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Fifteen Classic PC Design Mistakes 806

Harry writes "Once upon a time, it wasn't a given that PC owners should be able to format their own floppy disks. Or that ports should be standard, not proprietary. Or that it was a lousy idea to hardwire a PC's AC adapter, or to put the power supply in the printer so that a printer failure rendered the PC unusable, too. Over at Technologizer, Benj Edwards has taken a look at some of the worst design decisions from personal computing's early years — including ones involving famous flops such as the PCJr, obscure failures such as Mattel's Aquarius, and machines that succeeded despite flaws, like the first Mac. In most instances — but not all — their bad decisions taught the rest of the industry not to make the same errors again."
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Fifteen Classic PC Design Mistakes

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  • The 15 problems (Score:5, Informative)

    by houghi ( 78078 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @10:51AM (#28335243)

    Problem #1: No Power Supply Fan
    Problem #2: Limited Apple II Compatibility
    Problem #3: No Way to Format Disks
    Problem #4: EM Pulse Erases Tapes
    Problem #5: Printer Required
    Problem #6: Rubber Keyboard
    Problem #7: Non-Detachable AC Adapter
    Problem #8: Miserable Keyboard
    Problem #10: Sidecar Expansion
    Problem #11: No User Expandability
    Problem #12: Slow BASIC
    Problem #13: Sidecar Expansion
    Problem #14: Bulky Expansion Modules
    Problem #15: Unreliable Proprietary Disk Drives

  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:26AM (#28335681)
    Actually Mini-Displayport is actually rather open, and while not a standard (yet) you can get the specs from Apple for nothing.
  • Re:The 15 problems (Score:3, Informative)

    by falconwolf ( 725481 ) <[falconsoaring_2000] [at] []> on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:26AM (#28335693)

    Where's #9?
    Oh, instead of releasing their own GUI based PC, Xerox PARC [] had Apple do it.


  • How about (Score:1, Informative)

    by wytten ( 163159 ) <[] [ta] [nettyw]> on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:27AM (#28335701)

    Putting CAPS LOCK key next to 'A' on the keyboard? It was the first thing I thought of.

  • And a summary (Score:4, Informative)

    by Chas ( 5144 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:32AM (#28335785) Homepage Journal

    A: No PSU fan (leading to thermal warping of internal components)
    B: Limited Apple II Compatibility (Limited Compatibility)
    C: No way to format disks
    D: EM Pulse Erases tapes (unreliable media)
    E: Printer required
    F: Lousy Keyboard (#6 and #8)
    G: Non-detachable AC adapter
    H: Ridiculous external expansion options (10, 13, and technically 14)
    I: No user expandability
    J: Slow BASIC
    K: Unreliable disk drives

  • Re:The 15 problems (Score:2, Informative)

    by GrahamCox ( 741991 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:42AM (#28335945) Homepage
    The best one from the Mac was putting the power button right next to the floppy drive

    Yeah, nice story. Pity it's not true. The Mac had a rocker switch for power on the back of the machine, next to the power connector. There were no switches of any sort on the front. Much later models may have had a front power switch (Quadra-era maybe, I forget), but by then most Mac users wouldn't be likely to make the mistake of assuming it was a floppy eject button, because such a thing had never existed on any Mac. Much, much much later, keyboards started to include a general virtual eject button.
  • by lordandmaker ( 960504 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:44AM (#28335967) Homepage
    You can do it with a CD now.
  • by jht ( 5006 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:44AM (#28335973) Homepage Journal

    Not for nothing, but that's just not true anymore. Hasn't been for quite a few years. Ever since the Mighty Mouse (the one with the trackball) became standard, it's been a 2-button mouse. It's just that the Mac UI was designed to be single-button friendly and the mouse operates in single button mode by default. If you are clever enough a user to want to right-click, it's simple enough to just go to the System Preference pane for your mouse and turn it on.

    Mice with two hardware buttons Just Work as well. And the method of right-clicking on a laptop touchpad (two-finger click) is simple and intuitive, and all software-based.

