IT of the 1990s—we’ve come a long way, baby

With a new decade ahead of us, along with its expected technology challenges, it’s good to reflect on how far we’ve come.

A trip down memory lane with the IT we loved in the 1990s

With a new decade on the horizon, there’s some value—and a little humor—looking back at some of the primordial technology that got us to where we are today. Amidst the rapid pace of change in information technology in recent years, it wasn’t too long ago that today’s IT pros were dealing with balky modems, MS-DOS and monochrome monitors. Perhaps it’s only by realizing how far we’ve come in the span of 25 years that we can appreciate the blessings that today’s computing technology can potentially bring to the healthcare industry in the next decade.

The genesis of this column was a blog written by Sascha Neumeier for Paessler this past summer. Here we summarize some of the tech nostalgia dredged up by Neumeier, as well as responses of dozens of readers who responded to his initial post. And, stirred by the memories, the staff of HDM adds in a few of our own technology recollections from those not-so-long-ago years. And a haunting thought—will some future blog writer in the 2040s look back just as quaintly at the technology that leaves us agog today?

The computer of your dreams

For computer users in the 1990s, the numbers 286, 386 and 486 were the gauge for measuring computing prowess. Those processors were teamed with incredible low amounts of RAM and hard drive capacity. One respondent to the blog reminisced about his early days, “I started out well before the advent of the Internet with an IBM XT PC clone with a 20Mb MFM hard drive and 640KB of memory, plus extended memory,” he recalls. “An upgrade to an IDE hard drive was a miracle.” At that time, many thought there were limits to the processing speeds computers would ever attain. “I was on a PC hardware course that said computers wouldn't be able to get much faster than the then 175mhz speed as they would then interfere with radio stations,” one commenter noted. The editor’s own personal favorite is when I upgraded my PC-AT with a 40-megabyte hard drive, bought for $240—to think I just found a 32 gigabyte USB stick available for purchase for $5, so that’s 800 times the storage capacity for one-fiftieth of the cost.

Shopping for a computer

Back in the 1990s, buying a computer was a tedious process. Maybe there weren’t a lot of hot specs to choose from, but there existed dozens of small computer companies, not to mention a cottage industry of customizers that put together generic computers by building them from components and then selling them to the public. Computer magazines were filled with their ads, and if you didn’t want to do anything other than just fantasize about your next purchase, Computer Shopper was a massive monthly tome with hundreds of pages of ads.

Those were also the days of dropping hundreds—or thousands—of dollars for products, with little assurance they would work well, or at all. “In 1993 when I was in my first postdoctoral position, our lab purchased its first PC that wasn't dedicated to operating an instrument,” recalls Eric Hugo in a response to the Paessler blog. “We agonized and finally bought a 486 machine from Royal Computers (advertised in Computer Shopper). We discovered just how bad Windows NT was on computers when we typed c:\win and the computer literally exploded. The power supply popped and smoke rolled out of the back of the machine. I was thankful that there were witnesses because no one would have believed my tale otherwise.”

Those killer web browsers of the 1990s

Who remembers Erwise, Mosaic or Cello? Then, the famous Netscape Navigator temporarily took over market leadership—it was even available as a boxed product that you could buy in the store.

The 1990s were also the early days of search engines. This editor’s personal favorite was Alta Vista, which paved the way for today’s search engines. AltaVista was a Web search engine established in 1995. It lost ground to Google and was purchased by Yahoo! in 2003, which retained the brand, but based all AltaVista searches on its own search algorithms.

Installing software from (lots of) floppy disks

The first versions of Windows 95 were shipped on 21 floppy disks. Microsoft then tried to reduce the number of floppies, and later shipped it on 13 DMF disks (Distributed Media Format with 1.68MB storage capacity). By the way, if you wanted to install Windows 10 from diskette, you would need 2,778 disks, Neumeier notes. And many computer manuals contained a floppy disk adhered to the inside back cover.

