A Trip Down (Random Access) Memory Lane

A few weeks ago I watched this presentation unveiling Windows 8, and it got me thinking how far computers, their operating systems and their various accessories have come since my childhood. My generation – those born in the first half of the 1980s – was really the generation that grew up with Personal Computers. PCs predated the 80s of course, but prior to then they were unwieldy, immobile behemoths, the size of several wardrobes side-by-side, sprouting vacuum-tube tentacles and featuring cockpit-style switchboards that only a tiny elite of scientists knew how to use. It was only in the late 70s/early 80s that they begin to take the shape of desktop computers as we know them today, develop some rudimentary user-friendliness and start forging a place in the family home.

When I was a kid, I considered my 8-bit Sega Master System a superior machine to our PC. It seemed like a no-brainer: the SMS never lagged, its sound chip was better, it displayed more colours. By comparison, the PC’s default sound chip was downright painful to listen to, and most games were made in either CGA or EGA graphics, allowing for only 4 or 16 on-screen colours respectively. Addictive as they may have been in their stick-figure simplicity, games like Elevator and Catacomb had nothing on the infinitely more colourful, diverse and epic adventures of WonderBoy or Alex Kidd.

Just as significantly, playing a game on the computer wasn’t a matter of just jamming a cartridge into a slot and turning the power on, or double-clicking an icon like it is today. The IBM 386 we had at home had such pitifully low virtual memory that it couldn’t run a game over the top of Windows 3.1 – I’d have to first of all exit the latter to DOS then painstakingly type out commands. This often included the bizarre step of executing a program called ‘slowdown’, which allowed you to customize the speed of games such as Egaroids and Pitfall that otherwise were pretty much unplayable. By the time I was 10 years old I knew all sorts of DOS prompts and shortcuts off by heart, creating, exploring and sorting directories (now known in our GUI culture as ‘folders’) with ease. A positive byproduct of our shit computer was that it turned me into a very fast typist from an early age – partly because of the text-driven nature of DOS; partly also because, with our PC’s extremely limited capacity for games, I took to making up and typing out stories as a past-time instead.

One of my old friends still remembers the insane amount of time it took just to load WordPerfect 6, the word processor on which I wrote these stories (and which was, I believe, the most popular word processor of the early 90s before MS Word rose to supremacy). Literally, you could double-click the WordPerfect icon, go to the toilet, put the kettle on and amble back just in time to see the fountain-pen logo finally disappear and the program to finish opening. Even then I had to be careful not to type too fast, as the computer wouldn’t be able to keep up and would either stall (at which point I’d have to wait for it to catch up, watching the words I’d typed seconds earlier scroll out like TV subtitles), or even crash. Yes, I shit you not – my computer would crash because I typed out a few sentences at more than 70 or so words per minute. Browsing through fonts too quickly was another surefire way to freeze the system and have to restart, go and make another cup of tea, and generally want to rip your own face off.

Fast-forward a few years. I’m now a teenager and have a big biege box of my own in my bedroom, “borrowed” from my dad’s workplace. It’s got a whopping 900mb of space and runs Windows 95 (later, 98), which basically is more awesome than having a girlfriend. It can finally run the sort of games my friends talk about, like Warcraft and Wolfenstein 3D, with MIDI sound, textured graphics and mouse support. Of course, I still have to painstakingly install them from floppy disks – Doom 2, for example, required no less than 16 from memory – and use a little program called Splitz to split single files bigger than 1.4mb (the size of one floppy disk) into 1.4mb-sized pieces – which I then have to re-join once they’re on my hard drive. It’s a slow and laborious process, and it’d take just one disk to corrupt – a ridiculously common occurrence, now that I think back on it – for the game to be uninstallable, rendering the other 15 or however many disks of data worthless. And while this new & improved computer, compared to the 386, feels like going from a Japanese coffin-bed to a honeymoon suite at the Hyatt, I still need to regularly uninstall games to make space for new ones, with Windows alone taking up a good quarter of the drive.

