PC World at 15

It was 5475 days ago today, or thereabouts, that your favourite computer magazine first hit newsstands. PC World lifer Chris Keall looks back on the laughter, the tears and the $24,000 386.

Since it first appeared as a standalone magazine in 1989 (having done time in the trenches as a Computerworld supplement), PC World has chronicled the highs, the lows and the sometimes keyboard-pounding agony that is the personal computer industry. As you follow me on our highlights tour of articles past (in our own – cringe – unedited words), you’ll find three themes emerge:

1. Star Trek references intrude with troubling frequency.

2. People always underestimate how quickly hardware will evolve.

3. People are constantly thumping said keyboards as promised usability breakthroughs never quite happen. Software developers just about get a handle on one trend and … then we’re off to the next. We’re living in beta, babies. Enjoy the ride.

June 1989

PS/2 luggable gains positive reception

“The PS/2 Model P70 is a high-functionality, 20MHz 386 portable ($16,425) that weighs in at 9kg

(the lightest notebooks today are 1.2kg – CK). PC professionals are saying the VGA monitor and the 4MB of memory (expandable to 8MB), make it a powerful luggable."

July 1989

IBM’s 486 steals show

“The past 10 years have seen a dramatic increase in clock rates, from just under 5MHz for the original IBM PC to 33MHz for the latest 386 systems. This more than six-fold increase will not be repeated.”

Dec 1989/Jan 1990

Easy DOS it

“Processing speeds are now fast enough to satisfy all but the most exacting user.”

PC World Awards

Best desktop PC: Apple Macintosh IIcx

Best laptop: Compaq SLT/286

Best word processor: WordPerfect 5 for DOS

March 1990

WordPerfect 5.1

“With 11 5.25-inch floppy discs, installation may seem daunting, but there are many new features, with added commands including {FOR} and {WHILE} loops.”

May 1990

Could 1990 be the year of the LAN?

“The philosophical dividing line between the eras of standalone and networked PCs will be drawn in 1990. ... Despite the power of Microsoft’s OS/2 LAN Manager, it’s still a NetWare world. Novell’s 1989 introduction of its NetWare 386 network operating system more or less guaranteed that much of the world will stick with Netware.”

Word processors: Nine packages point for point

“Of these products, three – Samna Ami Professional, NBI Legend and Microsoft Word for Windows – exploit the new graphical tools provided for Windows-compatible products. The remaining six – IBM DisplayWrite, Lotus Manuscript, Microsoft Word for DOS, Aston-Tate’s Multimate, WordPerfect for DOS and WordStar – offer various levels of text-based word processing.”

June 1990

Has OS/2 version 2.1 got the right stuff?

“When Microsoft and IBM jointly announced OS/2 almost three years ago, many thought it would become the predominant operating system. That obviously hasn’t happened yet ... last year, DOS accounted for 70% of operating system units sold worldwide.”

July 1990

Return to the clone zone

“In this issue’s comparison of 33MHz 386 machines, we look at five well-known international brands with prices ranging from $17,000 to $24,000. But when we researched local assemblers like PC Direct, TL Systems and Ultra, we found equivalent machines for less than half that. Companies such as ALR, Compaq and HP will find it difficult to justify these differences in the face of cut-price clone competition.”

August 1990

At last, a true rival to DOS?

“Windows 3 is more than an update. In many respects it’s an entirely new environment ... To really take advantage of Windows, you’ll want either a fast 286 or a 386 machine, preferably with at least 2MB of RAM. Enhanced mode allows you to run multiple DOS applications.”

October 1990

Virus busters

“When a virus strikes, who ya gonna call? Against Italian, Israeli, Stoned, Friday the 13th and Weasel (yes, we could name every major virus in a single sentence back then – CK) these 24 antivirus packages aren’t much help.”

Dec 1990/Jan 1991

PS/2 gets 256 colours

“IBM’s new power offerings not only fill out its 486/PS2 range, but also set a new standard in monitor displays. Both models (the 25MHz, $26,270, and the 33MHz, $29,586) feature XGA with 16 colours standard, upgradeable to 256.”

