Skip to main content

Thankful for Computing Technology

IBM PC XT with green monochrome phosphor scree...
IBM PC XT with green monochrome phosphor screen and 10MB full height 5,25" hard disk drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
October 6, 2014 Deadline
November 2014 Issue

Thankful for Computing Technology

Computing technology touches every minute of our lives, and it has made life better for most of us. Though I am thankful for computers in general, some inventions have changed my life in dramatic ways. I am celebrating this Thanksgiving by listing the technologies for which I am most thankful.

Home Computers

The early Apple, Atari and Commodore computers I used in school and at home during the early 1980s ushered in the personal computer revolution. Costing a fraction of business computers, these devices empowered the young people who would launch the dot-com revolution. We learned to code in machine language, BASIC and Pascal on computers with memory measured in kilobytes, not megabytes or gigabytes.

When IBM decided, somewhat half-heartedly, to enter the “personal” computer market, it was far from a certain winner. For several years the pioneers continued to innovate. By the third generation of home computers, the Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and Apple Macintosh showed the future was graphical interfaces. Cheap, ubiquitous and popular with businesses, the IBM PC and its clones crushed the competition, but many of us owe our successes to the pioneering computer brands we met before the rise of DOS.

Portable Computers

They began as luggable crates, little more than regular computers crammed into cases with small screens. Portables evolved until they could be used on a laptop without burning your lap or crushing your knees. Laptop computers changed when, where and how I work.

My first laptop was heavy, slow and featured a monochrome screen. It had an 80286 Intel CPU and came with MS-DOS 3.3. It was a mediocre computer that changed my life because I could take it to school, work and home. Before that computer, I had to hope the same software was on each computer I used. Worse, I had to hope the computers had 3.5-inch floppy drives at a time when desktop computers rarely had the smaller drives.

Today, my wife and I have phones and tablets with thousands of times more power than that early laptop. These new wonders of computing allow us to surf the Web, respond to some emails and perform other simple tasks, but they cannot replace a laptop for me.

The MacBook Pro I use today matches a mid-range desktop computer. It has a fast Intel i7 CPU, 16 gigabytes of RAM, a terabyte solid-state drive and high-resolution screen. There’s nothing I need to do that the MacBook Pro cannot do, and do well.

The laptop has replaced desktop computers, and I’m thankful.

PDAs and Smartphones

When the Palm Pilot appeared, I knew the personal digital assistant (PDA) would change my life. Owning several of the devices, and using them long after Palm was no more, I came to rely on the calendar and task list for my daily schedule. I used my Palm Tungsten E3 until the second battery failed.

Smartphones are the merger of phones with PDAs. Palm offered a smartphone line, the Treo, as its last gasp before Hewlett-Packard bought (and closed) the company. Today, I own an iPhone 6 and rely on it for the same basic tasks at which the Palm excelled. The calendar, task list and note apps keep my life on schedule. I only have four phone numbers stored on the device, no music, and four basic games. Yes, they are the same games I had on my Palm Pilot: chess, solitaire, mahjong and Scrabble.

When I used a traditional planner and notepad, I struggled to track my appointments and the hours worked on various tasks. As a consultant, I bill clients for my time, so forgetting to indicate when I leave a client site could cost me money. Today, I adjust calendar entries as I leave appointments, easily and quickly tracking my hours.

I am thankful that great minds invented the PDA and the smartphone.

The Internet

More than any other technology, the Internet has changed our lives.

Although the term “Internet” first appeared in a 1974 document explaining the Transmission Control Program/Internetworking Protocol (TCP/IP), it wasn’t until 1988 that companies agreed to “internetwork” their servers. Before the computing industry standardized how information was sent, received and interpreted over networks, the commercial services were isolated islands. Companies marketed their online services based on unique content and features.

During the 1980s and 90s, millions of users paid monthly membership fees to American Online (AOL), CompuServe, Prodigy and also used local bulletin board service (BBS) networks. An AOL user couldn’t send messages to a CompuServe user until the two adopted the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP).

Today, we take all the magic of networking standards for granted. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes to deliver Web pages, files, mail and video. It is easy to forget that there was no graphical Web in 1990.

The Internet has shaped my professional life since the 1980s. I was working at the University of Southern California’s Computing Center in 1989. USC was a major hub on the all-text Internet at that time and I learned how the Internet worked as I wrote the “USCMail” application. I saw hints of the future, and knew I wanted to be a part of it. My future wife and I operated a dial-up BBS during the early 1990s. In 2006, I entered a doctoral program to study online education. Without the Internet, I wouldn’t be a professor at a major research university. As my friends and family know, I am thankful for this career path.

Living Computing History

I grew up during what might be the most exciting era in computing history, and it has been a wonderful experience. From entering BASIC programs into a Commodore VIC-20 with 1.5K of RAM to designing complex Web applications, I’ve not only observed but also participated in history.

Looking back at the technologies that continue shaping my life, I am thankful that I was born before the personal computer revolution so I could experience these wonders firsthand.


Popular posts from this blog

What I Studied in Graduate School

Lower case ‘a’ from Adobe Caslon Pro, superposed onto some guides. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Asked to summarize my research projects...

Curiously, beyond the theses and dissertation, all my work is in economics of media and narrative. I ask what works and why when offering stories to audiences. What connects with an audience and can we model what audiences want from narratives? (Yes, you can model data on narratives and what "sells" and what wins awards and what nobody wants.)

Yet, my degree research projects all relate to design of writing spaces, as knowing what works is also key to knowing what could be "sold" to users.

MA: How poor LMS UI/UX design creates online spaces that hinder the writing process and teacher mentoring of students.

Also: The cost of LMS design and compliance with legal mandates for usability.

Ph.D: The experiences of special needs students in online settings, from commercial spaces to games to learning spaces and which spaces are best desig…

Comic Sans Is (Generally) Lousy: Letters and Reading Challenges

Specimen of the typeface Comic Sans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Personally, I support everyone being able to type and read in whatever typefaces individuals prefer. If you like Comic Sans, then change the font while you type or read online content. If you like Helvetica, use that.

The digital world is not print. You can change typefaces. You can change their sizes. You can change colors. There is no reason to argue over what you use to type or to read as long as I can use typefaces that I like.

Now, as a design researcher? I'll tell you that type matters a lot to both the biological act of reading and the psychological act of constructing meaning. Statistically, there are "better" and "worse" type for conveying messages. There are also typefaces that are more legible and more readable. Sometimes, legibility does not help readability, either, as a type with overly distinct letters (legibility) can hinder word shapes and decoding (readability).

One of the co…

MarsEdit and Blogging

MarsEdit (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Mailing posts to blogs, a practice I adopted in 2005, allows a blogger like me to store copies of draft posts within email. If Blogger, WordPress, or the blogging platform of the moment crashes or for some other reason eats my posts, at least I have the original drafts of most entries. I find having such a nicely organized archive convenient — much easier than remembering to archive posts from Blogger or WordPress to my computer.

With this post, I am testing MarsEdit from Red Sweater Software based on recent reviews, including an overview on 9to5Mac.

Composing posts an email offers a fast way to prepare draft blogs, but the email does not always work well if you want to include basic formatting, images, and links to online resources. Submitting to Blogger via Apple Mail often produced complex HTML with unnecessary font and paragraph formatting styles. Problems with rich text led me to convert blog entries to plaintext in Apple Mail and then format th…