Disks to Downloads, DOS to Dust

Storage

Image by succo from Pixabay

This is another of my “young ‘uns today don’t know how lucky they are” articles, cue the wavy picture and harp music…

When I started with computers you didn’t install anything, nothing had any permanent storage to speak of and software had to be loaded from a cassette or floppy disk every time it was used, as such task switching, a matter of a fraction of a second now involved making a mug of tea.

Move on to the nineties and PCs had gained hard drives and Windows but there were still computers such as Amstrad’s PCW that had a one-at-a-time way of working, the operating system came with whatever you were running because at that time it was what was called a Disk Operating System (DOS), hence MS-DOS. A DOS had a command line into which you typed commands to copy files, delete them, format disks, and other functions. There were reference wheels and cards for all these now archaic commands, I still have mine, unsurprisingly, and if you look you can still find them in Windows though strangely the commandline now runs inside Windows whereas once Windows ran from the commandline.  

Anyway, because PCs, unlike other computers with a specific operating system written for its fixed set of components, have a multitude of differing hardware the OS had to be tailored to each computer and so came along device drivers – programs added to the OS to operate them. Windows, like all modern OSes do more than operate the disks and as such are bigger and more complicated.  Early on displays were pretty much the same and used the same convention for displaying blocks of text, the same applied to printers but soon things became more complicated and later new developments such as CD-ROM drives worked in new ways that the OS was never designed to cope with and more drivers were required. These things were a nightmare to use, you had to manually edit configuration files, decide which part of the limited memory to load the drivers into, and when larger memory became available which went far beyond what the OS originally worked in you needed drivers to operate the higher memory which you could then populate with other drivers and then also use programs that knew if the extended memory was present that they could use it, if you’d configured it correctly. Do this all wrong and nothing would work because nothing had enough memory to work.

No wonder people were terrified of computers, it seemed to be a black art. More like a pain in the art.

Somewhere I still have a copy of PC Today magazine from the middle of 1991 which featured the brand new MS-DOS 5.0 on the cover. In the days when Operating Systems came in shiny cardboard boxes with a manual that listed every command and could be repurposed as a door stop after you upgraded.

Windows improved the situation somewhat but still relied on many of the DOS drivers for CD-ROMs etc until Windows 95 and Windows NT finally relegated the old DOS to a legacy subsystem to run old software, a PC within a PC, a Virtual Machine, though the configuration files still remain for those of us who know what they mean to tweak and those who don’t to Google. As we moved into later eras through 16-bit into 32-bit so memory could just be continuous so at least one problem disappeared.

It was with joy that the time came when Windows would automatically install a new piece of hardware’s drivers from a CD-ROM, except that sometimes it would be allowed to find the drivers itself and others it had to be told where to find them, depending on what the driver and software were for. It was still a huge improvement. In pre-broadband days though you still had to do some work to install the OS. You’d install Windows on a blank PC to be confronted by default drivers which meant a screen display with huge fonts and buttons that could be seen clearly from the next room and no space on the desktop – the dreaded 640×480 resolution (my current monitor has a roomy 1440×900 pixels). From this starting point you had to install the proper video driver so you could see what you were doing, the sound card so you could hear it beeping in complaint and hear the cheery startup sound that was the first thing to find itself disabled in the settings, and anything else unusual. Often this wouldn’t go according to plan and you’d see yellow warning triangles in Device Manager and have to start again – removing and reinstalling drivers, until you had a working PC but less hair.

Today you just download a copy of the Windows 10 disk from the internet, burn it onto a DVD pop it in the drive (or use a USB stick), go into the computers BIOS (basic input/output system) settings – the only throwback to the old days – tell it to boot from the external disk and set it going. As long as you’ve provided it with an internet connection via a wireless or wired network connection it’ll install, use whatever driver it can to connect to the outside world, download all the correct drivers and a couple of hours later you’ve got a working PC. Mostly. It only needs help if you’ve got obscure or old hardware it can’t find drivers for but even then the right ones are often only a download and install away. This is all possible thanks to all the manufacturers working together to try to make the disparate bits of a Windows PC work together.

I should say at this point “other operating systems are available” but these such as the various Linux distributions are similarly streamlined these days.

Beyond the operating system installing software has become even easier, not even a disk is required – I’ve recently installed Norton Security with nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a number on it and a broadband connection.

See, not everything about the older days of computing are better, I do like some progress too. The geek in me though does miss the shiny software boxes.

Too Smart For Their Own Good

Kettle, Boiling

Image by Ken Boyd from Pixabay

Why do we need “smart” fridges, kettles, toasters. I like some technology to be dumb.

On Red Dwarf the smart toaster ends up in the rubbish compartment, because it’s annoying.

Considering the limited useful life of the average smartphone or tablet, before updates and so on force it to become slow and unsteady or it just fails altogether why do you want one attached to, and controlling your fridge. Ok, so it can keep track of what you need to buy, it can show you recipes and play music – so can your phone or tablet that you no doubt also have. My fridge-freezer is over three years old, I know this because it was here when I moved in, lurking in the kitchen as though waiting to see who’d turn up next. It’s seen the departure of the spare freezer and the replacement of the mouldy washing machine that had also been left here. The manufacturer is defunct now but the fridge-freezer still works, it has one control and keeps stuff cold, if I want to know whether I need more milk I have a cunning method – I open the door. There has been talk of smart fridges being able to tell you whether you have the ingredients for a recipe – fine if they’re all in there, for mayonnaise or eggs and bacon perhaps – but again, just look in it. Similarly they say you could scan things in and it’d help with monitoring diet – so what’s next a fridge that criticises my food purchases. I’m not having an appliance judging me for buying an eclair (or two) or for eating them both withing two hours.

I also prefer critical gadgets like alarm clocks and door locks to be low tech too – my clock radio is analogue and short of a power-cut will wake me up with modern miserable pop songs every morning without fail, having not crashed and rebooted, losing it’s settings overnight. I don’t want my door to unlock with my phone, a key only fails when it snaps – much less of a regular occurrence than the wifi or bluetooth not working. And I know the digital locks have a manual backup but that, in a way, just proves the point – they have to have the backup so why not just use the backup in the first place, a key needs no batteries. The car has a remote but there’s a flip-out key attached to it.

The internet of things has some uses, remote heating control and alarms or video door-viewers for example, but considering I need to fill the kettle with water and the toaster with bread I feel that the simple controls on both are enough, I do like the hidden blue progress lights on the toaster – only visible when in use, they are the funkiest thing I’ve seen on a kitchen appliance.

So much is tech for tech’s sake, a case of look what we can do, and as the more complex a device is the more likely something will fail. I wouldn’t want to buy a new expensive smart kettle every couple of years, or find I can’t have a coffee because the manufacturer’s gone bust or the API is no longer supported, I don’t want to wait for some toast because the toaster’s upgrading its software.

And so again it’s time for a decidedly low-tech cuppa. Goodnight.