Rip Van Digital awakes from his 14-year nap

Personal Computers

November 20, 1995|By STEPHEN MANES

AS HE WATCHED AN electronic message crawl across his screen at a glacial 300 bits per second, Rip Van Digital fell asleep at the keyboard of his wonderful new personal computer. The desk calendar was open to November 1981.

Mr. Van Digital awakened last week and called his stockbroker. His shares in the manufacturer of his computer, he learned to his great chagrin, had not made him a wealthy man. But when he ventured next door to borrow a fresh carton of milk, Mr. Van Digital was flabbergasted.

The neighbor children were using something that looked very much like his computer, but not quite. The familiar-looking box had a keyboard, but the monitor showed pictures in color instead of just displaying characters in green. The machine was also hooked up to what looked like loudspeakers and something resembling a bar of soap.

"It's a Pentium 120," said the neighbor proudly. "With 16 megs of memory."

"Pentium 120?" Mr. Van Digital asked.

"You know, the 120-megahertz, 32-bit chip," the neighbor said patiently. Mr. Van Digital did the popeyed double take that had made him such a hit at parties back in the '70s. The 8088 chip in his machine worked at 4.77 megahertz and only 16 bits (or sometimes just eight) at a time. He had paid extra to bring the machine up to 64 kilobytes.

"What's this?" he demanded, pointing to the soap bar. The youngsters showed him how to use the mouse and slipped a silvery disk into the machine.

"Some sort of newfangled floppy?" he asked.

"CD-ROM," said the neighbor. "Holds about 700 megabytes."

"Megabytes?" he asked. "Seven hundred million bytes?"

"Right," the neighbor said. "And the hard disk holds more than a gigabyte. A billion bytes."

Mr. Van Digital shook his head. "How much did that cost? he asked. "I paid hundreds of dollars extra just for my 160-kilobyte

floppy drives."

"Well, it came in the machine," said the neighbor. "But I see them advertised for about $300."

"It's in the machine? Inside?"

"Right. Hidden away. And smaller than your floppy drive used to be."

"What do you use to back it up? That CD thing?"

The neighbor blushed. "Well, actually, we haven't figured out what to do about that," he said. "It's a shame the CD-ROM is read-only."

Mr. Van Digital peeked inside the box. He recognized a couple of old-style connector slots, but he was amazed at how empty the box seemed. Compared with his old machine, there were hardly any chips inside, and those that were there were tiny.

The color monitor was big, bright and sharp. The stereo sound was a far cry from the original PCs beeping speaker. A high-speed modem brought the outside world to the entire family. Van Digital was particularly impressed with the printer, a color ink-jet model that produced very nice output. "Software must be great, right?" said Rip. "Way back when, voice and handwriting recognition were just around the corner."

The neighbor chuckled. "Some things never change."

"You can run multiple applications at once," a child chimed in, "at least some of the time, as long as you don't try anything too fancy."

"I suppose that infernal DOS is gone," Rip said. "You know, with those blasted eight-dot-three file names?"

The neighbor blushed again. "Well, sort of," he said. "It's still there, but it's kind of hidden underneath something called Windows 95. It does hide the eight-dot-threes from you, most of the time."

Mr. Van Digital's neighbor warned him the hardware would only get cheaper, but he rushed out to a local computer store and bought a machine with a hundred times the power of his original at a far lower price.

But as the days went by, he began to feel pangs of dissatisfaction. The stunningly improved hardware ran software that seemed ill-conceived, buggy, confusing and slow. Life in 1995 came to seem suspiciously like life in 1981, except with a lot more E-mail, fonts, graphics and talk shows and a lot less free time.

The screen did something ugly. The computer that had once seemed such a wonder was now just an appliance, and a finicky, often annoying one at that.

He clicked his Internet software and got connected on the fourth try. He hunted down a home page, avoided some advertisements, found what he was looking for and clicked a button on the screen. As he waited for megabytes of new video drivers to arrive at a blazing 28,800 bits per second, Rip Van Digital fell asleep at his keyboard.

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