/ Technology

Happy 20th Birthday, Which? Computing!

Celebrations are under way as we mark the 20th birthday of Which? Computing! What tech were you using two decades ago?

Back in 1999, when Which? Computing launched, I had just moved from a Filofax to a digital organiser – a Psion 5, since you ask, and I’d not long had my first mobile phone, a Nokia 6110.

I’d been writing a bit about technology at the Financial Times, and it was around this time that I started focusing more on it.

I grew up with tech: my dad worked for IBM in the 60s and 70s and, by 1989, he was running an early version of the smart home from his Apple II, using sensors and thermometers to keep tabs on the heating bill.

Fast forward to today and sometimes it feels like I’m living in a science-fiction film. I can control my heating, my lights and my music with my voice, I can answer the door via an app even when I’m not at home.

I even keep tabs on when my cat goes in and out via her tweeting catflap, and when and how much she eats thanks to her smart dish that connects to an app.

We’re all now used to carrying a pocket-sized computer around to help us navigate, keep in touch, instantly search for information, pay for things, listen to music and watch last night’s EastEnders.

How far we’ve come

Looking back over the tech developments of the past 20 years makes me realise just how far we’ve come. Back in our first issue, we were offering help with choosing a digital camera and we were worrying about the Y2K bug, while offering tips on how to send a fax using your computer.

When the first issue of Which? Computing went to press, the BlackBerry and being able to deal with emails on the move was three years away; Gmail and Facebook were four years into the future, and Britain’s first broadband customer wouldn’t get online for another year – with a blistering speed of 512kbps

Other things we take for granted now were barely twinkles in their inventors’ eyes: Google Maps didn’t launch until 2005, and the first Android smartphone – the HTC Dream – wouldn’t hit the streets until 2008.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s visionary boss, unveiled the iPhone in 2007, changing how we interact with technology in one fell swoop. Personal digital organisers had been around for a while before the iPhone (after my Psion 5 I moved on to a Sony Clie), but it was the iPhone that created the personal, almost intimate relationship we have with our devices today.

These days I won’t leave the house without my Kindle (launched in 2007) but it’s not the end of the world if I forget to bring my purse with me because I pay for almost everything with my phone.

Hits and misses

Some innovations have fallen by the wayside: we all pointed and laughed at the first ‘Glass Explorers’ who bravely took to the streets wearing Google Glass.

Others have evolved. The Pebble watch, which launched after a hugely successful Kickstarter in 2013, is no longer with us, but it’s now commonplace to see people wearing smartwatches.

Looking back over the past two decades, it’s clear that while some tech has been amazing, other technologies have brought us to a troubled place.

We are concerned about the use of data; malware such as the WannaCry attack can bring down the NHS, and nation-state attacks can disrupt democracy.

I’m broadly optimistic that tech is, by and large, a good thing. And there are plenty of technologies I wouldn’t want to live without. But what about you? What were you using 20 years ago, and what wouldn’t you want to live without now?

Want to know more about Which? Computing and the dedicated phone Tech Support that comes with it? Here’s everything you need to know. You can also always search for help with your kit on our Tech Support website.

Comments

Nearly twenty years ago I got my very own iMac. They weren’t on general sale yet in the UK high street so tracking one down was a challenge. I had to go to a converted warehouse office in a back street of Liverpool to get mine. Amusingly enough I remember looking up the phone book to try and find a supplier.

My family had used macs for about 10 years at this point and it felt like we were the odd flowers in the flower bed at the time. It is mad to think how they have taken over in the last 20 years!

Twenty years ago I bought my first laptop computer, an Apple PowerBook G3 – a model with a ‘bronze keyboard’: https://everymac.com/systems/apple/powerbook_g3/specs/powerbook_g3_333.html It cost about £2k but came with a good connectivity including SCSI, Firewire, Ethernet, an internal telephone modem and two of the new-fangled but slow USB ports. The CD-reader could be unplugged to allow a second battery to be fitted or a 100 MB Zip drive – a much better option than the 1.44 MB floppy drives that were common at the time. I had been told that you need to use a mouse with a laptop but that proved unnecessary.

My first proper home computer was an Apple Macintosh Classic II, in 1992: https://everymac.com/systems/apple/mac_classic/specs/mac_classic_ii.html It replaced the BBC B that I had used for almost ten years.

I’ve never owned a Windows computer but made some use of them at work,

Twenty years ago I had “damp string” dial-up internet and a beige Fujitsu Siemens Pentium 4 PC running Windows ME with a “glass teletype” monitor.

Beige was the “in” colour for desktop PC’s back then.

The following year, I qualified for a long service award at work and used the gift allowance that came with it to buy a Canon MP750 printer (which is still in regular use and runs happily on 3rd part ink), a flat screen monitor (long since given away after the acquisition of a better one) and a Morphy Richards breadmaker. I did eventually give that breadmaker away, but have recently re-acquired another one of the same model.

That must have been a generous long service award, Derek, to enable you to get all those goodies. I could only get a new fountain pen with mine and had to cough up the higher cost than the award from my own pocket. That was in 1995 and, so far as I could see at the time, I would be using the fountain pen for the rest of my life but by 1997 I had almost stopped using it except for signing documents and was using a word processor for writing letters and reports myself rather than having to write them out in long-hand and giving them to a typist for transcription. I think it was about 1998 before I had a PC at work and soon bought one [Dell] for home use. Technologically things have not advanced much for me although I am now on my third home desktop PC and four years ago also started using a laptop. I now have my fourth desktop PC [HP] but have not set it up yet and started using it.

