One size fits none, part 2

I’ve been working on computers for an incredibly long time.

My first computer was from before the era of floppy disks. Printers cost about the same as a four-bedroom house at the time, so it wasn’t a tool I used for writing. It was a toy.

My second computer could have a floppy drive added to it, but it loaded programs by plugging cartridges into a slot. Reasonably priced printers had come into existence, then, but they were dot matrix printers that produced very low resolution stuff.

My third computer had a floppy drive built in. At the time I bought it, the first consumer-priced 1 megabyte hard disks were just coming on the market. Yes, I said 1 MEGAbyte. And it wasn’t the first consumer-priced hard disk, it was the first that was that large. Two friends of mine who both worked in electronics stores got into an argument in which one claimed that no one would ever, ever need anything that big, the other claimed that lots of people would. They both thought I was insane for saying that anyone would ever need more.

Computers were still primitive, in other words.

Let me describe the process for spellchecking a document on that third computer:

1. Insert boot disk into floppy drive, turn on computer, wait for it to load the operating system from the disk (about one minute).

2. Remove the boot disk and insert the word processing program disk into the drive. Type some commands, wait for the program to open (another minute or two, depending).

3. Type a document. Pull out the program disk and insert a data disk. Save the document to the data disk.

4. Pull out the data disk. Insert the boot disk. Exit the word processing program. Wait a few seconds for the computer to verify that the boot disk was there.

5. Pull out the boot disk. Insert the spellchecking program disk one. Type a command. Wait for the disk to load the spell checking program (this wait was for about four minutes).

6. When prompted, pull out the spellchecking disk one, insert the data disk. Pick the document from a list displayed. Wait for the program to load the document.

7. When prompted, remove the data disk and re-insert the spellchecking disk one. Press a key. Wait for it to scan the document (this wait was for about two minutes).

8. The program then would begin showing you chunks of text with incorrect words highlighted, and offer you the option to leave it as is, or re-type it. It did not offer suggestions for how to spell it correctly. Press a key to go to the next word.

9. When it reached the end of the document, it would prompt you to remove spellchecking disk number one and reinsert your data disk. It would save the corrected document, then it would inform you that you had successfully spellchecked words beginning with letters from A-M. Would you like to spellcheck the same document for words beginning with letters from N-Z?

10. If you said Yes, it would prompt you to remove the data disk, and insert spellchecking disk two. Wait for it to load the second half of the spelling dictionary (this wait was for about three minutes).

11. When prompted, pull out the spellchecking disk two, insert the data disk, pick the document from the list (That’s right! It didn’t remember which document was already half-checked!). Wait for the program to load the document.

12. When prompted, remove the data disk and (this is the tricky bit!!!) re-insert spellchecking disk ONE. Not disk two, disk one. Watch it load something from disk one.

13. When prompted, remove spellchecking disk one and re-insert spellchecking disk TWO.

14. Repeat step 8.

15. Repeat step 9.

Now your document is mostly spell checked. I say mostly because, let’s say during the second half of the alphabet sweep it found the work “spplication.” And let’s say you realized that it was supposed to be “application” and you went in to correct the spelling, but you accidentally deleted both the s and the p, so what you typed in to replace “spplication” is “aplication.”

The half of the spellchecker that was running at that time doesn’t know how to spell any words beginning with a… or b, c, d, et cetera, through m, right?

It wouldn’t tell you that you had replaced one typo with another in that case. It was a rare case, but it could happen.

So for a small document of say a couple thousand words, spellchecking was a complicated procedure that took about 40 minutes, all told. And that was if you didn’t screw up and insert the wrong disk at any of the dozen-plus times that you had to insert and remove a disk. Depending on when you did that, sometimes it meant starting all over again.

A second floppy disk drive made that process considerably easier, as there was less swapping out of disks. Unfortunately, a second floppy drive cost almost as much as the original computer had, so I didn’t get around to buying a second drive for at least a year after getting the computer.

In order to use that computer, you had to understand a lot more about operating systems, computer logic, and the hardware than the typical user of modern computers. You had to be comfortable typing commands like EXEC APWTR2 to start a program. Or to format text by pressing the ESC key followed by another key in order to turn on Italics, then moving to the end of the word, press ESC and a different key to turn it off. And programs had no What-you-see-is-what-you-get mode. You had to just take it on faith that: “I read ♦IThe Hobbit♦N in fourth grade.” would print out as: I read The Hobbit in fourth grade.”

Very few people would put up with that. I well remember the strange looks I would get from people when I was trying to explain the process of just getting the program going and writing a simple paper. They would look at their familiar typewriter and tell me the computer seemed like a whole lot of fuss to do a very simple thing.

And that’s exactly how I find myself feeling sometimes when talking to people about some of their modern gadget and computer choices. “Yeah, I had to root the device and sideload some patches to get it to work.” Or “This open-source program does everything your page layout program does… except use real fonts, or allow you to actually layout text and pictures on the page without hacking some of the configuration files, inserting a lot of extra codes, and experimenting for about a half hour per page. It almost looks the same, see?”

I understand that they’re perfectly happy working that way. I understand that it meets their needs. I understand that they think their own time isn’t worth anything. I understand that producing something that looks like utter crap doesn’t bother them.

Those things are their choices to make, and I wouldn’t dream of forcing them to do otherwise.

Now, if they would only allow me to do the same. Because my time is very valuable, and I’d rather spend it producing something I love than trying to make a poorly designed and under-powered tool do it half-assed.

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