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22nd of September, 2017

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The Good ol' Days, When things were Shiny

Back in the good old-to-middlin’ days, I was an avid user of OS/2. It had a lot of technical trickery you could entertain yourself with. Shadows, for example. Shadows were like the links you can make in Windows, except they actually worked. In Windows, a link isn’t much more that a text file with the path of a document or program in it and the .lnk suffix. This means, of course, that if the document ever moves the link doesn’t work any more. It’s not a link at all, really: It’s a bookmark. Not so with shadows; once made, you could move the document to wherever you wanted, and the shadow would always know where it had gotten off to. Incidentally, Mac OS X is the only operating system I’m aware of that has this functionality today, eComStation excepted.

OS/2 wasn’t perfect, though. It was ugly, even by the standards of 1994. It also had a weird interface to it. Sometimes, dialogs were arranged in tabs along the right, sometimes along the top, and they hardly ever had OK buttons. Presentation Manager, the OS/2 version of Windows’ Explorer, also had some quirks when viewing things in tree fashion. The multimedia subsystem sucked, frankly. You couldn’t reliably changed things like screen resolution, or color depth. The on-screen fonts were powered by some weird, mutated version of Adobe Type Manager, which wasn’t compatible with any other version, so you had to convert your Windows ATM fonts over with UNIX tools, just in case you had an SGI sitting around (we did, fortunately). And, compared to DOS and Windows, it was slow and memory-intensive to do anything with.

Probably the only things I miss about OS/2 now are the applications I used with it. You see, kids, back then, when you said ‘Office’, you just as likely meant Lotus Smartsuite or WordPerfect Office as Microsoft Office. Smartsuite/2 was a combination of Ami Pro, Lotus 1-2-3, Organizer, and Freelance, all distributed on about 40 3.5” diskettes. The very first word processor written for Windows, Ami Pro was a nice environment to get stuff done in. Then Lotus bought it. Then they bought Harvard Graphics out, I think. Then Paradox, the database. While they were busy buying and ruining the pieces they didn’t have, and suing people like Borland over competing products (the Lotus lawsuit over Quattro touched off a couple of years of “Look & Feel” paranoia), IBM was getting ready to buy their asses and return the favor.

There were also some pretty innovative programs you could play around with. DeScribe, for example, was the first word-processor that included as-you-type background spellchecking. Clearlook tried really, really hard to be all frame-y like Ami Pro/Word Pro, but was more like KWord than anything else. Galactic Civilizations was a kick-ass Civilization-in-Space game. Then there was OpenDoc. I was really excited about OpenDoc, seeing as OLE sucked ass back then, as it still does today. That functionality is actually worse today than it was back then! OpenOffice is about the only spreadsheet/word processing combo where you can still ‘Paste Link’. That doesn’t even work with Office anymore. I guess I was the only schmoe that thought it was useful. Ah, the fruits of Taligent, doomed by market forces and the absolutely grisly OS/2 typography engine.

Between IBM and Corel, the roadkill and also-rans of computing history have finally found a home. Kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys, or some’n.

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