Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fads and Fashions in Computing

When I was in high school, we had an IBM PCjr. Despite what you've heard, it was a pretty decent computer. No, it didn't have a GUI, but neither did any other computer of the day except for the Mac, which cost $2495. I think the PCjr was about $1200 including a big color monitor. They both shipped with 128K.

The funny thing about the PCjr was how all the newspapers and magazines complained about the "chiclet" keyboard. They didn't like all the space between the keys; said it wasn't ergonomic. The New York Times said reporters "gasped with dismay" when they first caught sight of it. They said, "Its keyboard is not designed for extended typing." Of course, in the same story, they claimed a 16-bit computer is faster than an 8-bit computer because it can process more bits at one time. That sounds like common sense, but it's completely incorrect.

Anyway, here's the "horrible" chiclet keyboard of the PCjr:

here's the ideal keyboard of that time, the big 101-key Keytronic keyboard.

aaaaand here's a standard Apple keyboard from 2015.

I'd say the PCjr was about thirty years ahead of its time. We used to be such snobs about keyboard quality, and now we type with our thumbs on a flat piece of glass.

Everything old is new. In the early days of the Internet, all the snobs looked down on amateur web pages with flashing type, meaningless counters, animated GIFs, and disorganized or confusing layout.  The worst offense was to have your webpage automatically play a song when it loaded. What if you're surfing the 'net on your lunch hour? Do you want to risk everyone hearing your computer play a MIDI version of "Dixie" when you visit a Civil War website?

Let's see...flashing type, distracting sidebar items, and autoplaying audio. Sounds like pretty much every news site I visit now. It looks a lot slicker, with Flash and whatnot, but it's the same old crap people were complaining about in 1995. The old-timers may have been wrong about the keyboard, but they were right about this.

On a similar note, I was forced to learn Pascal my freshman year in college. Language of the future, they said. FORTRAN's days are numbered, they said. Fortunately, I paid just barely enough attention in that class to get a B, and then immediately forgot Pascal. Sometimes laziness does pay off.

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