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Computer De-Evolution: Awesome Features We've Lost 662

jfruhlinger writes "If you listened to tech marketing departments, you'd believe that advances in computers have been a nonstop march upwards. But is that really true? What about all the great features early hackers had in the '70s and '80s that are now hard to find or lost forever, like clicky keyboards and customizable screen height? This article looks at much beloved features that lost the evolutionary war."
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Computer De-Evolution: Awesome Features We've Lost

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  • Loss of features? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Microlith ( 54737 ) on Thursday May 26, 2011 @12:30PM (#36252150)

    Look at the mobile space, being touted (rightly, IMO) as the next great growth space in computing. The fundamental advantage we've had in computing up to this point is actively being attacked with walled gardens.

  • by mlts ( 1038732 ) * on Thursday May 26, 2011 @12:44PM (#36252376)

    One feature I miss is a true low level format of a HDD. Now just for overwriting sectors, but for allowing the drive to rebuild its sector relocation table.

    Older SCSI drives would mark blocks as bad and relocate the data. When they got low level formatted, the bad blocks would remain bad, but the area reserved for bad blocks would be clear (since the remapped blocks would be flagged as bad and not used.) This would allow the drive to continue to be used, as when the remapped block area fills up, the drive can't do anything except report soft/hard errors.

    A true low level format also brought peace of mind -- any data on the disk before that was blanked out, and every usable sector has been tested to make sure it was readable/writable.

  • Real Power Buttons (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kamiza Ikioi ( 893310 ) on Thursday May 26, 2011 @12:45PM (#36252384)

    On every single device, mobile and PC, actual power buttons are disappearing. My cellphone has a mutant mute/power, but the power only actually brings up a "What would you like to do, mute, airplane, or actually power off?" So, on a crash, take off case, pull battery. Things just aren't designed to turn off anymore. I miss that.

  • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Thursday May 26, 2011 @01:07PM (#36252722) Homepage Journal

    The keyboards offer a better tactile feel because the keys are progressively weighted. They take progressively more force as you push, then release and click into place; and the keys under weaker fingers take less force than those under stronger fingers (hence progressive weighting). As such, they are ergonomically superior, providing your brain with more control data. You know exactly when you've punched the key fully, and you eventually start taking heavy notice if your fingers slip and hit the wrong key (it feels different enough to disrupt your brain).

    Basically, it makes typing immersive. You never need to look, because you can hear and feel what's going on, you can see it on your screen, and when you typo your brain doesn't go "wait that looks wrong, what happened, that's not what I expected to happen, I punched the right thing, did I punch the right thing? Look down at the keyboard, where are my hands, is that right?" Instead you sense it by feel just before you see the mistake, and your brain has already figured everything out. This keeps typos from being disruptive, and also keeps your hands an integrated part of your typing rather than seeming to disconnect and leave the typing to your brain dictating what your eyes see.

    It's really like playing a $60,000 grand piano versus a $1000 Yahoo upright. If you've never touched a $60,000 grand, you need to. Also, if you're in the market, I recommend a $4000 Kawai CA series digital piano unless you are obscenely rich (a $15000 Kawai K-9 I could still argue with but I can understand that). The keyboard is basically the same as a $180,000 9 foot concert grand, plugged into sensors instead of hammers, with a computer using all kinds of complex algorithms and tons of samples and statistical data to emulate the $180,000 9 foot Kawai EX concert grand piano. They don't have the power or presence, of course, because there's no 9 foot sound board to resonate with the booming base; but the keys feel dead on, even better than the $67,000 Kawai RX-6 I used to practice on--which is a fantastic 7 foot acoustic grand piano.

    Go find one in a piano store and mess with it and you'll get it. To someone who cares about their keyboard, the bucket keys are the same way. To someone who doesn't ... it's still an improvement, just one they largely ignore until they use it for a while and then swap back.

  • But are we? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Thursday May 26, 2011 @01:10PM (#36252774) Journal

    But are we really going backwards?

    I mean, reading that list made me think of some old geezers complaining about how cars in their time had a big ol' crank in front, unlike these wussy cars that kids use these days.

    I mean, complex and hard to master scrollbars? Really? That's a thing to miss? Exactly what usability advantage does that have? Exactly how many new users are complaining that scrolling up and down isn't complex enough?

    Besides, what's described as totally awesome functionality lost, isn't lost at all. You can still get an outline view in Word or OpenOffice Write or whatever. Even programming IDEs have that. So exactly how the fuck is that a lost feature? The only thing "lost" is that it's no longer done by learning arcane ways to use a scrollbar.

