Monday, November 10, 2008

Cloud Computing in the 1980s

I don’t remember the last time I took a vacation trip without working. Sometimes I was up against a deadline that didn’t allow me to take a few days off. If I didn’t have a deadline, I couldn’t resist working on a new idea or an old manuscript. I remember hauling a typewriter along with me on vacation as far back as 1978, though I limited work to evening hours. (I had to have it with me; I compose at the keyboard because handwriting is too slow.)

Lugging a forty-pound electric typewriter wasn’t easy, but technology would soon change that. In the early 1980s I bought a TRS-80 Model 100. It was an excellent companion, lightweight and requiring 80 percent less space than the typewriter. The keyboard was as good any you can find today, and it was easy to adjust to working on a 40-character wide display with 8 lines.

The Model 100 came with built-in firmware applications: text editor, calendar/scheduler with an alarm clock function, BASIC, an address book, and terminal program. It required little in the way of support; four AA cells powered it for about 20 hours. 8 extra batteries would see me through most any trip.

The Model 100’s only shortcoming was storage. Mine had just the basic 8K of memory, which didn't quite hold 12 pages of text. So I needed external storage. A cassette interface made tape storage possible, but it wasn't always perfect. Besides, that would have meant hauling along a tape player that weighed more than the computer. Being me, I would have lost or damaged at least one tape on every trip. A Model 100 disk drive presented the same lug-along problems as the cassette, and it was too expensive anyway.

But I didn't need any kind of portable storage, not with the Model 100's built-in modem and an online service account. I used DELPHI (and later CompuServe) as a virtual hard drive. For all practical purposes it provided an infinite amount of storage space.

Such was cloud computing, circa 1984.

Granted, the programs weren’t on a server, but they were fast, and I needed only minimal hardware on my end. If I shut down the computer while working, the document would be available exactly as I had left it the next time I turned the computer on. It was possible to buy additional apps, such as spreadsheets, and of course email and FAX service waited on DELPHI and CompuServe, along with news, encyclopedias, and other resources.

The combination of the little slab computer with online services wasn’t quite Google Apps. But it offered everything a writer could want. And its minimalist requirements of cheap batteries and a common telephone line made it possible to get to work in seconds no matter where you were.
Copyright © 2008, Michael A. Banks


Mark Hiatt said...

Ah, memories! I used a Cambridge Z88 for a couple of years before the Macintosh PowerBook 100 came out. And I, of course, used GEnie as my virtual disk drive (today we would call it The Cloud) before I could afford an expansion cartridge. Good times. Slow, but lightweight and fully capable, for me. Good times, indeed.

Michael A. Banks said...

A Z88? I never saw one, just photos, but people who owned them were like Mac owners--they loved 'em. (I don't think you had that when you cam to Ohio?)

I always enjoyed the idea of using GEnie or DELPHI or whatever as a virtual disk drive. All that storage on a mainframe or mini ...