space!  I used this computer from 1991-1994.  During that time I did college and grad school work on it, designed flyers and documents for my job as a fire safety consultant in Boston, and wrote a weekly column for a newspaper in Northampton, MA.

By 1994 I was married and living in Indiana, going to grad school at PurdueMy wife wanted a peppier computer, especially one that could take advantage of the "Internet".  So we went to Sears and bought a Performa 550, a color computer with a modem (that came with an America Online account). The Performa was significantly faster, with a blazing 33MHz processor (a 680030, instead of a 680000) and it had a CD-ROM drive, could display 256 colors and had a 100 MB hard drive.   It weighed over 40 pounds (compared to the Classic's 16 pounds) which was a nuisance as we moved three times with this machine, but big screens meant big weight back then.   I wrote my Master's thesis on this computer, and learned how to make my first websites on it.  This computer was great for work and amusement, and during the mid-1990's I was an ardent Macintosh hobbyist.  Eventually, in 1996 my knowledge of computers got me a job at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, where I supported 120 Macs, and helped teachers integrate computers and the internet into their curricula.

Working at St. Paul's gave me the chance to have hands on experience with a bunch of neat computers.  Each classroom had 15 Apple laptops chained to the desks for the students to use.  Among the machines I supported were computers such as:

  • the PowerBook 520c (left): a color laptop (Apple's first).  My first day at work I had to move a cart of 20 of these ($2500 each) from one building to another.  The thought of what would happened if the cart fell over had me breaking out all over in hives!

  • the PowerBook 5300cs: this computer was quite nice, but several of the first ones off the production line caught fire due to bad batteries.  This was before Steve Jobs' return to Apple and back when quality control was less than optimal.  You can see this computer in the movie Independence Day, when Jeff Goldblum uses it to save the planet.  THAT is science fiction--these computers couldn't go more than 20 minutes in a climate controlled room without freezing and needing a restart--I doubt that they could function in an alien spaceship.  But maybe I'm just bitter.. I had one of these as my own work machine for a year, and it was heavy and buggy.

     • the PowerBook Duo 2300: the Duo series was a sub-notebook.  The docking station had a CD-ROM and floppy drive, so the machine itself was very light and stripped down.  I used this computer as the controller for the campus closed-circuit TV network.

    There were also more powerful desktop machines like the PowerMac 8500, which was the first computer I ever used to edit video.  This powerhouse had a 100MHz processor, and was amazingly fast.  I was blown away when I could edit together some video, leave for the night, and come back in the morning to find that it had rendered.  Amazing!

    After spending so much time with cutting edge Macs, the Performa started feeling less than optimal, so my wife and I took a plunge on the first generation Apple iMac.  This machine (still in my attic 13 years later) was a breathtakingly designed all-in-one machine.  It ran at a sizzling 233MHz, and was the first Apple computer (and first mainstream machine from any vendor) to forego a floppy disk drive.  Steve Jobs noted that we were living in an "internet age" and no one needed to "sneaker net" small files from place to place.  Apple took a lot of flak from this at first, but no one can deny that they were correct!  The iMac was also the first computer from any vendor to feature USB ports, marking Apple's break from the venerable SCSI connection paradigm.

    In 1999 I moved from St. Paul's to Groton School, where I took the job of Academic Technology Manager, administering the email system and continuing to work with teachers at integration of technology.  My first job was leading a program where all the faculty were given Dell Latitude C600 computers.   I had to train the teachers on the use and upkeep of these machines.  Moving to a Windows computer was shocking at first--when I took the computer home the first night I kept rebooting it--I couldn't understand why the first things I saw on the screen were BIOS notifications.  Pretty embarrassing way to start!  

