Tuesday, January 1, 2008

on primitive computing.

A few days ago, I started a little experiment.

Before we moved to New Hampshire, I sold or gave away most of my small collection of vintage Macintosh systems. The only ones I retained were a Powerbook 3400c (because it's still useful with its built-in CD-ROM and network connection, because I have an entire spare 3400c for parts in case something breaks, and because it'll make a dandy first computer for Quinn), and a Color Classic (because it's cute as a button.)

Now, the Color Classic is an obsolete computer by any standard of the definition. While the Powerbook can run Office 2001, Internet Explorer, and other modern software, the little Color Classic doesn't have the wheaties to cruise the web or serve up YouTube videos. It's an all-in-one akin to the original Macintosh, a small beige box with a floppy drive and a very sharp and crisp 10" Sony color monitor built into the case. The main processor runs at 16 MHz (even cell phones have more powerful CPUs these days), and the system has 10MB RAM and an 80MB hard drive. It runs Mac OS 7.1, and very little else.


When I purchased my Alphasmart Neo, I discovered the benefits of minimalist computing. The Neo only does text--no web browsing, no email, no WiFi, nothing but you and whatever it is you want to commit to paper. In the six months since I bought it, my word count has increased dramatically, because the Neo's One-Trick Pony nature allowed me to concentrate just on my work, without distracting me with Instant Messages or tempting me with games or a Wikipedia safari.

Well, I took another look at the Color Classic, which had been stored in my closet since I got it for free from one of fellow Robin's Ph.D. candidates at UT a few years back. Then I realized that the little Mac might have the same decluttering effect on the creative process, since it couldn't run serve up any modern distractions, either.

So, I dusted it off, replaced a dead PRAM battery that prevented it from booting up (the original half-AA cell had finally run dry after 14 years), and fired the little thing up.

And you know what? There's something liberating about that old technology. You don't get Google or streaming video, but that little Color Classic boots from a cold start to the OS 7 desktop in ten or twelve seconds, and shuts down instantly. I spent a few hours on the Internet looking for a suitable word processor that would let me save my stuff in a format the Windows box would understand (I do my final formatting and printing from Office 2007 on the modern machine), and found one called Nisus Writer that actually fits on a single floppy.

I wasn't expecting too much from Nisus Writer. I mean, how sophisticated can a program be that fits on a floppy disk and takes only 1MB of system memory to run?

Pretty sophisticated, it turns out. Nisus Writer, last updated in the early 1990s, lets me do everything I usually do in MS Word. It has a thesaurus, a spell checker, word count, and all the formatting features I routinely use. It even opens previously edited documents to the precise location where you left off, which is something that Word still hasn't learned even in the 2007 version. In addition, Nisus Writer saves its files in plain text format, which can be copied to a floppy and then opened by Word (or any other word processor) on the XP box without any loss in formatting.

Well, if you use a piece of hardware for a specific purpose only, and it does that job as well as any modern hardware, can you really brand it as "obsolete"?

Now the Color Classic is sitting on my desk as the in-house writing machine. I still use the Neo whenever I go out, or feel the need to move around in the house, but the Color Classic now serves as the screen-and-keyboard version of the Neo. It doesn't take up much space, it looks good on the desk, it's just as useful as any other computer for the limited task of word processing, and it's fun to use.  Electronics recycling at its best, no?

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