    Now if you don't like the ergonomics of the Apple mouse (I don't, and I use a Dell Bluetooth mouse with my Mac) that's fine and a legitimate complaint. But to claim that Apple requires you to Control-click when that's been no more than an option for years just shows ignorance.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:48AM (#28336021) Journal

    The cost for 16bit hardware was considerably higher. This was not a mistake, but a very practical decision to allow the IBM PC to use existing hardware with little modification. The other reason for not using the 68000 was that part of the point of using a member of the 808x family was so that CP/M could be run on the PC (that's not the direction they went in the end, but still CP/M was the king of business systems at the time).

    IBM was very specifically making a business decision. There wasn't a lot of software out there for the 68000, 16-bit hardware was expensive, and the 808x were a battle tested family of chips with excellent hardware support. When RAM was uber-expensive, nobody gave a damn about how big a theoretical address space a CPU could access, or whether it could more adequately support pre-emptive multitasking. These factors really only came into play by the late 1980s when hardware and RAM prices began to drop.

  • Re:Apple Lisa (Score:4, Informative)

    by copponex ( 13876 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:52AM (#28336087) Homepage []

    Start at minute 6:45.

    Seems that you would pick a stack of paper - word processing, spreadsheet, graphing, etc. - and it would "tear off" a new page for a new document that you could put elsewhere.

    It may be worth creating a newbie shell that hides many options with an option to go into "advanced" mode. The real endgame will be context sensitive interfaces that allow the computer to guess what you want to do, with an override for people who prefer to keep menus in the same place.

    I think a good design is to have all features across the top via pulldowns, and contextual options at the bottom that you can just turn off if you like.

  • My new Mini is actually my first Apple ever. So far, I have not been impressed.

    Just about anyone who's posting on Slashdot is not going to be well-served by a Mac Mini. At least not as a primary machine. The Mini is a scaled-down computer intended for non-power users who need a relatively inexpensive machine that can be tethered to a desk.

    If you want to be happy with your Mac purchase, get a MacBook. It will do everything you need of it and more. Plus, getting it equipped out-of-the-box with sufficient memory and disk is a very affordable upgrade. No need to crack open the machine for servicing. (Though it's probably not as hard as the mini. I haven't tried on the MacBook, but the iBook was a cinch. Just pop back the keyboard and voila!)

  • Re:The 15 problems (Score:5, Informative)

    by jrumney ( 197329 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:55AM (#28336137)

    Unfortunately, when the Mac came out,

    That design flaw wasn't introduced when the Mac came out, it was when they first moved from 68000 to PowerPC []. Older Macs from the XL through to the Classic II had the power button on the keyboard or tucked away somewhere out of sight on the monitor/base.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:58AM (#28336185)

    Actually, DisplayPort isn't proprietary, it's the successor to DVI. Mini-DisplayPort is part of the VESA specification and is entirely royalty-free.

  • by cpotoso ( 606303 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:00PM (#28336221) Journal
    Nonsense, complete nonsense. The mac mini is a nice machine for some purposes. There is, however, no reason (other than apple's incredible greediness: charging 4x more for memory and disk upgrades than they are really worth) for the machines to have no accessible parts. I love the Mac OSX, but the hardware sucks. I much rather get a standard pc, with standard parts and a hacked version of OSX to use in it.
  • by the_humeister ( 922869 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:01PM (#28336227)

    Hindsight is usually 20/20. But in this case maybe not. Here's what an M68000 would have brought to the table:

    1) Higher costs - the reason IBM went with the 8088 is because it was less expensive.

    2) No 640k memory limit - okay, but then we'd have the issue of 16MB memory limit a few years later since the M68k had a 16 bit external bus. BTW, the 640k limit was particular to IBM's implementation, not necessarily a limitation of the 8088. Because everyone else copied that implementation, we have the 640k limit.

    3) 8-bit and 16-bit mainstream computing - why do I say that? Because memory cost a lot of money back then. Even though the M68k can use 32-bit code, the first computers would have come with miniscule amounts of memory. 32-bit code would not be a good idea then.

    4) continuation of CISC architecture - I personally don't think this is much of an issue, but some people do contending that the current CISC-to-RISC translation still takes up significant silicon real-estate.

  • Re:The 15 problems (Score:4, Informative)

    by jht ( 5006 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:02PM (#28336253) Homepage Journal

    Huh? Which Mac was that? All the original Macs (the 128, 512, and Plus, along with the SE series and Classic) had the power switch on the back. The NuBus Macs (Mac II onwards up until the middle of the PPC era) powered up via their ADB keyboards.

