Personal Computing

I recently wrote about the first computer I ever used (a Timex Sinclair TS-1000), but recently felt inclined to share my personal version of the PC, Internet, and Mobile revolutions. Although much has been written about this period between 1980 and 2010, I felt that, like the rapid advances in transportation, we are in a period of rapid transition, and that those who experienced it first-hand owe those who follow the courtesy of sharing what happened.

I have done my share of computer repair service calls and have heard the same stories over and over from a generation born between 1950 and 1960 about how they had to learn Cobalt programming on punch cards at their college or university. I just nod my head and wonder what they’re lives would have been like had they continued to use Cobalt. This is Bill Gates and Steve Jobs‘ generation, the group that got ‘into computers’ after they had become more accessible. Those two, along with the great ‘think’ers at IBM and HP, started the PC revolution that has made all of our lives easier, more efficient, and productive.

Sopwith GameI mostly grew up with PCs, my first being a Zenith model with two 5-and-a-quarter-inch floppy drives. It had no hard drive at first, but later we added a 5MB drive. It came with an orange monochrome CRT (cathode ray tube) screen that we later upgraded to full color. I remember playing games like Sopwith and Dig Dug. I used Print Shop to make banners and PFS Write to write letters and paper. I was quite the nerd.

Later my dad bought several 386 and 486 PCs from his co-workers at GM. We connected them with Laplink and serial cables and practiced formatting and unformatting them with Norton Tools. The Internet still went “eeeeaaaeeeahhaeeaahhheaa” then when it connected via 14.4 Kbps modems using Windows 3.1 and Winsock TCP. Email was in HyperTerminal in a program called Pine and the whole family had to share the same email address. My dad actually toured the Internet Service Provider in our area before deciding on them over a competitor.

Our first “new” computer was a Gateway 2000 PC with a Pentium 1.2 Ghz processor, 16 MB of RAM, and a 2 GB hard drive. It’s hard to imagine, but this was really fast at the time. It ran Windows 95 and I spent a lot of time just figuring out how to tweak it and how to use the file system. At the time, this system cost $2000. I used it mostly for word processing. 4 years later I would buy my first PC for $1600 from Best Buy. It was a Compaq PC with a 40 GB hard drive and a CD-burner. That’s all I remember about it because all I ever used it for was to burn CDs and get on the Internet.

The first college I went to still didn’t have broadband Internet access in 1998 or 1999, but by 2000 (at a different college), I had broadband for the first time. I actually had to go buy a 10 Mbit ethernet card from the college bookstore and I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t work when I installed it. I actually had to call the college tech support department and as it turned out I wasn’t seating the card well enough. Lesson learned. I was running Windows 2000 by this point, but the only thing I was doing on it was burning CDs and getting on the Internet. That’s when I discovered CollegeClub.com.

By 2001 I was in my own apartment at my third college and I bought my first cell phone. It was an Ericson bar phone from AT&T, which was “free” with a two-year agreement. The price had fallen for the first time to a price-point that almost anyone could afford one: $30 a month. There was no apps, no texting, and no data plan. It was a phone that you could use to call other phones with. If you went over your minutes, you were charged what’s called “overage charges”. I got a girlfriend using AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM for short) and those overage charges bit me more than once. I ended up marrying that girl so I can also share that she got a cell phone at the same time, too. In fact, most people did. 2001 was kind of a turning point in cell-phone adoption. In 2000, bag phones in your mom’s car were only to be used for “emergencies” and were relatively expensive, but in just one year they became accessible and the ‘killer app’.

In 2002 I got married and bought my first laptop – a 14.4 inch Compaq. I bought it from Staples on a whim so I could use it at the library at my fourth college. I ended up selling it to my brother so I could pay my mortgage insurance to buy my first house. It turns out you have to have your mortgage insurance money as separate from your mortgage when you buy a house. I didn’t know that. In 2004, a friend and I started Neighborhood Geeks and started doing in-home computer repair. Windows XP was in it’s prime and hardware parts were still expensive enough that you could justify repairing a PC rather than buying a new one. We were still upgrading PCs from Windows 98 and installing ethernet cards. It was a hoot, but it didn’t last. By the the time Vista came out, computers had shrunk in price and people were storing their email and files in the cloud. When your computer broke, there was nothing to recover and the cost to replace it was less than the cost of the repair. The golden age of home PC repair was over.

I got my first smartphone in 2007. It was the first generation iPhone. I ended up giving this to my wife and went back to a flip phone for a time before trying out an Android smartphone in 2010. I began texting in 2005 around the same time I started using Facebook and Myspace for the first time. Back then, not everyone did it so you kind of had to know who ‘had texting’ and who didn’t. Some people got mad even if they did have texting because they were charged 10 cents for every text. Eventually I learned how to auto-forward text messages to email in Android so I wouldn’t have to have my phone on at work. It was clear that the mobile revolution had shook my life in more ways than one. Facebook, the cell phone, and the Internet have all led to very good and very bad things in my life. I hate them for that, but I appreciate them for what they allow us to do. I’ve made my living for the last decade off of manipulating bits on the screen, but how much has the technology manipulated me?

Read what’s next for smartphones.

The Future Was Now

In the summer of 1988, my parents bought a Chevy Suburban and drove our whole family down to Walt Disney World (the only time we ever went). My dad worked for GM at the time and so when we got to the Epcot Center, we got to cut in line to the now closed, World of Motion ride. It was a view of the future. Or should I say, a view of a possible future – one that mostly hasn’t happened – but that’s not what this post is about.

Rebecca Murphey, a JavaScript engineer at Bocoup, wrote in her blog about how her dad bought one of the first personal computers:

“In 1982, Timex came out with the Timex Sinclair TS-1000…the computer, a few times thicker than the original iPad but with about the same footprint, cost $99.95.”

My dad bought one too and I remember having to hook it up to a special data tape player/recorder that acted as the ‘hard drive’. It’s what loaded and recorded changes to programs that displayed on the screen. I remember piecing the parts together and waiting for it to appear on the black and white television screen. We could load BASIC and type in commands, but we didn’t do much more than that. This post isn’t really about my early exposure to technology, it’s more about the man who exposed me to it.

While we didn’t have humanoid robots in our kitchen, we had dishwashers who washed our dishes for us – and a furnace that detected a sudden change in temperature and automatically adjusted accordingly. My dad grew up in a house with no running water. He took a bath in a metal tub in the middle of the kitchen next to the fire-burning stove. He used a Sears catalog for toilet paper in the outhouse out back – yet he was the only person in his class to build an automobile from spare parts.

Silly Robot

I can only imagine my son re-discovering a vehicle from today, trying to understand this “hard app” (car radio) he found. What is it like growing up with a computer in every room and in every pocket? What is it like to always be on the Internet, always knowing where everyone is and what everyone is doing? What is it like to have your entire childhood documented in status messages, online galleries, and Youtube channels? When I went to high school, we weren’t even allowed to carry beepers.

I can only imagine how no running water, building your own car, learning how to program, and buying one of the first personal computers can shape the way you teach your children about technology. And I can only imagine how growing up with Timex Sinclair TS-1000’s, Atari 2600’s, Nintendo NES’, Windows 3.1, Netscape, Winsock, Windows 95, Nokia Cellphones, College Club, Myspace, and finally Facebook can change how I teach my children about technology. I worry that technology enables too much using and not enough doing. That’s part of what this blog is about – giving back to what I’ve learned from the Internet – and my dad.

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