Living With 1990 Tech for a Day – Part 1
Posted by Alex Cruickshank
A discussion that sprang from IDG Connect's Editorial Director, Martin Veitch, writing about 'Slow tech' led to a question: What would it be like to live for a day using only technology from 1990? We decided to find out.
A step back in time
It's often said that visitors to New Zealand should put their watches forward 12 hours and back 20 years. That still leaves me four years shy of my 1990 target.
When it comes to getting into retro character, living in rural NZ does have its advantages. For example, old cars are everywhere: they're cheap, practical and, unlike a new Jaguar, you can use them to transport rolls of barbed wire or a sick sheep without worrying about damage and mess.
I slide into the driver's seat of a 1990 Honda Civic, trying to imagine that it brand new. Given the holes in the carpet and the distressing smell of mould, this isn't easy. I bribe my daughters to clean it and buy new floor mats. Better. The stereo is the original Blaupunkt tape/radio, which adds authenticity.
"I'll take it," I think to myself, before remembering that I already own it. I cruise off down the road, arm out of the window, imagining admiring glances at my brand new set of wheels. A pedestrian mistakes my self-satisfied grin for something else and flicks the V-sign at me, so I stop grinning and wind up the window.
Clothes next. In 1990 I'd have been wearing old blue jeans, Hi-tec Silver Shadow trainers and a faded T-shirt that might once have been purple. I know; how embarrassing is that? I look inside my wardrobe. Yes, all still present and correct. That was easy.
If there were mobile phones available in 1990 I certainly didn't have one. I switch mine off and leave it in a drawer, which gives me a combined feeling of relief, freedom and vulnerability. I hadn't realised how attached to it I'd become.
Sense of sound
I can't evoke the right era without music. I own a 1986 Denon amp but the Kef speakers are from 1997 and the music sources are all firmly 21st century, so that's out. The purchase of a 1990-era Philips ghetto-blaster is made easily – and cheaply, because it doesn't work. But it turns out that only the mains transformer has blown. Firing 12V through the battery terminals brings it crackling back to life. As well as the radio, it has a CD player and twin tape decks. This is luxury! Or would be, if I owned any CDs or tapes.
Since my music collection is in digital form, I have no choice but to rely on the radio. Here I'm in luck. Large swathes of the New Zealand population are conservative in their musical tastes: they like what they know and they know what they like. Within moments, Fleetwood Mac's Seven Wonders drifts over the airwaves, Stevie Nicks' dulcet tones providing the perfect backdrop to my retro computing experience.
Then doubt strikes me as I seem to recall that the song was from the late 80s, not 1990. The doubt vanishes when I realise that without the internet I have no easy way to check. Invincible in my enforced ignorance, I hum along. Stevie's soon replaced by Rick Astley, which is as cruel now as it was back then. Dee-Lite's Groove is in the Heart cheers me up immensely, and I believe it was released in 1990. Now I'm in the right mood.
Shopping for computers
I'm undertaking this challenge from the perspective of a journalist with an article to write and submit, because that's true. With my 'new' car, 'new' clothes and 'new' sound system, I feel ready to tackle the writing technology of 1990. And that's where the problems begin.
I don't want this report to descend into a nerd-fest, so here's the short version. NZ's remoteness and small population mean that 1990-era computers are hard to find even on auction sites – and they're expensive. A realistic 1990 spec might be a 386DX/40 with 1MB RAM, a 40MB hard drive, 3.5-inch 1.44MB floppy drive, 14-inch CRT monitor, keyboard and mouse. Or possibly even lower, as such machines were expensive: even in 1992 I could only afford a 286/16.
I can't find any 386 PCs on Trade Me. Even on eBay they're pricey, doubly so with international shipping. 1995 machines are cheap, but the extra five years makes a big difference. A Commodore Amiga would be affordable, but they weren't widely used as business machines, unless your business was graphic design or music-making.
An Apple Macintosh SE would fit the bill since they were made up until 1990. Unfortunately the only ones for sale in NZ at the time of writing are either broken or stupidly expensive. Furthermore, since I don't own a newer Mac with a floppy drive, building a system disk for an SE and getting it to work with a printer might be beyond me. They weren't popular journalists' tools, either. I'd prefer an old IBM PS/2 or clone.
But what would I do if I bought one? Assuming it even worked, I'd need a boot floppy, which requires a USB floppy drive for my main PC to create a DOS disk from an image file. That's achievable, if I can find a USB floppy drive and a disk. Then boot up into DOS and...? WordPerfect, that's the answer. I still have a copy of 5.1 somewhere, and that was released in late 1989. So I'd boot the machine into DOS, swap floppies and install WordPerfect, then I'd be able to write.
The office connection
How would I file my copy? In 1990 a 9600-baud modem would have been a typical communications device. I might have dialled into a BBS but they've all gone. A few ISPs in NZ offer dial-up internet access today, but in 1990 there was no internet, so that's no use. CompuServe? CIX? Even with the right equipment, the service nodes I'd have dialled into in 1990 have vanished. My only method of output is the floppy drive, but I doubt anyone at IDG Connect has a computer with one of those.
A-ha! (No, not the band; that's definitely 80s, though now I'm humming Take on me). I glance around and spy an old electric typewriter from 1988-ish. I bought it for my daughters, then discovered it had a Centronics printer port attached. So I could write the article, print it out and fax it to the office. That's if I can find a fax machine, and if the office has one too.
All of which is irrelevant unless I can find a working 1990 PC. My wife's bridge club members, some of whom claim to have fought in the war (though they don't say which one) have none. I try contactingvintage computer collectors in the Wellington area, but with no luck.
If I'd wanted to write about the 1980s I'd have been overwhelmed with loans of ZX Spectrums, Atari STs, Commodore 64 machines and whatnot, but nobody around here has a working PC from 1990. It seems those computers have fallen through the gaps: too ubiquitous to be considered collectable at the time, but too fragile and quickly outdated to survive until today.
Plan B... and then plan C
How about emulation? It's not really cheating, because that's how computing museums run many of their exhibits. Older technology tends to be fragile and unreliable at the best of times, so emulation keeps the exhibits intact while still providing an authentic retro experience.
I give it a try, using DOSBox to run WordPerfect 5.1 in its native environment. To replicate the blurry effect of an ancient CRT screen, I cover a large flat-screen monitor with a piece of cardboard in which I've cut a 13-inch rectangle, and borrow my wife's prescription glasses. Minutes into using this tiny, out-of-focus screen I have a headache, which is just as it should be.
One cheap USB-parallel adapter and 300 lines of code* later, I 'convert' the old 1988 typewriter into a printer that types text files at 100wpm. Et voilà! A working retro 1990 office system.
No. This is cheating. I start thinking laterally. 'Technology' doesn't just mean computers. In 1990 the majority of offices wouldn't have had PCs at all...