February 1991

386SX: 16MHz or 20MHz?

“With their extra power, we feel that 20MHz PCs are better suited than their 16MHz counterparts to meet the user’s future needs.”

March 1991

“The personal laser printer is taking off as a replacement for 24-pin dot-matrix printers. With prices from $6000 to $10,000 for postscript models (for four-page-per-minute mono – CK) and $3000 for lower-end models, lasers can compete with $2000 24-pin dot-matrix printers

capable of near letter-quality output.”

April 1991

Bulletin boards: Online information out of control?

“New Zealand’s contribution to the global village, through the Fiodonet network, connects about 40 bulletin boards from Whangarei to Dunedin. A bulletin board mimics a conventional notice board, without the need for paper drawing pins. A telephone connection can transport you from one bulletin board to another. Many megabytes of information can, and do, move throughout New Zealand overseas every day. We were able to download an X-rated picture, no questions asked.”

Dec 1991/Jan 1992

PC World Awards

“The second trend is that the clones, or whatever you want to call them, are killing brand names. PC Direct has become the first local assembler to win Best Desktop PC.”

May 1992

Bulletin boards

“Graphics files are another mainstay. The most popular subjects are Bart Simpson, astronomy shots, Kelly Bundy and, on the less respectable boards, hardcore pornography … Telecom is a major player in the commercial bulletin board market with its StarNet and PacNet services.”

50MHz 486s: Pure testosterone

“Remember when top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art geek heaven was a 33MHz 386? If you bought a 25MHz 486 for $7000, don’t read any further. You don’t want to know ... Extra RAM is $120 a megabyte.”

WYSIWYG word processors

“In today’s rugged economic landscape, anything you can do to improve your image is not just a good idea – it’s critical. True, Windows word processors need a powerful 386 with 2MB of memory or more, while WordPerfect for DOS, which owns 60% of the market, will run on a 286 or XT.

"But you get accurate page layouts that you can see on your monitor ... and you no longer have to close your word processor before you can access your spreadsheet or another application.”

July 1992

Compaq calls the clones

“Sick of losing on price, Compaq and other big international brands are playing the low-cost local assemblers at their own game. The cute ’n’ little 25MHz 386SX that’s leading the charge comes in at $3040 with DOS, 2MB of RAM and a 40MB hard disk.”

Modem operandi

“Plug a 2.4kbit/s modem into your PC, jack into a telephone line and you’ve got access to Compuserve, the world’s largest online information service ... Compuserve’s $49 an hour is, after all, merely the cost of two large pizzas or a taxi ride to the airport. A free hour is provided with the $80 membership fee.”

October 1992

A buyer’s guide to email

“Email combines the precision of a typed letter with the immediacy of a phone call. Look for an email program that lets you read or send messages around your office without having to close your main application. Lotus CC:Mail is our postal service of choice.” (Runners up: Folio Mailbag and Micro Tex Postmaster – CK)

March 1993

DOS 6.0 – the beast is back

“DOS is far from dead. In fact, it looks like it’s here to stay.” (Don’t laugh, DOS’s last gasping remnants still lie buried deep within Windows XP – CK)

March 1993

Classic Dumb Terminal

Marketing speak: what they say and what they really mean …

All new: not compatible with previous versions.

New: different colour from previous version.

Design simplicity: developed on a shoestring budget.

Advanced design: advertising agency doesn’t understand it.

Leading-edge: will only run on a 486.

Revolutionary: goes round and round.

May 1993

Affordable inkjets

“Prices have fallen dramatically ... the HP PaintJet offers 300dpi colour for just $7395.”

Grid’s pen tablet computer

“Look Ma, no keyboard: the Grid Convertible’s conventional notebook design transforms into a tablet with the screen folded down over the keyboard.”

June 1993

Sizzling Pentium power

“Yes, Compaq is first to our shores with a Pentium-based PC – the $8750 ex GST 5/60M. The '5' is to remind a few of us that this is actually a 586 even if Intel insists we all speak Latin."