    There was an optional reset switch you could attach to the lower side of the computer, I guess that could look like a power button - but that was originally a user option to install (most didn't that I recall) and the later Macs had a slightly recessed reset button.

  • by spire3661 ( 1038968 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:04PM (#28336279) Journal

    All new dell upper end monitors have Displayport too, the Dell 2408 has one for sure.

  • Re:Apple Lisa (Score:5, Informative)

    by stevied ( 169 ) * on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:07PM (#28336335)

    As mentioned by others, document-centric computing: [] []

    People keep having stabs at it, and to give MS their due they did try pretty hard with Win95 and OLE/COM, and got rid of MDI [] in later versions of Office .. but some it never seems to have been perfected on mass-market machines. The tab-view that we have in browsers now seems to be actively moving away from it (this is your application .. with your documents as child objects to it .. - though at least Chrome has the decency to put the tabs at the top of window.)

    It'll probably get leap-frogged as an idea by all this Web2.0 stuff and in-browser apps (which again is a regression: you still have to think about which SoaS-providing site you have to go to get a particular job done.)

  • Re:The 15 problems (Score:3, Informative)

    by thesandtiger ( 819476 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:15PM (#28336419)

    Worse was the Apple II Reset button - originally it was (if I remember right) more or less right above the Return key. Back in the days when saving was a matter of screwing around with cassette tapes and luck, it was incredibly frustrating to accidentally brush the Reset button. Fortunately it was possible to re-wire it so it required you to press CTRL + Reset to reset, and then we also got a floppy drive so that it was MUCH less obnoxious to save stuff.

    I wonder how many hours of lost work that reset button was responsible for over all Apple II users.

  • Re:CapsLock (Score:4, Informative)

    by Spatial ( 1235392 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:17PM (#28336465)

    And while we're on the subject, does anyone use Num Lock or Pause anymore?

    Not Numlock, but 'pause' is used all the time in Windows. Off the top of my head: it pauses most games, pauses the command line, and Winkey+Pause opens the System Properties dialogue.

  • Re:#1 failure... (Score:5, Informative)

    by pz ( 113803 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:18PM (#28336483) Journal

    Why? What other processor(s) should have been used, and what would have been the benefits? No, not trolling. Just interested in what you said and would like more information.

    The fundamental problem with Intel's instruction set architecture for the 8088/8086 line was that it was complex and intricate. To perform some instructions, the arguments had to be in very specific registers. Every register was, in some way or another, special purpose. The contemporary Motorola architecture, based on the 6800 and extended into the 68000 line, was completely the opposite: every register was, more-or-less, general purpose.

    Writing a compiler for the Intel architecture is an exercise in masochism. Writing one for the Motorola architecture is one of simplicity and elegance. The Motorola instruction set documentation of the era was simple, clean, and definitive: it molded the way instruction sets were documented for generations afterward. The Intel documentation was difficult to understand at best.

    One of the stark differences in the two instruction sets was the difference in instruction length variability. Intel instructions could be almost arbitrarily long. Motorola instructions were one or two bytes, with the one byte instructions being the ones most frequently used (inspired brilliance, that was). Also, for very related reasons, the number of cycles to execute an instruction was highly variable for Intel architectures, and more-or-less fixed for Motorola architectures.

    I wrote assembly code for both architectures, back in the day. I hated, hated, hated writing for Intel chips, and breathed a sigh of relief whenever writing for Motorola chips. The inherent beauty in the Motorola instruction set created a certain kind of transparency making it possible --- seriously --- to see programmer intent when reading assembly code. With Intel chips, that was just not possible. With Motorola chips, you could reverse engineer code pretty easily; with Intel chips, it was painful.

    The world would be a better place if IBM had selected Motorola.

  • by domatic ( 1128127 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:45PM (#28336827)

    When few tech staff are available, having to periodically open the case and spray out the lint is a burden. I HIGHLY appreciate fanless designs because once deployed I often don't need to physically lay hands on them until replaced.

    Your car analogy is corked because it is possible to have fanless PCs but not oilless cars. And yes, I'm aware that fans are needed for the highest performing machines. Even there much can be done to ease maintenance. I rather like the idea of using heat pipes to bring the heat to radiators that can be cleaned without taking a screwdriver to the case. Or otherwise designing the thing to make the lint removal easy. Some machines have easily cleanable/replaceable intake filters which is a step forward.

