Apparently it’s the 20th anniversary of Windows 95. Love it or hate it (most will say they hate it) it was an important development in home computing. Yes, Apple/Commodore/Xerox et al did it first but they didn’t open up the market the way Microsoft did. In many ways that was what MS always did best;take someone elses idea and put a marketing juggernaut behind it.
I actually find myself having fond memories of the old girl. I had been an Amiga user up until that point. Like many Amiga users seeing the end of the dream, I had eyed up Apple Macintosh as my new platform but abandoned that when I discovered it was expensive, shit and had no cli. At the same time I had been introduced to the delights to be had at computer fairs (remember those) and the history of the PC via a wonderful channel 4 series called Triumph of the Nerds.
At a few of these local fairs in and around Belfast I grabbed myself all the necessary components and assembled my first PC. I got a copy of MS-DOS 6 and Windows 95 from a friend and installed it. One thing we don’t worry too much about these days are driver nightmares. Most hardware has pnp drivers within Windows, and those that don’t can be downloaded online. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think about IRQs, but back in the early and mid 90s having to manually assign interrupts to hardware was something we had to do and conflicts were all too common. The drivers mostly came on 3.5″ floppy disks and if you wanted an update you might have to phone an international BBS if the company wasn’t on the internet.
It was during the time of Windows 95 that this all began to change. Despite Microsofts initial failure to recognise the importance of the internet the market took Windows 95 on as a platform standard. During it’s tenure CD-ROM took off and the internet exploded. Universal plug n play, despite some initial stumbles, would eventually kill off the pain of having to manually set up hardware drivers. the PC moved from the office and computer lab into the home and by the time Windows 98 came along the world of the personal computer had changed almost unrecognisably.
Over the past month many have been installing Windows 10, what Microsoft have claimed will be the last version of Windows. The PC world has changed even more since the days of Win 9x. The need for software market releases has gone, to be replaced by perpetual rolling updates. Always-on broadband means no need to fiddle with physical media like floppy disks or CD-ROMs. Indeed most people don’t even need to think about driver downloads or software updates. Tick a box in your operating system software and these things will all just be taken care of while you sleep.
I sometimes wonder what someone from the mid 90s would think if they saw a PC from the mid 2010s. To an old tech geek like me it’s the recent past but I’ve seen it all develop. A lot has changed:
In the mid 90s it was universally beige boxes and 4:3 CRT monitors. Seriously, no-one had a PC that didn’t look like it had been trapped in a room with a chain-smoker since 1971. The likes of Alienware and their glowing insect-like cases were a few years away and flat plasma or LCD monitors were still something from Star Trek.
Mice had rubber balls in them. Seriously. Little rubber balls that rolled around and gathered up lint and dead skin. It would cause them to judder after a while and we;d have to open it’s belly,take the ball out and wipe the poop off it. Mouse poop. We called it mouse poop. We though it was funny.
Average hard drive sizes were below 1GB. Windows took up about 20-30MB. the rest a could be used for games and spreadsheets. Because we exchanged data using floppy disks and slow dial-up modems we wouldn’t even dream about downloading entire movies and albums. mp3 compression had only just been developed and even with that a song would take half an hour to download. digital movies just weren’t worth the effort. we got excited about mpeg encoded full motion video on CD-ROMs. It looked awful, even compared to VHS which was still the standard at the time.
Email was the be all and end all of electronic communication. We still wrote letters. Mobile phones were still luxury items, owned by business people. They didn’t know how to text anyone. they just carried them around to look important. Even the first popular IM client, ICQ, was a few years away. You took time over an email and delighted when you received one. Spam wasn’t a thing. There were no social networks, you still mainly met people down the pub or at the racetrack. It was all all young and shiny and innocent.
It’s now 2015, when you can have a black slab in your pocket 20x more powerful than a Windows 95 PC. It mostly works when you get it. Nothing needs to be set up beyond inputting your personal details and letting it run your life.
We’ve entered a stage where the PC market is starting to dwindle. The need for everyone to have a PC has gone with the majority of people getting those needs met by their phones, games consoles, wrist watches or automobiles. It’s become commonplace for the non-beige box in the corner of the living-room to go unused for days or even months as media is consumed and electronic communication needs met via hand-held devices or set-top boxes.
The “Cloud” has brought back the concept 60s mainframe, except with handheld wireless devices replacing wired terminals. User data is more often being voluntarily stored on remote servers removing the need for local storage on optical or magnetic discs. While those that work with technology or don’t trust their data in the hands of others will always see a need for a PC in the home, it’s becoming less and less important for the average user.
In many ways the 20th anniversary of the software that put the PC in the home sees the end of that era. The end of the home PC era.