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Recalling 15 Years of Buzzwords and Shopping

July 06, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

This week marks my 15th anniversary as a columnist with The Times. My first column, in July 1983 under the headline "Learn Buzzwords Before Shopping," warned readers that "salespeople, anxious to impress you, are likely to toss around high-tech jargon while dazzling you with their gizmos and gadgets. If you're like many people, you'll walk away more confused than ever."

That certainly hasn't changed, as the enormous market for "Dummies" books proves.

I wrote in that introductory column that "some of the home systems have as little as 4k of RAM" and that "business systems generally start at 64k." Today, most home and business systems come with 32 to 64 megabytes of memory. Back then, 64 kilobytes of memory chips cost about $85, about the same price as 64mb today.

I also advised people to consider getting a disk drive for their PC. Not a hard disk, mind you, but a floppy drive. "While some home systems store information on standard audiocassettes, business computers use disk drives that attach to or fit inside the computer itself." I pointed out that "some systems store as much as 640k of data on a single disk, while others store as little as 80k." A 320kb floppy disk drive cost $270 at the time and you could buy a 5mb hard drive for "only $1,536." Today, $360 buys you 1,000 times as much storage.

Yet, even without much memory, storage or microprocessor power, those early machines were relatively efficient. For my first IBM PC I had a 320kb floppy diskette that held the MS-DOS operating system and my entire business software library, which consisted of a word processor (WordStar), a spreadsheet (SuperCalc), a database program (dBase II) and a communications program (PC-Talk).

Today, Windows 98 takes up 200 megabytes by itself, and a "typical installation" of the Microsoft Office Professional suite takes another 121mb. Even data files have grown. A 5,000-character WordStar file back then took up about 6kb of disk space. The same amount of text, in Word 97, takes up 31kb.


Speaking of growing, my second column was about the Radio Shack Model 100, a 3-pound computer that measured 8 by 11 inches and cost about $1,000. It ran on four AA batteries, turned on instantly and stored data in memory, even when the power was off. I didn't mind that it had only 24kb of memory (expandable to 32) and an eight-line-by-40-character display. I could carry it anywhere and be productive at a moment's notice.

Today, most notebook computers weigh between 4 and 7 pounds, cost between $2,000 and $5,000 and require you to boot up Windows or wait several seconds for the machine to "wake up" before you can use it. Is this progress?

But we're about to go back to the future. This fall, we may finally have a real successor to the Model 100 as companies roll out a new generation of mobile machines that will reportedly cost about $1,000 and have decent-sized keyboards and screens. They'll run a new version of the Windows CE operating system (code-named Jupiter) and, like the Model 100, begin working as soon as you turn them on.

In January 1984 I wrote a rather enthusiastic column after "Apple's young chairman, Steve Jobs" showed me the new Apple Macintosh. "I rarely get excited over a new computer," I wrote, "but Apple's Macintosh has started a fever in Silicon Valley that's hard not to catch." The fever cooled quite a bit in the '90s, but the Mac--and the not-quite-so-young Jobs--seem to be back on track.

The Internet wasn't on the public's radar screen when I started writing this column, but it had been around for 14 years and there were several online services, including CompuServe and the Source. In August 1983, I wrote about how cool it was for CompuServe users to be able to read the Washington Post online.

"Futurists," I noted at the time, "have long predicted that citizens will some day routinely use home computers for such tasks as shopping, banking, making travel plans, checking the news, and paying bills."

The futurists may have been right, but it's taking longer than I thought it would. Even with today's Internet explosion, the majority of American households have yet to embrace it as a part of their everyday lives. Human habits evolve at a slower pace than technology.

One thing I've learned in 15 years of writing about computers is that companies on top don't always stay on top. PC World magazine's 1983/1984 software roundup listed 134 word-processing programs, almost all from companies that are now out of business. The leader was WordStar, soon to be overtaken by WordPerfect, which eventually lost its dominance to the Windows version of Microsoft Word.

The original DOS version of Word, introduced the year I launched my column, cost $375 and fit on a floppy disk. It was slow and awkward but it was the first word-processing program to use the new ($200) Microsoft mouse, which prompted WordStar publisher Seymour Rubenstein to quip that "a mouse is a good tool for people with three hands."

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