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ISSUE 519: The high-tech office- Oct 5 1999


High tech has come far in a very fast 10 years

Fans of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show may remember the Wayback Machine, which allowed viewers to jump to some memorable date in history. Now we are going to put the High Tech Office into the Wayback Machine and take a little peak back at high tech history when BIV launched its first edition in 1989.

Ten years ago, when 386-based PCs had been available for a couple of years, most businesses were still buying 286 models with perhaps a full meg of RAM and a 40- to 80-meg drive. All were available for $4,000 or so from an expanding number of clone manufacturers.

The first version of Windows was released way back in late 1985, to general indifference. The pundits predicted that the masses would soon be migrating to IBM/Micro-
's joint OS/2 (which, in fact, as a now solo IBM project garnered a mere 0.5 per cent of PC operating environments shipped worldwide in 1998). Windows' big breakthrough was yet to come, with Windows 3.0 in 1990 release and Windows 3.1 in 1992 (a version that still accounted for 1.1 per cent of 1998 sales).

Meanwhile, most business users used DOS software, learning one set of key combinations for the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, while memorizing Shift F7 = Print in Word Perfect. Lots of smaller companies made a good living selling menuing software to allow DOS users to avoid the dreaded C:> command prompt as much as possible.

Microsoft was an important company -- most computers relied on MS-DOS, for example, and products such as MS Word and Excel were bestsellers on Apple's Macintosh. In the much larger PC market, they were perennial also-rans. Boy wonder Bill Gates had made the cover of Time Magazine, but he was far from being the world's richest man. His company wasn't even the biggest software company. In one of the few cases of being ahead of its time, Microsoft was pioneering CD-ROMs -- releasing the Microsoft Bookshelf CD, though hardly anyone bought it.

Macs had evolved. They retained their ease of use and managed to avoid the quirks and limitations, such as the 640 kb memory barrier, that (along with the DOS prompt) made working with PCs so much fun. A 10-year-old Mac remains a much more modern-seeming machine than an equally old PC. Still, that era's Macs were more expensive than contemporary PCs and while they had a corps of devotees, mainly graphic artists, students and teachers, they were not often seen in business settings. (Has anything changed in this regard?).

There was an Internet, but it was the private club of university re-
searchers and the U.S. military and anything hinting of commerce was explicitly forbidden.

Big businesses sometimes had
private e-mailing systems, while some forward-thinking individuals subscribed to online services such as CompuServe, working with yet another arcane command-line system, while communicating over the phone lines at 2400 bps. Yet, users got a tantalizing taste of the coming online world -- e-mail and chat, online games, airline reservations and even online shopping -- but all in text-only mode. That was about to change.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee was starting a project that, by 1990, would propose the name "World Wide Web" for a standard using hypertext to store and transmit information across the Internet. That, along with the U.S. National Science Foundation decision to open the Internet for commercial use a few years later was to set
the stage for the Internet explosion of the mid-'90s.

The pundits of 1989 missed predicting the domination of Microsoft and its Windows software and were still missing the impact of the Internet as late as 1994 or 1995.

No one then imagined that the end of the next decade would pose
a problem for software and hardware. There's no way I'd dare to try to guess what the High Tech Office of 2009 will look like! *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan