A Trip Down Computing Memory – And How Far We’ve Come

I was talking with a friend the other day, about the “prehistoric” days of computing, about things we did in our youth tinkering with PCs, which ignited our interest in computers. And apart from this proving a fascinating “walk down memory lane”, these reminiscences got me thinking about some of the features of modern Operating Systems we take for granted today.

My earliest experience was on an Apple IIe, with a Z80 card installed, which allowed me to run what seemed to me at the time, an incredibly powerful Operating System, CP/M. And the highlight of using CP/M was what I thought was a very sophisticated Word Processor, Wordstar.

For those not familiar with this now ancient program, here’s a fantastic video from Youtube, which provides a quick overview of the use of Wordstar. And although I can’t be certain, given the “naming” of the drive used, I suspect it is actually being launched (very slowly) from a “floppy disk” – and for those who don’t know what they are – yes they’re the things that look like the Save Button in modern programs, that no one uses any more!

What was special about Wordstar? We’re talking the early ’80s here, and Wordstar was one of the first Word Processors to offer WYSIWYG word processing – albeit in a “relatively” unsophisticated way, on a very low-resolution “green screen”.

Nowadays, we are much more familiar with “window” based operating systems, and sophisticated mouse-capable, menu-driven environments, where fonts can be changed dynamically – and visibly. But back in the early ’80s what Wordstar offered was quite revolutionary, particularly given it was available on relatively modest hardware.

One of the things that sticks in my memory provides a great reminder of how far we’ve come. How you configured Wordstar for your printer. I had what I thought was an incredibly special, high-quality, colour dot-matrix printer. It had an odd multi-colour ribbon, which allowed it to print different colours by combining the colours on the ribbon. To specify the various colours, italic font, bold font, strikethrough font etc, you needed to send specific “escape sequences” to the printer to enable and disable those features.

And Wordstar enabled that configuration, but in a quite remarkable and some would say “primitive” way. There was a configuration guide in the manual – still available as a “scanned” PDF – which nominated the “program locations” in Wordstar that held the escape sequence to “turn bold on”, and the corresponding escape sequence to “turn bold off”, and so on.

To set those configuration settings, you actually changed the Wordstar program – patched it – changed the bytes within the program – with the values required to configure your specific printer. Purchase a new printer? You’d need to re-configure your version of Wordstar to match your new printer … or perhaps keep two versions of Wordstar if you actually used two different types of printers, at different times. To do this, you’d load Wordstar into memory – yes the program all had to fit into memory – and I think you used a program called debug – could be wrong about that – and changed the physical byte locations appropriately – then saved the program image back again – with the changed byte values, and that was your “configured” version of Wordstar. Naturally enough, no executable signing in those days!

OK I hear you say … This is all ancient history … 40 years ago … stuff from my childhood. Yes it is, but it’s also fascinating to think about all the things we take for granted in today’s Operating Systems and environments … and perhaps I will start to show my “Apple fanboy” credentials here.

The most significant contrast I would draw is the remarkable level of “hardware abstraction” we find in all Operating Systems and environments today. I predominantly use Windows and Mac OS these days. Windows in my “workaday” life, and Mac OS personally. I am continually amazed by the capabilities of these modern operating systems to detect hardware transparently and efficiently today.

I’m more intimately familiar with Mac OS, and considered the fact that I have plugged into my various Macs over the last six months, monitors from Dell, Samsung, Benq and LG, Printers from HP, Brother and Epson, Keyboards from Logitech and Microsoft. And did I need to provide a driver for any of these? No. Does Mac OS recognise these devices, and know the Manufacturer, Model and Capabilities – particularly in the case of displays – the optimal resolution for each? Yes.

This sort of behaviour we take for granted. But it really is pretty remarkable. Think about say 10 years ago? In the Mac OS world – it was a very closed environment, with only a limited array of supported devices. If it wasn’t from Apple – no way Jose! Then a few select additional devices were supported, but just a few. And now, the flood gates have opened, and there’s almost no 3rd Party Devices that Mac OS doesn’t recognise.

And in the Windows World – well – we can all remember the joy of the “Device not Recognized” message (was that it?) … And hunting for drivers on the Internet – Does the manufacturer site have a newer Driver or one that fits better? Is it for my version of Windows? Or hoping that you could find a driver that was close enough that it would work with the device in question?

Today, Windows is soooo much better. I spend a lot of time working at home with my Windows Work Laptop, which has happily discovered all of the printers on my home network, and implicitly installed the correct drivers for each. So that’s an incredible improvement over a few years ago.

So my recollections of those early days with Wordstar – yes it was decades ago – got me thinking about just what sophistication goes into the Operating Systems and environments we work with today. When I plug a new device into my Mac, the Operating System interrogates the device, works out who makes it, what model it is, understands it capabilities, and it just works. Similarly these days too for Windows.

I know we should probably just take that for granted, as I’m sure many do, and most of all that’s how it should work, but it is still pretty remarkable, and for that I’m grateful, and I think we all should be.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s