Gadgets, Tech

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.

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Marketing, Meta, Tech, Uncategorized

Still Free After All These Years

36236699I’ve written a few books, I have only ever half-heartedly attempted to get one of them published – thinking that I’m not really a writer, more of the outsider thinking I talked about recently.  Writing these books though was enabled by free software.  I’d had an Amstrad PCW which was a word-processor but I only used it for programming at the time.  I didn’t write stories, despite being told at school by my last English teacher that I was a good fiction writer, because again I feared being laughed at.  By the time I decided to write again I’d moved onto a PC and suddenly I was confronted by word-processing software like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and so on costing hundreds of pounds.

Thankfully, I got a free copy of Protext 4 for MS-DOS with a computer magazine.  This was a big deal in those days, free software was often written by hobbyists and tended to be utilities, text editors and drawing programs were mostly shareware which you could “try before you buy” and then there was the commercial packages with their eye-watering price tags.  Today my laptop cost less than them.  I used Protext for years, those who don’t remember early nineties computers may be amazed that you had to control the whole thing with the keyboard.  No mouse.  At all.  It was surprisingly quick to use though, no distractions of formatting and pictures, no internet, no emails, just you and your words.

I moved onto Windows word-processing when I worked for a PC shop and got a cheap copy of Lotus WordPro which we used to bundle with the computers we built.  I’m only now moving onto the next big thing – which is something we kind of hoped for but didn’t expect back in the days of ordering a 1.44Mb floppy disk of freeware programs from a paper catalogue.

Big complicated software like Office packages take big teams of programmers or a lot of time, or both, to write and in the old days collaboration was more difficult but now there are organisations like Mozilla, Apache and others who organise teams of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create fantastic free software like the Firefox browser (which I’m using at this moment) and the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice (and it’s offshoot LibreOffice).  These charitable foundations and teams who code for the enjoyment and achievement of it are creating ever more sophisticated software and giving it away for free, only perhaps politely asking for a donation towards their efforts which flies in the face of the idea that people will only create something if they are financially rewarded.  A large number of the coders on these projects are professionals volunteering in their spare time too.

There will always be a market for commercial software as many people and businesses either want or need to use software that has become industry standard no matter how closely compatible the free software is, and often the commercial software just has features that free competitors either haven’t got or can’t have due to patents.  There is also the issue of future updates and technical support though with the use of online forums you can usually get an answer to any problem you have with free software pretty quickly and even updates and bug fixes are generally quick in appearing.

With the advent of smartphones and apps there has been an explosion of free software yet again.  The centralised nature of the App Store and Play Store has encouraged people to learn to code and get something they’ve made out there, just like the old days of PCs, as it’s now even easier to get your app seen and used.  Of course much that appears to be free often isn’t quite free and many apps are also supported by advertising or the dreaded in-app purchase which I’ll write about in a future post.

Sometimes though some people expect free software when it isn’t at all though as other companies have shown giving away old software can be a canny move, introducing people to the brand, giving them skills which can lead to employment using the current version etc.  Serif in the UK have always been good at this, every version of their software I’ve used has been either a free version or more recently a two-version-older copy at a bargain price, and Google’s products like Chrome, Google Earth, even the Android O/S are free because they encourage you to use Google’s search products.  Even Microsoft now gives away many very good pieces of software like Live Essentials and Security Essentials.

So long live free software, what would some of us do without you.

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