And don’t forget, 3.5-inch plastic floppy disks were an upgrade at the time. Before that were the 5.25-inch floppies, and perhaps you’ve even recalled the 8-inch floppy. The editor’s father once called them “sloppy disks,” and perhaps he was right.

The eternal struggle with BNC network cabling

“The first networks that I managed after my studies were mostly BNC wired,” Paessler’s Neumeier recalls. “The characteristic BNC connector (Bayonet Neill-Concelman) was an elaborately produced piece of metal, and you still had to terminate the cable lines at the ends. There was hardly an admin who didn't have at least two BNC terminators in his/her glove box. I also remember several Novell Netware 3.12 servers—the ones without the graphical user interface, which only came with Netware 4.0.”

Countless AOL CDs in your mailbox

In the 1990s, America Online flooded the globe with their CDs with an aggressive marketing campaign. Free internet surfing was offered, and sometimes several hundred hours were given away. The target of the campaign was for the users to establish a dial-up connection with the AOL service and in the end, of course, spend longer than the free hours offered on the net. “For some time, 10 percent of the world's compact disc production was AOL media,” Neumeier notes. “In 2001, this led to the protest campaign ‘No More AOL CDs,’ which even had its own Wikipedia article. Art projects have also emerged from the vast amount of disks. Compuserve was the big competitor to AOL, shipping out their own floppies and CDs in the battle.

Analog Internet access via dial-up connection

Who among us can’t do a good modem imitation? What Internet connection didn’t start without that sound, served up on a modem with blinky lights? Those 2400-baud modems started us out, until we gravitated to the breathtakingly fast 56,600-baud beasts. “Once the connection had been successfully established, a more or less stable surfing experience was possible, depending on the quality of the line, even if at an incredibly slow speed,” Neumeier writes. “At some point the trip to the wide world web was mostly stopped by parents who wanted to make a phone call, which was not possible because of the occupied line.” Now, the mobile data connections on smartphones that we take for granted are as much as 20,000 times faster than a home computer modem was back in the 1990s.

Video games--Doom, Lemmings, Leisure Suit Larry and more

Well, no self-respecting healthcare IT professional would know anything about these games—unless you were, say, in your late teens or even a bit older. “The 1990s was the decade in which computer games reached a new level,” Neumeier writes. “In 1993, one year after the release of the controversial Wolfenstein 3D, Doom entered the market. More than 25 years ago, this game, probably the best known first-person shooter of that time, gave us a foretaste of what virtual reality could become. But also, game series like Lemmings or Leisure Suit Larry were born in the 1990s. And only those who witnessed it at that time can comprehend the hype about the Lemming hordes and the always pushy, mid-40s Larry Laffer.”

The mythos of the Y2K bug

A few years before the year 2000, IT professionals recognized that because computer operating systems took years into account, there could be substantial computer troubles in 2000. “COBOL and mainframe dates were stored as ‘number of days since 1900’ and all COBOL compilers and mainframes came with sets of date/time sub-routines for this,” comments David Morgan. “Microcomputers were the computers with the 'issue.' The mainframe sub-routines were updated to make an assumption when presented with a two-digit year to store as the correct date.”

“At the turn of the century, computer crashes of apocalyptic proportions were predicted; nobody could realistically estimate what would happen,” Neumeier noted. Millions of man-hours of programming and preparation minimized any major crashes in the healthcare and other industries. “The reason ‘almost nothing’ happened on Jan. 1, 2000, was because thousands of IT professionals all over the world (I was one) worked for years, not months, replacing vast amounts of code written in the 20th century,” notes Charlie Levine, who commented on the Paessler blog.

Another commenter, Dave Vane, posted this recollection: “In 2013, I was working for a not-for-profit hospital chain in Australia. One of the main file servers on-site in Tasmania was proudly adorned with a ‘Y2k OK’ sticker. I had to laugh because I remembered all those nights in the late 1990s spent crawling around obscure sites checking devices for compliance—and here was a hospital in Tasmania with a 13-plus-year-old file server, still running, still rock-solid.”

