Friday, July 24, 2015
Early notebook PCs and America Online: The start of modern journalism
When I reentered the workforce in 1992, after taking a one-year break for graduate school, personal computers were being rolled out broadly in the publishing industry.
Smaller publications seemed to be first to make the plunge into PCs and desktop publishing. Bigger periodicals had large investments in systems like Atex and learning an entirely new method of publishing would be a major disruption to operations.
But the change was inevitable. Desktop publishing with PCs meant that publications could get rid of paste-up workers. Everything would be done digitally. PCs were more efficient and capable than the systems they replaced.
In the early 1990s, the battle between Apple Macintosh computers and Microsoft Windows-based computers was still raging. Art departments at newspapers preferred Macs. Editorial departments sided with Windows machines.
The first computer I ever purchased was an Apple Macintosh PowerBook 180. The gray laptop had a 16-level grayscale display, 33 MHz microprocessor and 4 MB of RAM. With an internal fax modem and ClarisWorks software, the purchase set me back $2,145.
Before that, I had a Magnavox all-in-one word processor and printer.
The next big shift in journalism was the arrival of Internet communications services. Early online services of prominence were America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy. Initially they took a walled garden approach to delivering the Internet to customers. They wanted customers to stay within their news and e-mail services. The floodgates to the open World Wide Web didn’t occur until the Netscape browser appeared on the scene in mid-1990s.
In the early days of the commercial Internet, I used mostly AOL and CompuServe. They were dial-up services and they were painfully slow.
When traveling you had to find local access numbers to dial into or pay long-distance toll charges. AOL and CompuServe had international access numbers too. But when those numbers were busy or unavailable, I would occasionally have to call long distance back to the States to file a story electronically.
Today we take for granted how easy it is to get the Internet on notebook computers.
Public Wi-Fi hotspots didn’t start showing up until after 2000.
In the days before Wi-Fi, you had to make sure you had a dial-up modem for your notebook PC. And you had to find a landline phone where you could unplug the phone cable from the wall or the phone itself to plug into your laptop. Then you had to configure the system to dial the Internet access number. That meant having to dial a 9 to get an outside line from a hotel or business and a 1 for long distance in the U.S. You had to manually type in those instructions to the configuration software. Sometimes it was trial and error to get it to work. It was a royal pain in the butt.
And Windows notebook computers weren’t very reliable back then. I had a number of company-owned notebooks die on me.
I especially remember a Texas Instruments brand laptop that failed on a trip to Hong Kong. I made the mistake of picking up the notebook with one hand from the corner of the machine. I felt the plastic chassis bend and heard the motherboard inside crack. And that was the end of that PC.
Today notebook chasses are super sturdy.
Part 4: Journalism at the dawn of the digital age.
Photos: Apple Macintosh PowerBook 180c laptop (photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons); Magnavox VideoWriter Word Processor (photo from Click Americana.)