Saturday, February 6, 2016

Support Days, I

About thirty years ago, I started to work in customer support at a company that made typesetting systems. The software ran on minicomputers, which were "mini" in comparison to the mainframes of the day, water-cooled machines that required raised-floor rooms. A minicomputer was simply the size of a refrigerator, say six feet high by two wide and two deep. These minis came from Data General, long since gone, and mostly were 16-bit machines running RDOS (real-time disk operating system) or 32-bit machines running AOS/VS (the advanced operating system with virtual storage).

At some point it must have occurred to someone at Data General that people wanted and were buying smaller computers. Data General therefore produced a small machine, the name of which escapes me. It was about the size of a toaster oven: remove the handle of a toaster over, spray paint it Army green, put on a couple of serial ports, and you will have something that looked like this machine. It had about 40 MB of disk space, roughly one five thousandth of the storage on the iPhone 5 in my pocket.. Our company had heard of desktop publishing, and must have decided to see whether people really wanted a Macintosh with Display Postscript and WYSIWYG, or would prefer a toaster oven with green screen dumb terminals and a hyphenation and justification pass.

The toaster oven was not popular. That I heard, only two of these machines ever shipped. One went to our West Coast support rep. One went to a small company in this area. One day, I was sent to the local company to see what I could do for them. The owner's complaint was lack of disk space. I was not familiar with the machine, nor with its operating system (AOS, a 16-bit predecessor of AOS/VS). But after some poking around I found a directory tree of unused software, removed it, and got back the space he wanted. Sometime during the course of the visit, having noticed my unfamiliarity, the owner asked, "How many of these things are out there?" I said something like "Well, not an awful lot."

Data General is, as I say, gone. It tried to make the transition to selling computers running a UNIX variant on RISC chips, and by all accounts made a pretty good machine. But even the companies who got into that business without the old minis to support are mostly gone now. I have heard, within the last ten years, of somebody running my old company's software, on what platform and how supported I can't guess. The guy with the toaster oven wasn't doing much of anything Word Perfect 4.2 wouldn't do, and I don't suppose his business survived very long.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting article. My husband is a software engineer; I'm sending this to him.
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