25 years of PC

I am sorry this short memoir is not about political correctness 😉

About this time of year, 25 years ago, I used a computer for the first time. It was an IBM Portable with an external color monitor placed on top of it. It was jokingly referred to as "draggable" ("släpbar" in Swedish). It had two 5 1/4 " floppy bays, and no harddrive. It had MS-DOS. Thus, one had to start with A:\ and B:\ (and no C:\ of course) in a way that I found confusing and boring. I have happily long forgot all about that. I only used the PC for word processing, with Word Perfect.

It was not my computer, it stayed in a very small computer lab at a small academic institution. During the spring of 1988 I used it for writing an essay that, with references, turned into about 70 pages. I had divided it up in different files. The editing was of course a lot easier than the old handwrite/cut-and-paste/type/cut-and-paste/photocopy etc... But the editing in MS-DOS/Word Perfect still was quite annoying.

I had been "convinced" by some colleagues that the text interface of MS-DOS was the real thing. The small Macintoshes (Plus and SE dual floppy) on the other table across the room were not to be taken seriously. But the students using the Macs seemed quite happy and not dumber than the rest of us. As time went by, I kind of envied them the WYSIWYG technology. Handwriting and typing were both a kind of WYSIWYG. DOS was not so. The Mac users printed out their writings on an ImageWriter II, a matrix printer that did fonts. The DOS users had a common matrix printer, which only printed one font for all. The network was feet-and-floppy based. A networked laser printer was installed the following year, if I recall correctly.

During that spring I got more and more frustrated with DOS, but could not be arsed to rewrite the paper (as in text, not the actual paper). 25 years later, I still haven't learnt correct finger setting ... 😳

Even if MS-DOS was, from a text editing point of view, rather hopeless, I got a whiff of how powerful and useful computers can be, even on a desktop. Personal computers had been around for more than a decade, but in the late 1980s most people still did not use them, and even less, owned such machines . The computer revolutions have come in waves.

Gosh, 25 years... And I was way past my teens, the age when maybe most people start using computers. These days some seem to use tablets right after they are weaned.

I wonder what personal computing will look in 25 years? Let's hope it is more freedom and less centralization. More understanding and less technological somnambulism. More common sense and less trendiness. Time will tell. Or as we say in Swedish: "Den som lever får se", literally "S/he who lives will see/know". In French: "Qui vivra, verra".


  1. The first computer I ever used was a Commodore PET in a school computer lab (aka the back of the Maths classroom) way back in 1980. I was immediately fascinated by the fact that I could make this thing do stuff – any stuff, limited only by my imagination and competence. My first attempts at programming it are probably best left back in the mists of time, but the potential is something that has always stayed with me.

    Kids do have access to technology far earlier than when I was young, and they do take to it very easily. But I do find it concerning that a lot of tech these days seems to be far more oriented towards gadgets rather than computers.

    Gadgets are fine, but if all you ever see are devices with which you can only what the manufacturer has decided to allow you then much of the freedom that I took for granted when growing up will be lost.

    • Hello Paul!

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      You seem younger than me but have much longer computer experience.

      You came in from the hacking/tinkering side, to make computers do stuff. I came in from the non-tinkering (non-geek) side, as a text producer. The non-programmers in the earlier PC days were people like secretaries, writers, academics, accountants, and also graphics and animation a bit later.

      Gamers are somewhat in between, used to tinker with both hard- and software, even if not necessarily programming.

      Not that the above mentioned use-cases are mutually exclusive. But all computer users are in debt to hackers and tinkerers and such creative folks 🙂

      It is interesting that the freedom to change and make was taken for granted when you started. It reminds me of rms who has said there in practice was software freedom in the earlier days of computing. Later, with the proprietarization of software, freedom was something that had to be formulated and fought for.

      When I started using computers Microsoft was already dominating the PC OS market. I don’t remember Microsoft as such being talked about, but being a Mac user, I bumped into the MS fanbois over and over again for decades. The various IT departments where the same species. Monopoly minded.

      • Hi Mikael.

        I was lucky, I think. I was 11 when I first encountered a desktop computer and exactly the right age to be carried away by the UK’s home computer boom in the 1980s.

        I would certainly agree with you that we are all in debt to the hackers, tinkerers and everyone else who has looked at a device and wondered what else they could do with us. It’s that creative spark and desire to do more that has driven so much innovation over the past 30+ years and we do seem to be losing sight of it a bit. We’re now walking around with phones and tablets that are orders of magnitude more powerful than much larger machines of only a decade ago, and yet people seem increasingly willing to accept completely arbitrary limitations imposed by manufacturers.

        RMS is certainly right about freedoms of the past being lost with the proprietisation of software. As I understand it, a lot of this came down to the fact that the computer companies didn’t really care about software – they sold hardware, the hardware needed software to make it run but the software wasn’t seen as being (economically) valuable in its own right. It was only with the emergence of Microsoft that companies started to realise that they could build businesses around selling software.

        On the subject, Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it is well worth a read (and available as a free download from the site)

        • I must check out that book.

          Incidentally, yesterday I re-listened to Eben Moglen’s speech at re:publica last year http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKOk4Y4inVY

          He is always very interesting to listen to, and imho this is one of his best. It should be required for politicians, journalists and policymakers to listen to. Then they cannot say they didn’t know. Whether the majority of them care is another question. The cynical one likes surveillance and the naive ones likes to be “modern” with shiny things.

          • I think that the vast majority of politicians are naive rather than cynical. It’s worth bearing in mind that most of them (in the UK and US, at least, and I would assume elsewhere) are lawyers by training and career politicians – they don’t have the technical or scientific background to understand what they are proposing and are not interested enough to find out. Consequently, they tend to see technology either as something to be afraid of or the solution to everything – or both.

            It’s not just in areas of freedom and civil liberties that this has an effect. Every government IT project I’ve read about over the past 20+ years has been over-ambitious, poorly defined and an inevitable failure – by which time the minister responsible has either been moved to another department or been voted out of office.

            The solution, of course, is to try to put pressure on mainstream politicians to start spending time understanding these issues and be more aware of the consequences of their policies. This is where I think the various Pirate Parties are a good thing. I don’t agree with all of their positions but the fact that they exist and are winning seats in various elections demonstrates that there is a technically literate population out there that is willing to vote on these issues. If the Pirates continue to do well, then mainstream politicians will eventually have to start thinking seriously about these issues if they want to continue to be re-elected.

            I live in hope 😉

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