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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

the PC that marks the passage of time

On Saturday I finally brought the desktop PC we purchased in 1999 to the Wake County electronics recycling facility. Earlier this year I had sold our 1999 Mazda Protege, but an eleven year-old computer marks the passage of time differently from an eleven year-old car.

The PC in question -- let's call it Till4 -- was purchased from Micron, a company that sold a lot of PCs in the 1990s. Laptops were uncommon then. Till4 replaced Till3, a low-end Micron PC (with just 16 MB of RAM!) that we had purchased in 1996 to replace our Macintosh SE (Till2). Although I liked the Mac and still used one daily at Nortel in those days, we were concerned that educational software needed by Ryan and Eric might not run on a Mac. The late 1990s were a time when Apple was bleeding market share, and it was a reasonable fear.

Till1, incidentally, was a Commodore 64.

Anyway, back to Micron. Unfortunately they lost ground to Dell, Gateway, and Compaq in an increasingly commoditized desktop segment. Eventually Micron went out of business.

Till4 arrived with Windows 98. It was a little more reliable than Windows 95 and had supported more types of hardware, but otherwise the functionality was about the same. All four of us in the household had to share the same desktop and the same documents folder... a pain in the neck. If you've forgotten what Windows 98 looked like, this will remind you.

Shortly after we installed Till4, I signed up for the beta trial of Time Warner's RoadRunner cable modem service to replace our dial-up Internet service from MindSpring. EarthLink later acquired MindSpring, and dial-up has nearly faded from use -- although some MindSpring addresses survive on the Internet today.

Windows XP was released in 2001, and I immediately installed it so that each member of the household could have a separate logon experience.

Over time, of course, the processor speed and memory limitations of Till4 became apparent. As it went downhill, we began a migration to a multiple laptop household, with Till4 acting as a file server and print server. Eventually even this limited use was more than Till4 could bear, and I had to replace it. From that time forward, Till4 was used only for experiments like the Haiku operating system. Functionally, however, its electronics worked as designed on its final day.

Lifting it into the car reminded me of how heavy PCs once were! New desktops weigh less than half of models from the 1990s. I'm sure that power consumption has been reduced too.

The sight of Till4 resting forlornly on the concrete floor of the recycling facility was sad, in a way... especially since its original price tag was $2,771. Using CPI factors, that's $3,679 in current dollars. Ouch. One could buy a houseful of laptops with that money today.