I have had a series of mobile phones since the late 90’s but that was all they were initially, not the mini-computers they are today. I have a smart phone but rarely use it except occasionally as a telephone. It was a gift and I would not have had one otherwise; it is not particularly important for me. And all the other tech gadgets have passed me by and I can’t see the advantages of most of them.

Kate – the printer was a Which? Best Buy back then 🙂

I still have one 20 year old desktop PC, but it is never used, except that its case makes a nice plinth on which I can stand one or two newer (c. 2009) desktops.

Although a 20 year old PC will still work fine with 20 year old (or older) software (anyone for WordPerfect? or Microsoft Works? or Lotus SmartSuite?), modern web browsers and web pages really run far too slowly on such old hardware.

Just in case I need to access any old files from that era, I still have a 3.5″ floppy drive on my main desktop PC. I still also have my late father’s old Canon StarWriter word processor, which he got around 1996 from Boots, when they sold the best selection of such devices in their high street shops. It is in working order, but is not ever used now.

I suppose I should also mention I’m still using Windows XP – but not as my daily driver OS.

My 11 year old desktop can either boot into XP (if I want to play legacy games) or run XP as a virtual machine from within another OS. The latter is sufficient for use with my Canon MP750 or for running Office 2003.

My MP750 is not supported under Windows 10 but it is still supported under Linux.

Twenty years ago I was using an HP Laserjet 6MP printer, that cost around £700. We had these at work, so I could buy toner cartridges from our departmental store. In these days it was necessary to use a postscript printer with DTP software and most inkjet printers needed a software raster image processor to enable them to work as postscript printers.

Life is so much simpler now.

I do remember that postscript printers were desirable once.

But, as regards users on Microsoft OSes, the transition from DOS to Windows allowed pretty much any decent graphics printer to be used for high end Word Processing or DTP applications.

These days PDF files seem to have replaced postscript files as the common de-facto standard for the digital rendering of printed pages.

Some PDF files do seem to cause problems for some printers. Last week, I assisted a library customer who had complained that the library computer system was taking ages to spool a simple 20 page b&w finance report that he was attempting to print from a web page.

Somehow between the website and Google Chrome and Windows 7 and its drivers for the library’s (Kyocera?) laser printer, about 2 GB of data was spooled to render those 20 pages. At most, I would have expected no more than about 20 MB. 2 GB is about the size of a 1 hour length video in DVD format and it did indeed take 50 minutes to spool that data. Thankfully the laser printer didn’t seem to mind and did eventually print the document as required.

I was an early user of Acrobat (later Acrobat Pro, to avoid confusion with Acrobat Reader) to create pdf files, which did not need a Postscript printer to print and anyone with Acrobat Reader could view/print them.

Twenty years ago, Mac users were still using Mac OS, but two years later, OSX became available. One of the benefits was that pdf files could be produced from any application. Windows users were eventually able to create pdfs from Microsoft Office 97 by downloading a free extension, but I don’t believe that pdf creation from any Windows application was introduced until Windows 10.

I agree, Derek, that printing from websites can still be a challenge. I’ve always used pdf files when putting documents online when I know they are likely to be printed. What I would like to know about is how to create editable pdf documents so that users can, for example, complete a form and return it as an email attachment.

I recently found this letter from my mum from 1998. A number of people in the team were highly amused by the retro tech mentions! 😀

Thanks for sharing, Abigail. If someone asks about your bank account these days, it’s probably phishing. 🙂

I began with an electric typrewriter, moved to a BBC B and evolved through several versions of Windows to the current version. People said that ME, Vista and eight were rubbish but I wouldn’t have changed any of them from choice -they all seemed to work. Buying a new computer usually meant buying a new operating system. New computers arrived when the old ones stopped working or couldn’t handle the new software. My current three run on eight ten and XP. This latter was made for me and has never been near an internet connection. I rely on it for my L and H translator which is still -in my opinion – the best there is and the only one I know that can write formally or familiarly. L&H got into trouble and folded. Sadly their disc will not load on any other of my machines, even in retro -mode setting.
I have to strike a slight negative note regarding the magazine which is only helpful if you have the same problems it tries to solve, need to buy the equipment it tests or wish to use the teaching part to learn about new software and techniques. Sadly, for me, very little of the content has been relevant, though I have enjoyed reading it. My subscription lapsed during the protest about the e. mail closure and it hasn’t been renewed. The greatest new feature that has really helped is the solid state drive which has transformed the long wait and whir into an instant click and compute.
My current computer is capable of doing far more than I demand of it so both of us will age together until it refuses to turn on. Then I will probably have to update us both.

Kate has asked what tech we were using two decades ago. That’s about the time I bought my first mobile phone, a Siemens C25.

Credit: Wikipedia

It was great not to have to search for phone boxes when on holiday, but rather expensive to use.

Nice. I think the first one I actually owned may also have been one of those – or a fairly similar model.

Yes, there were similar models. I only know the model because I still have the phone somewhere. Mine was black, not blue. I doubt I used it to send a textual message.

The battery life was not brilliant and eventually I replaced the C25 with a Nokia 3510i, which needed charged only once a week because I did not use it much. Our Patrick referred to the 3510i as a ‘brick of a phone’. https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/an-ode-to-my-brick-of-a-mobile-phone/