An interesting aside is that, thanks largely to the mechanical A:/ drives and drawn-out boot sequences of old computers, they used to be a lot more noisy. Compared to their predecessors, today’s computers are blissfully quiet – pretty much silent most of the time, with only the faintest of data-crunching noises when put under the pump. 80s and 90s computers used to play a virtual symphony of beeps and blips upon being turned on, often accompanied by a rush of air like it was preparing for takeoff, and would emit all kinds of additional sounds when reading floppy disks or executing more challenging commands. I remember getting into serious trouble with my Year 8 English teacher once, after she kicked me out of class and made me sit in her adjoining office… being the restless little shit that I was, I turned on her Macintosh hoping that it might have a game on it, and its boot sequence was so loud that she heard it while teaching at the front of the classroom next door. True story.

Of course, the infamous ‘Bad command or file name’ message in DOS always popped up along with a certain sound, which entertained me & my friends as we’d sit there typing in vulgar commands and pretending the computer was being indignant. When it came to games, the PC sound chip was so loud and annoying (there was no volume control for it, to my knowledge) that I often played games such as the loveable Alley Cat on silent. The music for Elevator was possibly one of the most torturously abrasive sounds in the world – imagine a five-second loop of bagpipe music sped up to a rave bpm then played through a PC chip, and you’ve pretty much got it.

The Internet we now take for granted 24/7 was the same in its early days. Now a constant, silent presence on our computers, it used to require a dial-up process that produced some of the most off-key sounds known to Man – a cacophony of dial tones, sirens and static that was, along with the so-called ‘Microsoft sound‘ from Windows 95, definitely one of the iconic pieces of audio from the 1990s. It’s interesting that as Windows has progressed, through XP to Vista and 7, its startup sounds have become ever shorter and less interesting – Windows 7 being nothing more than a tone. Windows 8, based as it is on phone/tablet software, might do away with having one at all.

A lack of virtual memory and sound quality were just two of the more obvious problems of early PCs. Another classic was the limitation that folders and files could be no more than eight characters long – so that often my directories looked like C:/APPLICA~/WORDPER~/DOCUMEN~ or GAMES/CAPTAINC~.EXE. It wasn’t just a DOS issue either, translating over into File Manager (the ancestor of Windows Explorer), with directories displayed as folders but still limited to just eight characters. Only Program Manager – the Windows desktop, essentially, except covering a background picture – was able to display full program names, such as the simple programming tool ‘Visual Basic’, then a staple of Windows’s offerings but now unknown to today’s Facebook-trauling teenyboppers.

Computer hardware, too, used to be very different back in the day. Monitors – now flat, black and lightweight – used to be big biege cubes as heavy as lead. Mice – now elegantly contoured, laser-guided, and black or silver-coloured – used to be plain white, mostly rectangular things, guided by rubber balls that you had to take out and dust off periodically, and which would eventually – like shopping trolley wheels – fail to function properly and need to be replaced. The front of a hard drive itself used to be characterized by two large slits – the 1.4″ floppy A drive, and the virtually prehistoric floppy B drive – both now long gone, replaced by a CD/DVD ROM drive that you’d barely know is there until you eject it. Only the humble keyboard has remained more or less the same, minus the hideous biege colours that made them look like they’d been tea-stained as part of a high-school history project. (Even then there’s those ergonomic ones, though I’ve never actually come across anyone who uses one.)

IT’s always fascinated me because as a Gen Y-er, I’ve been part of the first wave of people to grow up alongside computers, having not only been born at around the same time they went from science lab/college geek club oddity to domestic appliance, but having interacting with them day by day, year after year as they evolved from sluggish productivity tools into the mind-blowing entertainment units of today. They’ve certainly come a long way since the days of ‘Abort, Retry, Fail?’, and in my focus on desktops I haven’t even touched on more radical developments like notebooks – portable computers now more powerful than an entire 90s office network – or the still more revolutionary tablets, where the screen is also the mouse and keyboard. Just a couple of weeks ago I shopped around for a mini SD card for my new phone, and was astounded that these miniscule things – literally the size and weight of the fingernail on my pinky finger – can hold up to 32 gigs of stuff – a storage capacity probably unimaginable 20 years ago, even for computers the size of Kombi vans. Considering Bill Gates once declared that no-one would ever need more than 640kb, who knows what leaps and marvels the next 20 years will produce, and how much more this ever-unfurling technology will continue to change our lives.

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