July 1993

Classic Dumb Terminal

Q: Why did it take God seven days to create the world?

A: No installed user base.

February 1994

DOS vs DOS vs DOS

“There are now three operating systems calling themselves DOS: Microsoft DOS, IBM PC DOS and Novell DOS. None break the 640KB memory barrier, but at least we’re getting closer to opening all 640KB to applications.”

Doom will blow you away

“We don’t know what’s behind the door, but after three hours of playing a networked game of Doom we’ve got a pretty good idea. I hit the space bar and the door slides up with a loud scraping sound. Immediately, my ears are assailed by demonic groans and growls, mixed with the boom of Roger’s shotgun and the measured bursts of Rob’s chaingun.”

April 1994

The internet is big

“What consists of 100,000 hosts and has an estimated 25 million users worldwide? The internet – it’s suddenly got big!”

Cyberspace cadet

“The Internet Connection Company of New Zealand (ICONZ) offers full internet access and charges $50 a megabyte for email, and $10 a megabyte for all other information sent or received.”

June 1994

The internet goes mainstream

“Suddenly, all manner of publications want to write about the internet, including those that usually do better with Rachel Hunter.

“I turned to IBM’s TCP/IP for DOS, which minimises the amount of time you need to spend at the internet’s Unix prompt. Your 2.4kbit/s modem that works fine for bulletin boards just won’t cut it on the net. Look for a speed monster that can pull 9.6kbit/s.”

July 1994

100MHz Pentiums: Power to burn

“Local assembler PC General was the first to land a 100MHz Pentium in our test centre. With 24MB or RAM, a 1GB hard drive, 2MB of video memory and a 15-inch monitor, it sells for $8990.”

Are office suites worth it?

“Microsoft, Lotus and Borland now offer aggressively-prices collections of their key applications – all yours if you’re willing to live and die with one vendor. Should you?”

Dec 1994/Jan 1995

Classic Dumb Terminal

How can I tell if I am a nerd?

“Subtract the number of girlfriends/boyfriends/wives/husbands you’ve had from the number of computers you have owned. If the number is positive, you are a nerd.”

February 1995

Are you ready for OS/2 Warp?

“Can’t wait for Windows 95? Don’t have the hardware for Windows NT Workstation? IBM’s OS/2 Warp could be for you. You’ll need a 486 with at least 8MB of memory to hit full Warp speed.”

March 1995

“The most basic type of internet file access is via file transfer protocol or FTP. Of course, you need to find out which internet host has the files you want. For that you need a utility called Archie. The second way to get at files is with a Windows utility called Gopher. The third and hippest way is to cruise a sub-section of the internet known as the world wide web ... Mosiac isn’t the only web browser around. Alternatives include Cello, WinWeb, Netscape and Lynx, a non-graphical web browser.”

Full screen video at full-speed

“Thankfully, this year will bring improved video playback technology called MPEG that displays full-screen, full-motion video on your PC screen.”

Classic Dumb Terminal

Top 10 things that never happen on Star Trek:

1. McCoy says, “He’ll live, Jim.”

2. The deflector shields hold up for the duration of a battle.

3. The female alien leader declines to kiss Kirk before she sacrifices herself to save her civilisation.

4. A Starfleet emergency breaks out near the Enterprise, but fortunately some other ships in the area are able to deal with it to everyone’s satisfaction.

5. The Enterprise goes to visit a remote outpost of scientists, who are all perfectly alright.

6. The Enterprise crew are struck by a strange alien plague, for which the cure is found in the well-stocked sickbay.

7. Sulu and Chekov get to do something interesting.

8. A power surge on the bridge is rapidly and correctly diagnosed as a faulty capacitor.

9. The Enterprise is captured by a vastly superior alien intelligence which does not put the crew on trial.

10. The episode ends without Bones and Kirk laughing at Spock’s inability to understand a joke, and Spock raising his eyebrow.

May 1995

Classic Dumb Terminal

How many Apple Newton users does it take to change a lightbulb?

