Retro computers: 8 things we grew up on that younger techies missed
Kids these days. Am I right? They have no idea how good they’ve got it. These young engineers just entering the workforce have easy compared to what us old guys had to work with.
Sitting in a coffee shop with their stickers covering their sleek, lightweight laptops have no idea what it’s like to have nearly their entire desk taken up by non-portable work machines like:
Imagine having a bulbous box on your desk taking up about half the depth of your working area. Now slap a flat screen on the front of it, but in this case, it’s not flat, it’s curved like it’s filled with compressed air. Now make it flicker like a crappy fluorescent light (do those even still exist?)
That was the fun of CRT monitors. We collectively rejoiced when flat screens came out and were finally affordable. For several years every neighborhood had a CRT monitor or two on front lawns for trash day.
Speaking of CRT monitors…
Black and green screens
Look at you with your fancy mouse and windows, all in beautiful color. And look at your editor with the color-coded syntax.
Back in our day, we had two colors on our Apple IIs: Black and green. That’s it, I shit you not.
And on those screens, we didn’t have window-based navigation. Instead, we had…
MS-DOS and text-based OS’s
Remember C:_ with the blinking cursor? We sure do.
For you whippersnappers raised on modern operating systems, picture a black screen with a handful of letters and a blinking cursor.
And that’s it.
Nothing to click on, drag, or drop.
The only way to navigate is to type commands like ‘cd’, ‘dir’, and ‘run’.
If you wanted to run a program, you had another step you had to complete:
Programs on floppy disks
Early computers came with barely any onboard memory so we didn’t have the option of loading up our machines with apps and just double click on an icon. Instead, we had to shuffle through our stack of floppy discs to find the program we wanted, shove it in a slot, navigate to the directory, and run it.
Since floppy discs could only hold so much memory, some games and programs were even spread across multiple floppy discs.
What did they look like? Funny you should ask. Do you know that save icon on your computer? Guess where it came from.
While you’re clicking through looking for a “save” icon, take a moment to appreciate that mouse, because we remember…
When The Mouse Came Home
Imagine going from having no arms to all of a sudden having arms and opposable thumbs.
That was what having a mouse was like. Out of nowhere, we were able to click on a button instead of typing commands, or hitting arrow keys and enter.
It’s one of those obvious inventions in hindsight that took decades to build and release to consumers. It took time to prototype as nothing like it existed. It was a completely new concept. Not only that, operating systems had to be updated to show a cursor on the screen that would move based on the inputs from the mouse.
It sounds trivial today, but it was a monumental challenge. Today’s window-based operating systems wouldn’t be possible without a mouse.
All of us remember having to constantly clean the ball and wheels inside the earliest consumer versions.
It took a while for this new technology to trickle down to the consumer PC market, and we were glad when it did.
The next obvious iteration was making computer portable which had its own set of technical limitations…
Gigantic Laptops With Trackballs
As you can imagine, we didn’t go from desk-conquering behemoths to lightweight, so thin you could cut a tomato, laptops overnight.
Quite the contrary, the screens on early laptops flipped up from the middle, rather than today’s rear-hinged clamshell design. They were about 5in deep to accommodate all the components, and incredibly heavy.
That is to say, they weren’t all that portable, but it was a start.
Attempts to make thick laptops smaller and more portable yielded some glorious over-engineering, like this technical marvel:
Early models experimented with an actual trackball where we now have trackpads, which also had some interesting drawbacks and was a less-than-optimal experience.
Engineers’ first crack at replacing the trackball navigation on a laptop was… interesting.
Imagine a red nipple in the middle of your keyboard that acted as a sort of joystick for your mouse pointer. To say it took a bit of practice was an understatement. You would often overshoot what you were aiming for and as you repeatedly overcorrected, your cursor would sort of swing around until it settled where you intended it to.
Mercifully, we now have trackpads instead.
That’s not the only early technology user experience that left room for obvious improvement…
Texting before full mobile keyboards
Speaking of interesting early ways to interact with our devices, texting was decidedly different in the early 2000s.
To start, we were billed per text message, which as you can imagine, added up fast. I can still remember one month getting a $700 phone bill. Ouch.
To begin with, we only had about 20 keys: Send/End, left/right, numbers 0 through 9, pound, and period.
You read that right, no keyboard.
Each number key had two or three letters on it, so to write out a word you had to hit the number repeatedly to cycle through that number key’s letters.
It was exactly as tedious as you’re picturing but effective. And we got fast.
It’s no surprise then how a phone with a full keyboard and a trackball had corporate types frothing at the mouth. Introducing:
Our generation’s iPhone was the Blackberry and for the younger crowd (our generation’s millennials), it was the Sidekick.
These phones had color screens *gasp*, full keyboards *gasp* and trackballs *double gasp*
It sounds passe today, but these were high powered pocket-sized email and gaming machines, and they dominated the mobile phone space.
That is until 2007 when the iPhone and Android completely crushed the competition.
Bonus: The Sidekick
Kids back in the early 2000s weren’t carrying around Blackberrys for the same reason they weren’t wearing ties every single day–it was a symbol of corporate America, man. Blackberrys were for bankers and lawyers, men and women who order extra starch on their dry-cleaned shirts and pantsuits.
But these kids still wanted a keyboard. Enter the Sidekick.
Not only did it have a full-color and bigger screen size than we were used to, but it also satisfyingly swiveled and clicked into place to reveal a full keyboard. And a bonus for us, it had the same form factor as our portable gaming consoles!
It’s hard to under-emphasize how delightful the screen swivel really was. I’m sure a lot of us miss it.
We’ve come a long way in the last 30 years, and the industry is leaner, faster, and more advanced than it’s ever been.
Thanks to the intrepid engineers that came before us, our devices are thinner, lighter, and more powerful than ever before. Now we can work remotely from a coffee shop in Tahiti, something that was unthinkable in the days of gigantic laptops, no cellular data networks, and CRT monitors.
All hail the new age! How many of these do you remember?