Three candles

Three candles

Waiting for the cyber-NRMA to arrive, Matthew JC. Powell wonders if there will soon be a thriving after market in floppy disk drivesLast Friday was the third anniversary of my first job at IDG, the publisher of this venerable publication. At the time, few journos here had electronic mail, fewer still had access to the Web. I was one of the few, mainly thanks to the fact that I already had a dial-up account with an ISP. Even then, in order to use my account I had to unplug my phone (telling the receptionist I was doing so and wouldn't be answering calls for a while), dial in, get as much done as quickly as possible and get back to the real world.

It wasn't convenient. I checked my e-mail maybe three times a day, and used the Web sparingly. Other people in the office would hear the modem squawking and run in with things they needed looking up, so my time was not even my own.

Remember here, I'm not talking about some dark, forgotten era in the mists of time. I'm not one of these archetypal codgers whittling by the fire reminiscing about "when I were a lad". This was three years ago - I was young then, and I'm not exactly old now. The squawking modem was a 28.8Kbps - state of the art then, but nothing to be ashamed of now.

My point is that three years ago, most people here didn't have any concept of what the Internet "looked like", much less what it was for. It wasn't a particularly important part of what we did here at the coalface.

I've gotten all sentimental because, tragically, our company Internet thingo has done some bad technical thing or other (not wanting to dazzle you with terminology and jargon, I'm translating into laymen's terms). The upshot is that I don't "have" the Internet today, but unlike three years ago, now it matters.

Beeps & boops

Nowadays, everyone here has Internet access via the LAN, so I check my e-mail constantly. Periodically it beeps merrily to let me know something's arrived, or boops mournfully to indicate that no one has thought me worthy of an e-missive.

Should I decide I need something off the Web, I start my choice of Web browser (I use both Navigator and Explorer for different things, so no free plugs) and go for it.

No crawling around under my desk fiddling with cables, no arcane dial-up scripts or initialisation strings. I remember being overjoyed in the old days to hear the modem's familiar "ftang ftang burble-burble" noise which indicated it had found another 28.8Kbps modem at the ISP, so my Web work would be done so much faster.

Now it seems bizarre to me that anyone should be able to recognise and understand such a weird sound. I used to be able to imitate the noise pretty convincingly too. High geek points for that.

Back to the dark ages

But no amount of buzzing and warbling into the phone line will get the Internet to work for me today. Even to hand this column to my production editor I will have to resort to - wait for a suitably dramatic period of time in order to maximise the impact of what I'm about to tell you - a floppy disk. Shocking, isn't it? Disgraceful? Rather disappointing, even? Here I am, fully-paid card-carrying citizen of cyberspace, pulled over in the breakdown lane of the information superhighway with my wheels jacked up, resorting to technology from the 1970s in order to get my work done.

Yes, yes, I know, the Internet is also technology from the '70s. Such logic spoils a good rant.

My point here is that I have allowed myself, in the past few years, to become dependent upon the Internet operating at a particular degree of efficiency. When it doesn't I am less able to work than I was back before I even had the Internet. To stretch the highway metaphor a little more mercilessly, I've become so used to my car, I've forgotten how to walk.

The first machine from a mainstream vendor designed solely and specifically for the Internet is about to hit our shores. Apple's iMac, which Paul has written about on the opposite page, comes ready "out of the box" to be hooked up to the Internet via LAN or dial-up within minutes of getting it home. It's a great machine and I expect it to be quite successful if Apple handles it well. I also expect other manufacturers to follow suit with Internet-specific machines in the near future.

But it doesn't come with a floppy drive. This is a good thing. The floppy disk format is low-capacity and unreliable, and omitting one saves the cost of a part few users will ever have a need for.

But Apple is presuming, in leaving out the floppy, that the Internet will be a more reliable and stable way for its customers to swap files of a megabyte or so in size.

As I've discovered today, that isn't always the case.

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