Fiv3 – tWO to fu%6~ th# jlwww aND three tO gurr%^ the laddEr.

(Handwriting recognition still had a way to go before hitting Tablet levels – CK)

July 1995

Mosaic: Killer app of the web?

“Having made the web accessible to a vast new audience, Mosaic is now just one of six Windows browsers. Our favourite is Netscape Navigator 1.0, which does a great job of making your browsing smooth and seamless (though even with a new 28.8kbit/s modem, cruising the web can seem like wading in quicksand). If you’re on a budget, try El Net’s free Win Web.”

September 1995

Are you ready for Windows 95?

“Windows 3 it’s not. Windows 95 is brimming with new features, from a redesigned interface to long file names. Click the Start button to launch applications ...

“ ... according to Microsoft, Windows 95 will run on a 386 with 4MB of RAM. Our verdict: don’t try this at home.”

August 1996

Netscape loses browser lead

“Not so long ago, almost a dozen browsers vied for the chance to take you to the hundreds of thousands of sites that make up the world wide web.

“But after a year of product shakeouts and some fast moves on Microsoft’s part, Netscape’s Navigator and Internet Explorer have emerged on top.

“Netscape still has the popular vote ... but not only can Microsoft’s IE 3 view frames, the company has also found ways to improve that technology.”

July 1997

The empire strikes back: IE 4.0

“Internet Explorer 4 promises a change that Netscape may be unable to match: it lets you integrate the browser directly into the operating system. A copy of IE 4 will be included in every copy of Memphis (Windows 98), the Windows 95 successor due in early next year.”

August 1997

Don’t let it happen again

“Best Buy closed the doors on its Auckland superstore on Saturday June 28. An angry mob of 40 soon gathered on the footpath – part of a total of 267 customers who had paid for PCs that Best Buy failed to deliver.”

August 1997

6x86: Cyrix’s Pentium II buster

“Cyrix 6x86-based PCs offer top performance for hundreds of dollars less than systems based on Pentium MMX-233, Pentium II or AMD’s K6.”

December 1997

Wireless LANs set to boom

“The market for wireless LANs is on the brink of a growth spurt, thanks to the creation of an interoperability standard, IEEE 802.11 standard (or Wireless Fidelity – WiFi).

February 1998

The great ISP census

“With 83,000 subscribers, Xtra is still the leading local internet service provider, followed by Clear Net and ihug.

“Ability to provide 56kbit/s access doesn’t seem to be a market differentiator. A lot of ISPs are sitting on the fence waiting for the new standard to be ratified.”

July 1998

Windows 98: Do you need it?

“If Windows 95 was a great leap forward, Windows 98 is a series of baby-steps.” (Ditto for Me and XP. Sigh – CK)

April 1999

Internet Explorer 5

“Microsoft leapfrogs Netscape with a faster, smarter Internet Explorer.”

July 1999

The world is flat

“Xtra and Clear Net are going head-to-head with ihug’s all-you-can-eat for $39.95 approach. Xtra’s 185,000 users are turning from hourly to flat rate plan en masse.”

August 1999

Bandwidth on demand

“If you’re still waiting for ISDN to come to your town, forget it. Telecom’s new superfast, always-on DSL internet offering, dubbed JetStream, costs from just $69 a month (plus ISP fees) – maybe a 10th of your 128kbit/s ISDN line – but provides more than 10 times the speed.”

May 2000

Is Linux just another fad?

“We put Linux on a test PC and in eight weeks it never crashed.”

1GHz: desktop speeds hit the stratosphere

“Intel now knows how the United States felt in 1957 when the Russians beat America into space with Sputnik. For years, Intel dominated the CPU race. But on March 6, AMD surprised the world and launched the first x86 CPU to require a whole new term for blazing speed: giga­hertz. Gateway’s Athlon 1000-based Select ($7873) is a sliver ahead of a Dell Dimension XPS with a 866MHz Pentium III ($6999) fully loaded with 128MB.”

