X-List: Retro Stuff From Computing Days Gone By

I’m not a “computer geek” or a “techie” or anything, but I’ve been working with computers for my whole life.  I remember Father’s computer having those punch-card systems and giant office mainframes.  My first computer was an AST 386 with a working lock and a funky “Turbo” button that was the solution to all system slowdown.  This was a time when 1.44 MB diskettes were all the rage, parallel ports were the industry standard, and Windows 3.11 was for wimps: real computer users used DOS.

I guess the aging blahs are coming days too early (I’m turning 24 and I have rheumatism, sue me), to the point that I’m thinking about abandonware, obsolete software, and things that used to be revolutionary.  This week’s X-List is all about the good times, when computing was made of pure badass.

1.  Word Processing: Wordstar

I first learned how to type with a portable Olympia typewriter, but I fell in love with writing at such a young age because of Wordstar.  There was “blue Wordstar” (Wordstar 7, I think), but nothing beats the original monochromatic modes and moods of Wordstar 4.0.  It was quick, easy to use, and basically had only one font type and one font size supported by every Epson dot-matrix printer available at the time.  They eventually managed to integrate boldface with Wordstar, but I don’t remember italics included in older versions of the program.

What I love about WordStar is that it’s a no-nonsense program.  Thanks to Microsoft Office (and that office suite we all like, Microsoft Works), we all have those fancy-colored three-dimensional crappola called WordArt that found its way to every computer-printed report in elementary school.  Oh, and Comic Sans, too.  I think kids today could benefit a lot from the discipline and patience required of Wordstar: the program that taught me, in more ways than one, how to write with diligence in mind.

2.  Spreadsheets: Symphony

Sure, people remember things like Quattro and Lotus 1-2-3, but those were things you’ll use in high school Computer Education courses where you’re taught the rudimentary elementary basics (I just need to spell that out) of FOXRUN database programming before you can move on to note cards in Windows 3.11.  There’s no other spreadsheet that I know of during that time that combines spreadsheet tasks and multiple fonts than Symphony with Allways.  That program introduced the things we now know as “Arial” and “Times New Roman.”

Symphony was a cool program that had everything you needed for a spreadsheet, from invoices to annual reports.  The limitations of old-fashioned Wordstar only served to make Symphony’s Allways function shine: now you can format your papers and documents by importing the document into the Symphony spreadsheet, move to Allways, and work your way around three fonts.  It was daunting and taxing then, so we decided to just write requirements in Symphony anyways.

3.  Disk Management: XTree Gold

XTree is the predecessor to Windows Explorer, Konqueror, and whatever that’s called on a Mac (sorry, I’m not a Mac guy).  XTree was this built-in file management utility that can make you do whatever you want, from executing programs to pruning file folders.  It was also an excellent way to “accidentally” search for things like old DOS porn, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  This program did away with the technicalities of the DOS command prompt, since almost every basic command can be accessed with the shortcut keys.

XTree may be properly called DOS Explorer.  It was a particularly useful disk management tool because it gave you an overview of how much space you had on your computer, how many files there are stored, and you can move around with cursor keys (or the small block that served as a cursor icon).  XTree was so good that for a while, Windows was completely and totally optional.  Then came Windows 95… but that’s another story.

4. Petiks: Banner Mania

Ah, Broderbund Banner Mania: the program that literally invented petiks for generations to come.  Whether it’s a celebratory banner for some event or achievement, or if you just want to play around with ingenious designs and waste printer ink and banner paper, Banner Mania was the program for you.  I like to think that Banner Mania is that one single program designed to make something useful while wasting time.  Hence the bedrooms of our childhood were decorated with stuff made in this Broderbund classic.

The great thing about Banner Mania was that it was exciting even for computers with black-and-white monitors, but it looked damn good on EGA and VGA.  Not even h3lLuR p0wH kids who make those blinking GIF images of “klanzz” at the television text chat channel can make something as good as a 256-color image with Banner Mania.  Banner Mania even got better with the introduction of colored ink ribbons and bubble jet printers.  Yet not all good things are meant to last, and the excitement that was Banner Mania gave way to crappier things like InDesign.

5. Games: Shufflepuck Cafe

I have a soft spot for things like the Commander Keen series or Raptor: Call of the Shadows, but Shufflepuck Cafebrings back good memories to people who have played it.  Shufflepuck was basically air hockey, where you progressed through different levels versus different players hitting a puck across the table.  The glass-breaking effects were pretty cool for their time, too.

Something like Shufflepuck is now relegated to the Interwebs as freely-downloadable abandonware, but there were few games that fit into those giant floppies, or if your dad “pirates” some of the games along with the original Tandy versions of Test Drive.  I did manage to beat this game when I was little, but not without expanding my playing paddle to the entire width of the table.  It was fairly easy to beat Eneg, but for kids, Biff is a little tough to beat.

I think you too have your own memories of computers from days gone by.  Whether it’s the original Warcraft games or publications made in Aldus, or something as current as WordPerfect or recollections of SkiFree, you’ll probably agree with me that there’s no such thing as old things getting old.

Yet if you’re in your early 20s and you start remembering things like these you’ll probably die sooner than you think..

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