    Having to take a tower out of some of the stupid places they have to go in sometimes, unplugging all that crap, opening the case, spraying it out, and putting all that back together is just obnoxious.

  • by macshome ( 818789 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @12:55PM (#28336965) Homepage

    Not for nothing, but that's just not true anymore. Hasn't been for quite a few years. Ever since the Mighty Mouse (the one with the trackball) became standard, it's been a 2-button mouse.

    More than that, it's a 4-button with a scroll ball.

  • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @01:01PM (#28337055)

    DisplayPort IS an open standard []. Mini Display Port is added to the 1.2 specification. You can look up all the wiring for the pins, making IT NOT PROPRIETARY.

    Apple was literally the first company to put these out. So for a short time there was only 1 place to buy them.

    You can get cables from Monoprice and any of a dozen online retailers. Right now you can get DisplayPort connectors from DigiKey and I imagine once 1.2 is fully adopted , that you'll probably have no problem finding Mini DisplayPort connectors at Digikey.

    Again, how is (Mini) Display Port any more proprietary than VGA, DVI, HDMI?

  • by quanticle ( 843097 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @01:05PM (#28337085) Homepage

    I think he's commenting on the fact that many Windows programs put "essential" commands in the context menu, which is "invisible" until a user right-clicks to bring it up.

  • Real mistakes (Score:5, Informative)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @01:08PM (#28337127) Homepage

    Those are mistakes an end user would see. Here are some deeper mistakes from an engineerings standpoint.

    • Bus-type peripheral architecture. The IBM PC was a spinoff of the IBM Displaywriter, a dedicated word processor with no expandability. It inherited some design decisions from the Displaywriter that were reasonable for a word processor, but terrible for an expandable machine. Most notably, the IBM PC had the peripherals on the memory bus. That meant any DMA had to be on the I/O card, and thus any card could blither all over memory. Peripherals were thus trusted devices, and, in turn, drivers had to be trusted. IBM knew the right answer - channels, as on mainframes, and in the PS/2, they used a "microchannel" architecture. But it was too late - the industry had already standardized on "ISA cards". This is the fundamental reason cause of most operating system crashes - the I/O architecture gives drivers too much power.
    • The Motorola MMU debacle.The Motorola 68000 first appeared in 1978, and it was a very good machine. Almost. There was a flaw. Instruction backout didn't quite work, and thus a paged MMU couldn't be added. So Motorola didn't ship an MMU with the 68000. The early UNIX workstations all used the 68000, and painful hacks were used to kludge together some kind of MMU to make it work. Apollo used two CPUs, one for the OS and one for the user, only one running at a time, to get around this. The Apple Lisa used one CPU with an Apple MMU built from many parts, and the compiler avoided generating any instructions with incrementation so that backout would work. Motorola came out with the M68010 in 1982, which fixed the bugs, but there was still no MMU. When Motorola finally shipped the 68451 MMU, it was a segmented MMU, and worse, slowed down the machine by one clock cycle per memory access. If Motorola had gotten it right by 1979 or so, the whole history of personal computing might have been Motorola-based using protected mode-UNIX.
    • The Intel 286 CPU. Not enough memory management for a protected mode OS, too much segmentation machinery for an unprotected OS. That powered the IBM PC/AT and a whole generation of machines with the addressing system from hell. It could run a version of UNIX, but no process could exceed 64K in protected mode, although you could put a few megabytes on the machine.
    • Baseband Ethernet. Coax-based Ethernet had some serious electrical problems. The thing really was unbalanced baseband, so you couldn't use capacitive coupling. The coax shield could only be grounded at one point, or you'd get ground loops. That created an electrical safety issue with the outside of coax connectors, and running coax between buildings was iffy. It was just bad electrical design. 10baseT, which is balanced, was far better from an electronics standpoint.
  • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @01:14PM (#28337193)

    So until any other company used it, the first USB port on a computer was proprietary?
    So until any other company used it, the first PCI port on a computer was proprietary?
    So until any other company used it, the first firewire port on a computer was proprietary?
    So until any other company used it, the first X port on a computer was proprietary? []
    The word proprietary indicates that a party, or proprietor, exercises private ownership, control or use over an item of property. []
    1. belonging to a proprietor.
    2. being a proprietor; holding property: the proprietary class.