    I mean, even the person missing them in TFA starts by basically saying that it was a pain in the butt to learn to use them. So exactly what's lost there, by doing the same thing in an easier way? The whole argument boils down to "it's bad because it's not the exact clicks I learned to use waaay back". Or in other words, "stop the world, I don't want to learn anything new ever again."

    Other arguments get fucking stupid.

    E.g., on page 3, "Steve Silberberg, software contractor and owner of Fatpacking" misses having a program called "see", which was... a hex editor. I mean, really? He's a software contractor and he doesn't know how to get a hex editor on the Internet? That is a lost feature for him?

    Just to make it clear, I'm pretty damned sure that hex editors still exist, since I even made mods for Fallout 3 with a hex editor and made a tutorial for how to do that, waay back in the days before there was an official toolkit and before even NifSkope got updated to open the new mesh files. Finding one didn't even register as something hard, much less as a feature lost forever.

    Really, what the hell is that guy even doing as a contractor, if he can't even find a hex editor? Seriously.

    Another guy on the same page is bemoaning the loss of some obscure old text-mode editor, misses TurboPascal (Delphi apparently isn't the same for him), and has been programming in NotePad until he found a port of his old favourite text-mode editor. Even the feature he mentions as missing in newer editors is actually trivial to simulate in any IDE (if nothing else, you can just copy and paste that part into another window and work there)... not to mention that if you need to specifically mark from where to where you want to edit in a source file so you don't get into other parts, you probably should have made that part a separate file in the first place. And not to mention that by using NotePad he's actually having even less features anyway.

    I'm sorry, but that's not loss of features to "devolution", that's just the kind of guy who illustrates the kind of attitude that fuels the rampant age-ism in the industry. The only "devolution" there is that he doesn't want to learn anything newer than the good old days of his using XEdit.

    Other personal whines mis-represented as features lost to "devolution" include:

    - doing the same things with different key combinations nowadays (sorry, key combinations never went away. Just the ones that guy used changed)

    - having the control key in a different position than in some guy's youth (so what? It's not like he didn't have decades already to learn the new position)

    - how in the good old days you could set some obscure variable to read program output in pages at a time (unlike, I guess, these days using "less" to read program output one page at a time, and being also able to search and go forward and back)


    Sorry, I actually went there to learn about some awesome features that we've been missing, but I don't see any. I'm just treated to a gallery of people who somehow never learned how to use new keystrokes or a new program to do the same things. Which is actually even more freaking sad than "lost features."

  • Things we've lost (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday May 26, 2011 @01:17PM (#36252890) Homepage
    • File revisions
      Many early operating systems could keep several versions of a file. This was in UNIVAC EXEC-8 (now OS-2200 and still in use) in 1967. Creating a new empty file and then writing it did not make the file visible to other processes until the file was closed and committed. The new file then became the latest version, the old file became the previous version, and if a retention limit was specified and had been reached, the oldest version was deleted. UNIX/Linux/DOS/Windows pathname-based systems don't do that, and so atomic file replacement tends to be difficult, non-portable, and often not done.
    • Rings of protection
      MULTICS had better security than anything currently mainstream. The hardware supported protection rings and the OS used them usefully. Things we think of today as "middleware" and "DLLs" ran in inner security rings, not high enough to penetrate the core OS but protected from tampering by applications. Hardware support for calls to a inner ring made this fast. Most OSs today still don't do "big objects" well, things which are used by multiple processes and have state of their own, like databases and printer queues. "Big objects" tend to either have too many privileges or too few.
    • Safe, fast languages
      There's a mind-set today that a language can be either fast or safe, but not both. This is a legacy of some bad design decisions in C that were carried forward into C++. We used to have variants of Pascal suitable for systems programming. Most original Macintosh software was written in Pascal. Modula, by the time of Modula III, was powerful enough to write a whole OS. But it died when Compaq brought DEC and closed down research there.
    • Capability machines
      Another casualty of the UNIX/Linux vanilla approach to hardware. The IBM System/38 had security features which allowed fine-grained security within programs. But it was too different from everything else to become mainstream.
  • Front Panels (Score:4, Interesting)

    by vanyel ( 28049 ) * on Thursday May 26, 2011 @02:40PM (#36254098) Journal

    It was amazing what you could tell from the pattern of lights, and they were aesthetically pleasing as well...

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling