The Origin of Things


About the stone age, before the days of computers.

The first computer I used was a Radio Shack TRS80. We were in radio at the time. This was one of the first computers available to the public. We had several; they all ran MS-DOS, the archaic operating system Microsoft invented before Windows. When “Windows” came out, which was basically the result of a race between Apple and Microsoft to release the first computer with a “graphical user interface,” the first iteration was “Windows 95.”

It must have been the early nineties, because all we had was DOS.

Beth in the front office made the best use of computers, at least at this stage. To buy a “PC,” or “personal computer” was a big deal, and consumers were still unsure what they would do with one. Only ten years earlier, a computer took up an entire room; Bill Gates was in high school playing on one of those when he invented DOS.

smileyOne of the first uses was word processing. A secretary or writer was happy they could fix their mistakes, on the computer, before printing. Everything they did previously was on a typewriter. The replacement of the typewriter also required a printer. Hewlett Packard was the Cadillac of printers. As you might imagine, the entire system was not inexpensive, and felt like a chore to use.

Audio? Video? No. Internet? Not yet!

People would, even after they had bought their first computer, start to anxiously wait for “cable” to offer Internet service in their town, because the cable service was better than anything the phone company had modified their lines to do. But we’re skipping ahead several years. At first, we used IBM and Radio Shack computers running DOS, and the Internet could be accessed, via telephone line, if you had a proper modem and knew how to do it, which never seemed to be a sure thing. It was possible, rumor had it, to actually transfer a file to another person, at a different computer, somewhere on the other end of the phone line … which we tried, using code …

Nope! … couldn’t get that feature to work!

Trash 80We used the TRS-80’s on the air. It was completely revolutionary. We had previously used a state of the art on-air automation system to play music during less popular hours on the radio. His name was “Otto,” and he was literally a wall of reel-to-reel machines with a brain.

The TRS-80’s (fondly known as the “trash-80”), the system to replace Otto, were connected to a half dozen cassette machines. Setting the system up and running it was quite an experience. I remember one day using a rarely-used IT trick, a real last resort method to deal with those stubborn machines and stuck cassette decks … I prayed. For awhile, God was the only resource who might have any idea how this stuff was supposed to work! Sometimes, for no reason at all, it would stop working. Computers were forgiven daily for “crashing.”

Windows95 LogoOnce Windows came out, which beat Apple to the market with windows (there was a public debate over who invented the concept), the sales of personal computers started to rise dramatically. The ease of use factor increased magnificently, despite people still not being sure what they would be using the thing for. It was remarkable and irresistible.

If you wanted software, you’d pay for it, and you’d get a heavy box with CDs and books in it, probably, in the Eastern US, at “Comp USA,” the only place in town. They had a big store in Warwick, RI, with dozens of aisles of colorful and wonderful software programs, in heavy shrink-wrapped boxes … and for Apple … there was one aisle. If you were into art, you might pick up a particularly heavy box of “Photoshop” software, which would cost you a notable $500. That was the late 90’s; it would be another dozen years before Apple computers would breach the popularity “wall” Microsoft built.

Microsoft famously created a monopoly, manipulating the market like no company ever had before, and doing so not by virtue of complicated computer antics, but just a brilliant moment on Gates’ part. Faced with the question of whether he should charge five dollars for DOS, when someone bought a computer from, say, IBM or Compaq, or Radio Shack, he decided to give it away for free.

That simple move created a household name.

Everyone already used MS-DOS, and when “Windows” came out, they were fast to “upgrade.” Even though you had to pay for “Windows,” it was marketed so fast, and so well, it was essentially, in the eyes of the public, the only game in town. The Windows operating system would not work without DOS installed.

CompUSALogoThen, when you went to CompUSA, you had to buy the software that was compatible with your computer. It didn’t matter if Photoshop was available for an Apple computer; you didn’t run Apple. You ran Windows. Everybody did. The popularity of Microsoft Office blossomed, and to this day that run has not ceased. Even in today’s competitive field of alternatives, Microsoft’s products are emblazoned into consumers brains as software they’re familiar with. Years of patches may have created a monster, as the company has never made any effort to slim down the bloat, never re-issued a major release, resulting in largely band-aided products, but to the consumer they’re “trust-able.”

This is how Microsoft became the biggest company in the world for awhile, and Gates one of the richest men. By manipulating the future; by seeing the power of compatibility. First DOS was chosen by consumers, to save five bucks. Then, Windows, the newsworthy new operating system, required DOS underneath it. You had to pay for Windows. Then, you needed compatible software. Game on. Microsoft dominated the market simply because they made the operating system you were using, and with an air of uncertainty about compatibility, consumers knew “MS Office,” for example, would work, so they bought Microsoft software.

Nowadays everything’s on video, and Internet is reliable.

The first camera I owned, though, had very poor resolution. When new computer-users finally got their homes hooked up to the Internet, they were excited to discover a world of information. If there were any photos involved, or early videos, on the Internet, they were small, usually badly scanned or photographed, low resolution and blurry. As the Internet developed, the idea of posting any photograph at all onto your own website became a science of it’s own. Entire software programs (Macromedia’s Fireworks) were used for “optimization” and slicing, to try and reduce the file size and burden on the Internet.

We had to have large, expensive hard drives to store about 2,000 songs when we installed a Windows-based automation system at one of our FM stations. It would cost thousands more if we wanted to have backup drives. By the turn of the century, PCs were generally reliable, but still not used by the consumer to create audio files, and especially not video. Instead, the big rush was based on the computer’s ability to “rip” audio from CDs. People flocked to eBay to sell their CD collections.

Internet eCommerce was basically invented by eBay, along with very few other outlets where anyone would dare involve their credit card. Both eBay and Amazon launched in 1995. Within the next five years, though, both of those platforms would take a back seat to the excitement taking place elsewhere … on eTrade. The bubble was forming, and people were starting to trade online.

eTradeLOGO2I glance over to the video camera I own now. Things move fast. Today I can upload high resolution video to YouTube’s platform for free, using a reliable system and connection. There’s not much more to be desired, when I sit at my computer. Have we arrived?

Computers used to be invented and improved so fast, you’d buy a new Dell, and the next day you’d get a flyer in the mail with a better one, for a lower price. These days, computers have shrunk into smartphones, and uses are clear, easy and specialized. The quality of components and price points for technology have never been better. I haven’t had to do an IT prayer in many years.

I don’t think we have much more in the way of big changes in the future. Until they zip a camera into my eyeball (which they probably won’t), I’ve got all the gear I need, and it’s perfect. Time now, I think, to get out the kayaks and run the river as soon as Springtime rolls around!todd-kayak

I might bring along my tablet, to get a high tech shot of that low tech Blue Heron that keeps taunting me when I’m just rowing along mellowly. That guy looks like he’s from the stone age!


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