My changing workplace – part 3: The mid-to-late 90's

One thing I should say about this little series is that I’m writing the commentary as I remember it. In the previous post (part 1 and part 2) my memory of the sequence of events is clearer for some reason. I started this post thinking that I could cover them all in one post, but it was getting way too long, so there’s more to follow.

I’d moved to yet another office, this one was smaller and only had four of us in it. Each one of us has an L-shaped desk facing into the corner.

A number of tectonic technology shifts had occurred since the early 90’s. The first and most immediately visible shift was the emergence of operating systems and personal computers. I’m not just talking about PC’s, there were all sorts of personal computing being used around the place.

There were UNIX workstations from Sun, Digital, Silicon Graphics and IBM. I remember being quite impressed by the Sun SPARCstations, particularly the ‘lunch-box’ sized ones that stacked together with other SCSI connected peripherals. If I remember correctly there was one particular character in the office who’s stack of papers on his desk were always at least as high as his stacks of SPARCstation equipment. The IBM AIX Workstations were used extensively in the design department for 3D CAD. There were a few Silicon Graphics devices, limited to some high-end graphics requirements that we had. There were also VAXstations and X-terminals. These systems were all used for engineering purposes. Calculation has always been a huge part of engineering, those calculations where becoming computations and the computations were being integrated into applications. The human barrier to calculation was being removed.

Over on the business systems side another set of personal computers and operating systems were being used. DOS was still being used, as was Windows ’95 and Windows ’98, we also used IBM OS/2 1.3, 2.0 and Warp 3. As business systems these devices were used for word processing, spread-sheets and the newly emerging activity of presentations. Because we had a strong IBM heritage and also a history with Lotus Software we preferred the IBM OS/2 and Lotus SmartSuite approach. People would ask us all the time why we didn’t use WordPerfect, they were wrong. When Lotus was purchased by IBM in 1995 we thought that there was a winning formula there, we were very wrong too. Neither WordPerfect or Lotus SmartSuite would be the ultimate winners in the battle for dominance of office automation software.

On the hardware side of things, being an IBM shop, we preferred the PS/2. We thought that the MCA architecture was superior to the ISA architecture that all the clone manufacturers were pursuing. We stuck with IBM even after the PS/2 had been superseded by the IBM PC Series 300 and 700 (named in BMW model style). PCI was replacing both MCA and ICA. There were a number of clone devices around, primarily those from DEC and latterly Compaq, but there were also a number of Toshiba laptops around. The DEC devices were introduced by the teams supporting the engineering computing environment. IBM’s grip on the PC hardware and software market was well and truly slipping. At some point, I don’t quite remember when, we left IBM behind for desktop devices and moved over to HP Pavilions we never went back.

The laptop was a luxury and only provided to those who were important enough to justify it. I remember the embarrassment of one particular manager who had left his laptop on the roof of his car, forgotten about it, and then reversed down a hill, eventually driving over the top of his much loved Toshiba. It survived quite well, remaining in working order apart from a big crack down the middle of the screen. Most laptops were, however, IBM ThinkPad even after we had switched over to HP for the desktops. There was a number of people who got massively excited about the Toshiba Libretto. The problem with laptops of the day was weight and the diminutive Libretto promised a lot more mobility. They never really took off. The same was also true for the HP OmniBook 300 with it’s odd, inbuilt, mouse contraption. I’ve had a number of ThinkPad’s down the years and they’ve always been reliable work-horses.

There were also a number of Apple Mac devices around, but they were seen as special and only used by the people in some of the graphics departments. In our little office of four one of the team spent much of his time fulfilling the needs of this community, but Mac’s were never regarded as mainstream devices.

Most of these personal systems were built as stand-alone devices. Each one was built in it’s own unique way with floppy disk and CD, a few applications were becoming available on DVD but only the newest devices could read them anyway. We would know some of them intimately because all of the support was done in person. Most of my time was spent tripping from one device to another, changing a configuration here, adding some software there. We only patched things when it was absolutely necessary.

Another class of devices were also starting to be used, the PDA. Some people had tried to use the original Psion organisers but it was the release of the Psion Series 3 that moved these devices into the mainstream. When in 1998 Psion got together with other Nokia and Ericcson to form Symbian everyone thought that this plucky British company was onto a winner, we were, again, wrong. Another set of devices were already starting to become popular, the PalmPilot. The Apple man in the office played around with the Newton for a period of time too. HP introduced the Jornada PDA running Windows CE in 1998, that never really took off either.

The mobile phone was starting to have an impact too. My first mobile was a Nokia 3100 and later moved onto a Nokia 6130 which I still have today (It still works and occasionally, when the kids have damaged their more modern mobiles I’ve made them use it as a lesson. They affectionately know it as ‘bricky’). The cost of calls was high and we still did a lot of communication via pagers. The mobile phone was, after all, just a phone, although people were already starting to think of it as a more general communication device. At some point we started to use SMS for text messages, but that was, again, limited by the cost.

In a few short years computing had moved from 8-bit to 16-bit and on to 32-bit and 64-bit systems, it had also moved from the computer room onto our desks and into our pockets. Our expectations of what we could do had massively shifted too. Most documents were produced by the author and the typing pool was becoming a thing of the past. The personal printer had also arrived and we no longer took the long walk to the print room. We didn’t always print everything either, email was becoming the normal way of communicating.

There were other tectonic technology shifts changing my workplace. The network was starting to change the way that we thought about the whole computing landscape,
things were becoming connected. Microsoft was building a position of dominance with Windows and Office. Applications were becoming client-server.  I no longer worked for an engineering company, I had been moved into an IT company through the emerging business trend of outsourcing.

Those shifts will, however, have to wait for another day.

My changing workplace:

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