Saturday 20 June 2009

It was sixteen years ago today

October 1993. Military forces stormed the Russian parliament, Benazir Bhutto was elected in Pakistan, and I’d bought an issue of Computer Shopper. For £1.49 it had a hefty 582 pages, much of it advertising in the era of catalogue adverts, companies like Software Warehouse and Computers by Post taking ten to fifteen pages to showcase their wares. Inside the front cover fold-out was the familiar Dell logo; their Dimension range started with a 25Mhz 486SX with 4MBb RAM, an 80Mb hard drive and SVGA for £859, and went up to a 66Mhz 486DX with 8Mb RAM and 230Mb hard drive for £1,819. Anyone who’d bought the “Pentium ready” machine from August ’92 must have been a bit miffed; still no sign of Intel’s latest uberchip, and Dan were selling a 64 bit “dantium” system, just poised to upgrade to a FULL BLOWN PENTIUM(tm) via a CPU card as soon as it became available, at £2848 for the 486DX2/66 model with 1.05GB hard drive. Amstrad were still going, with their 7486SLC coming it at a fairly reasonable £699; rather more intriguing was their “MEGA PC”, a curious hybrid of a 386SX PC and a Sega Mega Drive. I remember someone at school talking of this mythical beast, a PC that transformed at the slide of a panel into a console, and I thought it was their fevered imagination, but no, such a thing actually existed; this very advert was on page 511. Notebook PCs with beefy processors and colour VGA screens offered power on the move, but at a price; £2699 for a 486/33 from Mitac. More compact than that, Time were offering a Sharp Palmtop PC (though you’d need pretty big palms) weighing a mere 1lb, toting DOS 3.3, a CGA LCD screen and 1Mb RAM for £239. Alternatively, if you wanted to eschew the keyboard, Amstrad were branching out with the PenPad PDA600 for £229: “with the latest in technology Amstrad bring you the PenPad PDA600; a comprehensive Personal Digital Assistant which is as natural to use as a traditional organiser. Just pick up the pen and write on the screen!”

As part of a fairly thorough buying guide, the PriceTrack feature tracked average prices of some sample systems over the course of the past six months; as would be expected, desktop PC prices had been fairly steadily falling, but the column advised buying sooner rather than later, or holding off for a while, as an explosion at a Japanese epoxy resin plant caused a worldwide Ram shortage. Notebook PCs also fell in price over the six months, albeit by a smaller percentage, while printers had held steady, indeed the average 24 pin dot matrix had slightly increased in price.

After 276 pages of almost solid adverts, the news pages started. Microsoft were beta testing the final upgrade for Windows 3, codenamed “Snowball”, a stepping stone towards the 32-bit “Chicago”, at that point due to appear the next year as Windows 4.0, while Windows NT has finally arrived in the UK after many delays. IBM had announced a record quarterly loss of $8 billion, but hoped the latest round of cuts would return it to profitability. Apple had just unveiled the Newton MessagePad, the £599 price tag doubtless contributing to its subsequent lack of success. Colour LCD displays were taking off, Compaq being unable to clear an order backlog for its TFT-equipped laptops, prompting Philips to invest in a TFT LCD screen factory. Microsoft and Borland were duking it out in the 32-bit development space with Visual C++ for Windows NT and Borland’s C++ for OS/2; the caption of “yes, honestly, a third-party product for OS/2” suggests how well IBM’s operating system was doing.

With the introduction of Apple’s Newton, the Analysis section looked at the new buzzword in town: Stici. Pronounced “sticky” (apparently), it stood for “Self-teaching interpretive communicating interface”, the successor to the GUI. US analyst BIS Strategic Decisions predicted this would be the next big thing, with 60.4% of the US installed base of PCs and PDAs using a “Stici” interface by 1998. Maybe not, eh?

Group reviews included a bumper roundup of 21 386s, with machines from Acer, Brother and Watford getting the Best Buy nod, and budget databases, rounding up a number of packages under £100.

The “Using MSDOS” column in this issue was on creating multiple configurations in the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat files, extremely useful for gamers when you had to juggle expanded, extended and high memory, along with assorted drivers for mice, soundcards and other gubbins, depending on the game. DEVICE=C:\DOS\EMM386.EXE RAM i=e000-efff x=A000-c7ff x=DC00-DFFF 1024, eh? Those were the days… Other columns covered Windows, programming, and, being a multi-format magazine, the Amiga, Atari and Mac. Although 99% of the advertising was IBM-compatible focused, it was often interesting to see what was going on with other systems, and this month’s Amiga column included news of the CD32 Amiga Console launch from July at the Science Museum that involved “drinking champagne and being sprayed with a water pistol by Chris ‘Big Breakfast’ Evans if we weren’t paying attention”. The basic machine cost £299.99, with a full-motion video (FMV) cartridge add-on for another £200. Phil South wasn’t impressed, though, having several problems with the name (“CD32 is a crap name with as much charisma as a boiled egg”), the case (“the CD32 is charcoal grey and all sharp edges like a cheap stereo out of a home shopping catalogue”), and the idea of the idea of music CDs also containing an FMV video. His suggestion: “follow the advice of a firm that Commodore consulted early on in the life of the CD32: make some really good soft-porn FMVs to pull in the adults, and have some really gory games to pull in the teenagers. Get some of the software banned and you won’t be able to shift the machines fast enough.” Wonder if that consultant was Jack Thompson?

Presumably some old charter or something compelled all PC magazines to have a section called “After Hours”, Computer Shopper being no exception. A whole two pages, this month saw reviews of Beauty and the Beast, a tie-in for the Disney film, Patience Games, 15 solo card games for DOS, and DesignaKnit. Not really the cutting edge of PC gaming, but no matter; though no one would have believed, in the last months of the the twentieth century (give or take seven years) PC gaming was being reported upon elsewhere in the timeless worlds of publishing…

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