Windows NT 4.0 and the burden of driver installation

Network management, and the computers that ran on them, were just true fun. “Compared to today's operating systems, Windows NT 4.0 was a real diva,” Neumeier noted. “Once the system was properly set up and loaded with the right drivers, the OS was great. The way there was frequently very rocky. With Windows NT 4.0 there was no device manager, but you had to connect the driver for each device at a different place. Preferably, you'd also connect the correct device driver immediately, otherwise the system would gladly acknowledge the service with a Blue Screen of Death. A reboot with the ‘last known configuration’ was also not always successful.”

The regular tweaking of AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS

“How much time did we spend tweaking the system configuration files of MS-DOS and earlier Windows systems? We knew that once COMMAND.COM was successfully loaded into memory, it would also execute AUTOEXEC.BAT,” Neumeier writes. “Accordingly, we were able to load drivers and services or set system variables at the command line level. Before that, the CONFIG.SYS was loaded (directly triggered by the kernel IO.SYS), which was yet another system configuration file in which, for example, the High-Memory-Area or the Upper Memory Blocks could be loaded.”

Monitors slowly get colorful

Monochrome ruled the visual world for years (green screen, maybe orange screen). Then, color came on the scene, and acronyms began to crop up to designate increasingly improving color capabilities—CGA, EGA, VGA, Super VGA. Each needed a video card to operate. Resolutions also increased slowly as the 1990s progressed. Finally, screensavers were a development of the 1990s, bringing a little fun to computers that weren’t in use and were taking a little graphic siesta.

Cables—serial and parallel, oh my

Different cables were a necessity to link up different devices. Some looked big enough to attach to a ship’s anchor. And each end of the cable had to have to right number of pins to fit the port to which it was attached—and it had to fit snuggly, not offset or loose. Without the right cable, you were just out of luck, and anyone servicing computers and peripherals had to know exactly what was needed to solve any issue. And don’t forget SCSI cables for those big data loads.

Computer manuals, and actually reading them

As HDM editor, one of my current volunteer roles is to work at our county’s monthly book recycling event, and one of our most frequent “contributions” for recycling are computer manuals from the 1990s. How many trees were killed to support 500 pages of Windows 95 secrets? The irony is that, in the 1990s, computer programs, and the ability to tweak them, were relatively simple. Nowadays, accompanying paper documentation for applications can be hard to find. Oh well, you never know when there might be a revival of Windows98.

Large portable memory devices

Toward the end of the 1990s, data volumes began to rise, and for typical consumers, floppy disks were the only option, holding just south of 1.5 megabytes. Then, Iomega and others began to market denser portable disks, starting in 1994. Zip disks could hold 100 megabytes, and later iterations could contain several times that amount. And then the Jaz drive hit the market, with the magical capacity of an entire gigabyte. (This HDM editor will not share how many Zip and Jaz drive disks I still own…someday, I’ll check out the contents).

Non-WYSIWYG software

As computers began to have the horsepower to show you what you were going to get at the end (or What You See Is What You Get, or WYSIWYG), we moved on from programs that were not all that visual. Early versions of applications provided a guessing game—when you hit the print button on Wordstar, who knew exactly how the output was going to look? Especially when the output device happened to be a 9-pin dot-matrix printer?

PDAs (and not the kissing type)

Personal digital assistants—they were going to revolutionize healthcare in the late 1990s. A variety of manufacturers were linking applications to customized devices for use in prescribing medicine or for other uses. It was an idea that was just ahead of its time and a bit impractical, because oftentimes, applications could only run on one dedicated device, and there were fears that physicians would need a Batbelt holding a series of single-purpose devices to effectively (?) provide care.

What are your computing memories from the 1990s?

Please check out Health Data Management’s Facebook page and share your comments on your own computing memories from the 1990s. It’s time to be nostalgic!

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