June 2000

Classic Dumb Terminal

“Some people ask why I don’t use the Zoom feature in Photoshop. I just get closer.” (Occasional PC World contributor Kid Coleslaw parodies an ad you’ve all long since forgotten – CK)

July 2000

It’s official: Microsoft must split

“On June 8, US federal judge Thomas P Jackson ordered the break-up of the software giant Microsoft. One company will keep the Windows operating system, while a second will handle software apps such as Office and IE. Microsoft now has four months to submit a plan for ‘divestiture’, as the break-up is being called. Despite this ‘final’ decree, Microsoft has filed an application for appeal …” (George Bush’s November 2000 election saw a parallel change of guard at the US Department of Justice, and the end of any real political will to face down Bill Gates – CK)

September 2000

Learning to love Napster

“MP3 is here and there’s nothing the record companies can do about it. In six short months, Napster has attracted 20 million users.”

November 2000

Free internet!

“Born out of the 0867 dispute between Telecom and Clear, free ISPs have undergone explosive growth. Clear’s Zfree is now claiming 200,000 registered users. One ISP in the US is even offering free DSL.”

March 2001

Classic Dumb Terminal

“It’s ridiculous claiming that video games influence children. For instance, if Pac-man affected kids born in the 80s, we should by how have a bunch of teenagers who run around in darkened rooms and eat pills while listening to monotonous electronic music.”

April 2001

Cutting edge LCDs

“More flat panels are appearing, and the average price of a 15-inch LCD monitor these days has dipped to under $3000. Our editors’ choice: Philips’ 15-inch DesignLine 150X ($3261).”

September 2001

Wireless data to go

“Connecting your PDA or laptop to the world has never been easy, but now Telecom has announced the availability of its CDMA network … initially running at around 14.4kbit/s. Telecom is charging $5 a month for 1MB of data, and 3.5 cents per 5KB after that.”

October 2001

Mailbox

“I was a little dismayed with the cover of last month’s PC World. I realise that the model for these photos was probably merely centimetres off the ground and in no danger whatsoever, but these photos just rang alarm bells. The screw gate on the carabiner was not done up at all.”

– Name and address withheld by request

Stop searching and start finding

“Some search sites are returning to the basics. Google started the trend: its sleek home page consists of little more than the Google logo, the field where you type in your queries.”

First look at Internet Explorer 6

“The features battle between IE and Netscape continues to rage. Microsoft’s latest salvo occurred last month, with the release of Internet Explorer 6.”

November 2001

Windows XP: do you need it?

“Easier than Windows 2000 and less crash-prone than Windows 98/ME, XP is Microsoft’s biggest OS upgrade in years.”

(Yes, but at least we got major upgrades then. With Longhorn – or Longwait – now delayed until perhaps 2006, we’re looking at an unprecedented half decade between Windows upgrades. And while we’re on the subject, where’s IE 7? Talk about monopoly breeding complacency – CK)

Dec 2001/Jan 2002

Can’t stop the music

“The hot P2P networks at the moment (Grokster, KaZaA, Morpheus) all use a technology developed by a Dutch company called FastTrack. On the surface, a program like Morpheus functions similar to Napster, except you can share all types of files.”

May 2002

Next generation PDAs

“Aside from the Springboard expansion slot, the $999 Handspring Visor Pro’s standout features include an LED alarm option and a backlit, 16-greyshade screen.”

October 2003

Death of the local assembler?

“Does the PC Company’s demise signal the death of the local PC assembler? Not at all. There are many local assemblers who’ve been around for as long as this magazine, who keep their heads down and stick to a market they know.” (During April 2004, the Computer Manufacturers Association of New Zealand, or CMANZ, quietly dropped its guarantee to support members’ warranties in the event of a bankruptcy. The cost of the PC Company warranty bail-outs was cited as a factor. Now for the first time in a decade, there is no dominant local assembler – CK)

Well there you have it. Hopefully you can remember the rest. Now let’s check out what the next decade and a half hold in store.

Predicting the future is a risky business.

Even visionaries turn conservative when facing that challenge. But the four winners of this year’s Draper Prize from the US National Academy of Engineering are as qualified for the task as anyone.

Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, Charles “Chuck” Thacker and Butler Lampson were recently honoured for their groundbreaking research at Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre in California 30 years ago. Among their accomplishments: accurately envisioning the office of the future that most of us now use daily.

The four winners shared with PC World their views on the future of computing.

Only the beginning

“The computer revolution has only just begun,” Lampson says.

The four expect that several hot areas of research and innovation will become even more important when combined: wireless technologies, ever-higher-speed communications, speech recognition, improved search engines, and management of huge volumes of related information. These segments’ total impact could be much larger than the sum of their parts.

“I think wireless will make a fundamental difference in the way people use computers ... this will cause a wide variety of new devices to appear,” says Thacker, who worked with Lampson on Microsoft’s Tablet PC designs.

Tired of your PC’s messy, pesky cables? The solution may be wireless. “I think that short-range wireless will take over for nearly all connections between computers and peripherals, because it’s much more convenient,” Lampson says.

Next step: PCs fall apart

Look for the traditional PC – keyboard, screen, hard disk, network adapter — to become “disaggregated”. The pioneers expect that the components will become separated but will continue to work together. Many computer research groups at universities, and at private and corporate labs, are working on this assumption.

As wireless access becomes common and cheap, as chips and communications get faster, and as prices continue to drop, there is less reason to tie a disk to a keyboard and screen. The network will be everywhere, both wired and wireless.

A PC’s screen could also become whichever display device is closest. Current research includes such examples as flashing advertising panels in the supermarket checkout line. Or you may pause to check data on an office hallway’s video wall that displays a computer’s output using special electronic paints already in development. Another future display in the works is a laser-powered holographic system that shows text and video in the air using tiny programmable actuator chips called MEMS (micro electromechanical systems, already used in many commercial products). Or the display you use might be a piece of electronic paper that you crumple when you’re through.

Input and control could be via a wireless keyboard, a handwriting-recognition device, or an array of microphones embedded in the surface of your desk or your car’s dashboard. With voice recognition technology, such input devices are always listening for you to “wake up” the computer.

Embed and spread

Fundamentally, most computers may simply vanish from view, either through disaggregation or by becoming embedded into walls, appliances and even your clothes – or a combination.

“Although putting computers into things like toasters and refrigerators seems a little silly today, it is becoming increasingly less silly,” says Thacker. Indeed, some consumer electronics stores already sell early versions of computerised appliances.

Cars already have dozens or hundreds of computers built into them to control everything from the steering wheel’s angle to the DVD player, as well as to monitor petrol consumption or to power the wheels, brakes and suspension. Lampson wants to see that go a giant step further. He envisions cars that drive themselves, primarily for safety reasons.

Meanwhile, expect the way you get your telephone service to change, especially with the advent of voice over internet protocol (VoIP). The hold-up is the so-called last-mile problem: the expense of rewiring that last few hundred metres from the network in the street up to your door.

Qwerty talk

Also still early is speech-recognition technology. A number of products are out, but the technology is less effective when tasks are complex, such as correctly recognising and responding to voice commands. Even relatively simple speech dictation usually requires positioning a microphone near the mouth to cancel extraneous noise.

“The larger problem of speech [is that it] requires human-style commonsense reasoning to be pretty well done by machine,” Kay says. “I can’t think of any good reason why this won’t happen. It’s just a difficult problem to [deal with] outside of restricted contexts.”

Lampson concurs: “Getting the computer to understand what you say to it and behave intelligently is an entirely different matter” from speech recognition.

Self-aware computers

Even after 60 years of development, computers are still basically machines that can only crunch an endless stream of ones and zeros. Although several research projects are focusing on imbuing computers with reasoning and decision-making cognition – one has been under way for 20 years – that remains a holy grail for computer science.

I believe the children are the future

“I don’t think anything really important has happened yet,” Kay says. He predicts that changes will come as computing “co-evolves with the users, especially children, until a new kind of fluency will be able to happen. And then, those after us will see some big changes.”

Stuart Johnston

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