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Reeling in the Years

  • August 30, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Anyone who has ever moved probably has a few cardboard boxes where the contents are largely forgotten. And chances are every so often those boxes are mined in search of an item that one remembers having owned some time ago. Chances are, too, that the expedition is interrupted by encounters with things long forgotten.

Last week I dove into the boxes, looking for the shop manual for an ancient British Seagull outboard motor. Early in the process I found, of all things, a copy of the April 11, 1989 PC Magazine. I made the mistake of opening it (pausing for a second to consider that somewhere there is probably a talented youngster writing usable code for Linux who was not born when the magazine was published). Eleven years isn't a long time, except to the very young and the computer industry--which would be a redundant statement except that in 1989 PC Magazine considered the industry to be pretty well grown up and mature.

And in some ways it was, or else still isn't.

The magazine is shot through with screenshots of Windows (286 and 386--they were separate products then) and OS/2 Presentation Manager. Anyone who thinks the Linux desktop is primitive should see the sheer ghastliness of these early efforts to put a GUI atop DOS and its derivatives. Much of the magazine, in fact, is devoted to these two bright new hopes for the PC world: 'Is it too soon to switch to OS/2, as we all shall be doing eventually, with Borland's SideKick the only existing PM application? Will Windows ever be good for anything except a runtime environment for applications like the exciting new Corel Draw! 1.0?'

DOS Under Unix
It's easy to forget it, but in 1989 Unix was as old as DOS is now. And while I would have expected it in something like Byte, I was surprised to see two stories in PC Magazine having to do with Unix.

The first was a cover story that went on for 29 pages. It dealt with the fact that, now that there are cheap 80386 processors available, the PC is actually a useful Unix platform. But those upgrading from DOS wouldn't want to leave all those DOS applications behind--especially when Unix, with the proper utilities, could run several DOS apps at once, through the exciting new virtual 8086 mode available in these hot new chips.

The proper utilities were the subject of the story: VP/ix and Merge 386 were Unix applications (costing $1,395 and $1,595, respectively, for site licenses) that would create DOS environments under Unix. They would not, readers were warned, allow the use of applications that sought to use the 286 or 386 protected modes, nor would they tolerate nonstandard hardware calls. And performance of timing-sensitive applications--though in that more polite day they described it differently--sucked. But these DOS environments worked for the most part.

The chances are, at this very moment you have on your machine the programs DOSEMU and WINE. Both are still under development, especially the latter, but they work for the most part (the latter only some of the time, but it's getting better). And you would pay $1,395 or $1,595 for them only if you included the computer itself in the price--they come with most Linux distributions, and they're easily downloaded for free. It's funny, though, that a modern Unix/Linux publication could with no apologies whatsoever do a thoroughly modern piece on the current level of DOS support. All that has changed is the price.

(Then again, in 1989 you could pay close to $1,000 for a copy of Unix, though for $100 you could get Coherent, the Unix clone. Things cost more back then: an ATI EGA Wonder video card cost, at discount, $229; an external 2400 bps Hayes Smartmodem was a paltry $450; and for those whose storage needs had grown to insane proportions, a Seagate ST 251-1 40 MB MFM drive could be had for $448, cables and controller extra. Someone storing all the data for the government or something could buy a Priam 230 MB RLL drive for $1,975. Buying a 386-16 motherboard for your old PC, with a generous 1 meg of RAM aboard, would set you back a minimum of $1,500. And so on. I actually bought my first 386 machine a few months before the magazine appeared. I purchased it for $1,895 on--I'm not kidding--the Home Shopping Network. Not a bad deal, really, with its 40 MB Miniscribe 3053, two megs of memory which at that time was about $200/meg, and genuinely crappy CGA monitor, which I think is in one of those aforementioned boxes. It had a Motorola badge on the front, but when once I phoned Motorola tech support I heard puzzled sounds on the other end, and was passed from person to person, until I got to somebody who said to others in the room--I'm still not kidding--"Hey! Here's the guy who got the 386 that works!" Which it did for all of that year and most of the next; then it just died, kaput, questions neither asked nor answered.)

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