    3. pertaining to property or ownership: proprietary wealth.
    4. belonging or controlled as property.
    5. manufactured and sold only by the owner of the patent, formula, brand name, or trademark associated with the product: proprietary medicine.
    6. privately owned and operated for profit: proprietary hospitals.

    (Mini) Display Port is NOT proprietary. Dell uses Display Port. Other laptop or netbook companies may find a mini display port smaller than VGA. Only time will tell.

  • by clone53421 ( 1310749 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @01:19PM (#28337269) Journal

    Oh, that menu. How many applications don't have the same options in the primary menus, though?

    Not to mention that it also MAKES SENSE.

    If I want the menu for Application X, I'd naturally expect it to be attached to the window itself.

    If I want the menu for an object within Application X's window, I'd expect it to be attached to the object itself.

    That said, they've started an alarming trend of hiding the primary menu, too, until you press the Alt key or click some icon. Whoever thought the primary menus for applications should be hidden should be shot, IMHO...

  • by Ash-Fox ( 726320 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @02:07PM (#28337919) Journal

    This is actually still a problem - why does Apple have a UK keyboard layout which is different to standard UK keyboard layouts? You have the option to choose 'UK Keyboard' specifically when speccing a new Apple system, but its different to the UK keyboard prevelent. Annoying.

    And then you have to hit alt+3 to type #, which some applications will intercept and perform an action instead.

  • by tweedlebait ( 560901 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @02:12PM (#28337997)

    is one I'd have to add to the list. Much anguish was had from that design, and sometimes the keyboard PCB would flex in a way so that pressing Return or another adjacent key would actually reset! []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 15, 2009 @02:34PM (#28338269)
    They still have the F Lock key, but, unlike the previous keyboard with it, it remembers the setting between reboots. I've not pressed it for months, and my "Help" key continues to function as an F1 key as it should. The "F"-light will always be on, but I find that reassuring as it means the keyboard is plugged in. The Zoom thingy I've found to be useless, but fortunately it occupies the deadspace in the middle.
  • by Huge_UID ( 1089143 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @02:36PM (#28338285)

    15 seconds on google. Search string: "displayport to mini displayport cable"
    Then click "Shopping results for displayport to mini displayport cable".
    $14.95 - []
    It took me less time to find that "non-existent" cable than it did for you to write your post.

  • by gauauu ( 649169 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @02:41PM (#28338339)

    Although the mighty mouse isn't REALLY a 2-button mouse -- it's a one-button mouse with a weird touch sensor that detects where your fingers are when you click, and tries to guess whether it should send a left-click or a right-click signal.

    Don't believe me? Rest your index finger in the left-click position on the mighty mouse and try right-clicking. Good luck.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 15, 2009 @02:56PM (#28338581)

    If I am willing to pony up $4000 for a computer, chances are I have the necessary intellect

    Odd.. I had used the same base fact for the exact opposite argument

    $4000? Seriously?

  • by NoStrings ( 622372 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @03:40PM (#28339401)
    Actually, the mighty mouse only has one physical button for left- and right-clicking. It uses heat sensors to tell if your forefinger is resting on the mouse. If it is, then you get a left-click; if not, you get a right-click. Lifting your finger takes a bit of getting used to, and it sometimes takes several tries to get a right-click - especially in a warm environment where it takes longer for the sensor to cool down. This makes a mighty mouse almost useless if you're in a hurry (gaming, for instance).

    The scroll ball is awesome, though!

  • Re:The Amiga (Score:3, Informative)

    by Sxooter ( 29722 ) on Monday June 15, 2009 @11:44PM (#28344049)

    The real advantage the Amiga had was that it supported TRUE pre-emptive multitasking, something PCs still cannot really do well today. And it did it all with a 7.2MHz CPU, not a 2200MHz CPU. Which is why here, in the year 2009, on a dual 1.8GHz cpu machine, I can watch the cursor just hang while I type for a few seconds at a time while some non-critical process steals all the cpu time. On an Amiga, I'd never see that happen.

Order and simplification are the first steps toward mastery of a subject -- the actual enemy is the unknown. -- Thomas Mann