    At Groton I was the "Mac guy", and I was able to take charge of a cutting edge Mac lab, featuring PowerMac G4 towers and containing photo and video editing, music composition, and advanced math and physics software.  These computers were very advanced, running at over 300MHz, they were as powerful as the "super computers" of the early 1980's.  One thing I liked to do was, by rolling around the room on a wheeled office chair, hit the power switch of each machine so that the boot up chord just kept on ringing and ringing.  Through the built-in speakers of the matching monitors, the sound was pretty awesome!  
    As the Mac guy, I also persuaded my boss to let me use a PowerBook G4  I mean, I had to do "Mac stuff" right?  I needed it for work!  This computer was made of titanium, and featured a 15" wide screen display.  It was on this computer that I first used MacOS X, when I got a copy of the OS in its beta release.  Using this laptop as a test bed, I was able to get the Mac lab running securely with OS X in early 2002.  This served as sort of a credibility builder when I moved from Groton to Wyoming Seminary in 2003.  I was going to be a history teacher/technology integrator, and when I went for my interview, I brought a bootable version of my OS X image with me.  Sem was only just beginning to consider OS X (they didn't go over to the new OS until 2006) but my experience was so strong that I wouldn't go back.  I immediately put OS X on the MacBook they gave me, and it's all I've used, on all three school laptops I've had at the school.

    In the summer of 2004, my wife began to feel frustrated by some of the limitations of the iMac, so we bought a PowerMac G5. I am pretty comfortable with saying that this is the best computer I've ever used.  It has been our main computer for seven years (I wrote this blog post on it).  It has two 1.8 GHz G5 processors, and still feels fast after all these years.  In 2009 I installed an extra internal hard drive and doubled the RAM to 2.5 GB of RAM.  The computer is rock solid, and rarely gets shut down (the longest uptime I've managed is eight months).  I've been able to do some pretty serious video and graphics editing on this machine, and probably played 10,000 games of Scrabble on it as well, including my high score of 531. I've also done some audio recording, and hope to continue to do more of that in the future.

    I'm so excited about the iPad.  Since the late '90s I've been waiting for a small, instant-on device that could be used by teachers and students in a classroom to access networked files, web pages and emails, while also being a viable tool for document creation.  Over the years I have tested (and found wanting) several devices, including:

    the Apple eMate 300: this is one of the coolest things I've ever used.  It ran Apple's Newton OS, on a 25MHz processor and used a touch screen and a stylus and could (sort of) recognize handwriting. It had a PCMCIA card slot for networking, and the clamshell case was almost indestructible.  This education market-only product fell by the wayside when Steve Jobs returned to Apple and killed the Newton.  Supposedly Apple has continued to maintain development of handwriting recognition software, but it seems to be missing from the iPad as of now.

    • the Palm pilot: I've tested numerous Palm OS (created by former Newton developers) devices over the years, some with stylus inputs, others with built-in keyboards.  The OS never seemed rugged enough for kids to use in class, and the weak processors made the machines far to slow to be useful.

    • the Psion Series 7: Before the Symbian OS became a global leader in mobile telephony, it was used to power small PDA devices.  Psion tried to take the PDA software and blow it up onto a bigger machine, with a built in keyboard, color screen, and a Microsoft compatible office software suite.  The case folded into a slick little clamshell, with a leatherette covering.  The machine used a stylus/keyboard combo like the eMate, and could connect to the internet.  When I was at Groton I met twice with the American home office of Psion, and tried to get them to give me a classroom's worth to test out.  But the retail price of over $1000 made these devices cool, but more expensive than PowerBooks that were far more powerful.    I have bought an external keyboard for my iPad, and I am hoping that it will give me an eMate/Series 7 vibe.

    In closing, this sampler of some of the computers I've worked and played with over the years has made me reflect a bit about Moore's Law.  Simply put, this concept was put forth by Intel founder Gordon Moore, and says that every 18 months computer processing power doubles, and prices fall.  A simple comparison between all of the computers I've owned personally shows this.  Each machine cost between $1000 and $1800 (with educator's discount).  But each machine left its predecessor in the dust in terms of performance, stability and capabilities.  Our PowerMacintosh G5 cannot run Apple's most recent OS versions, and soon the time will come where we may have to consider "upgrading" it to something running an Intel processor like Apple's more recent products.  And if we do, the speed and performance increase will be notable.  Who knows?  Maybe it's not too long before the Star Trek computers (maybe more like the Next Generation, than the Original Series) will be a reality!

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