Another kind of in memoriam

>> Monday, January 05, 2009

I just learned that MPC--formerly Micron--is closing its doors.

The first computer I ever owned was a Micron. Okay, if you want to be sort of technical, my sister and my Dad and I went in on an Atari 600XL for sixty bucks when that line was being closed out, but that wasn't really a computer. It was a mediocre game console with a keyboard. I'd occasionally show off my knowledge of BASIC by writing a program that would be gone as soon as the power was shut off--there was no built-in storage and we never splurged on a tape drive or whatever the thing was supposed to take as external storage.

(Anybody who thinks the original Star Trek's vision of the future looks horribly dated forty-years-on might humbly remind themselves that, like the computers on the original Enterprise, many computers in the first generation of home and office computing--including, for instance, the old IBM PCjr. machines and the Ataris--used cartridges, and to far less effect. Okay, the beehive hairdos and miniskirts were maybe passé within five years of the show's demise on NBC, but loading programs on cartridges? Sadly prescient. For a little while. Sort of.)

No, the first real computer I owned was a Micron I bought in law school. Chapel Hill had a student loan program going where you could borrow an extra three grand (if I remember correctly) to purchase a computer, so in '94, I guess it was, I did some research and Micron made one of the best-rated machines in the industry. A 486, and I think it's still around here somewhere, gathering dust.

This was, of course, a year before Windows '95 came out, and hating Microsoft was already all-too-easy. Windows 3.11 had been Microsoft's state-of-the-art for too long, and Windows 3.11 was a shit sandwich served with a side of shit. Luckily, there were alternatives: IBM had a highly-rated, stable, multi-threaded OS, OS/2, that did everything Windows '95 was going to do, only better, and first. Yeah, and that really worked well for them. Anybody who thinks superior technology always wins in the marketplace might look at OS/2, the Betamax, the Tucker. Actually, that's sort of a lie: honestly (and yes, I'm going to be an over-generalizing Microsoft-bashing prick), you can compare Microsoft and Almost Anything Comparable and watch superior tech lag or lose in the market: OS/2, Be, Linux, Apple, whatever. Microsoft may be evidence that the Devil is real and open for business.

But I digress. Again.

So, I had this Micron machine for several years, and I ran OS/2 Warp v.3 and then I ran v.4, and then I think there was even a period, inevitably, when I ran a dual-boot partition with Warp over here and Win'95 over there, and then there was a point of surrender when I realized, stupid, stubborn, bastard I am, that I could run OS/2 forever and with fewer crashes and faster performance--as long as I didn't actually care if I ran any programs on it.1

Eventually, the Micron outlived whatever usefulness it still had. Actually, as I recall, what it mainly outlived was its BIOS battery. It still ran pretty well, if you overlook having to reset the time, date, and hard drives every time you turned it on. I guess I could have opened the hood and replaced the battery--one of the sweet things about Micron is that their machines were made to be opened, it was a matter of pulling out some plastic stops and the whole case slid apart (a lot of computers had this in those days, but Micron's design was pretty well-implemented; these days, you're not supposed to touch a single screw lest you void the warranty and the cases admittedly look sharper than the old grey and beige boxes of old, but it's kind of cool that back then it was just assumed you'd be pulling the box apart to add RAM or replace the processor or add a drive or two, and the better manufacturers designed their machines with that pragmatic aesthetic at the forefront). So I ended up with a hand-me-down Pentium running '98, and that was the last desktop I owned, oddly enough (since then, I've used desktop-replacement laptops).

So, it's sort of sad to see Micron go. They were a sort of faceless company with little or no style whose heyday was in the Age Of Catalogues, when it wasn't unusual to buy a computer via a phone-number in a phonebook-sized techno-post-Sears consumer catalogue, and their company had kind of a dumb name ("Micron? Doesn't that mean 'small'?" "Hush, it sounds technological." "Really? How?" "Shut up, I won the coin flip.") But that computer of theirs was one of the best machines I've owned, and it saw me through law school and beyond. Rest in peace, faceless corporation. Salut!

1Alright, this is also a slight exaggeration. Not much of one, but as I wrote it I couldn't help feeling a twinge of guilt because DeScribe was, for many years, one of the best word processors on the market. And I'd contend it was the best graphical word processor for awhile, even after the company was DeFunct and Word had become, for a time, the only real option out there. There was a time back in the early-to-mid '90s, when, in my opinion, the only word processor that touched DeScribe was the hoary blue-screened WordPerfect 5.1, a program that was ugly and had a steep learning curve but could do things that Word really wasn't capable of until this decade; indeed, WordPerfect 5.1's obsolescence had more to do with the eventual death of DOS and the evolution of printer drivers than it did with WP's limitations.


Dr. Phil (Physics) Monday, January 5, 2009 at 10:18:00 PM EST  

Ah, Micron. In Fall 1996 I bought a Micron Millennia 166 with Windows 95,and promptly installed System Commander and Windows NT4, 98SE, OS/2 version 3 and eventually IBM PC DOS 2000 (yes, there really was a version of PC DOS 7 for Y2K). This machine is still running more than a dozen years later and is my main home writing machine.

At work, I bought a similar Micron a year later, and also added over the years a number of ca. 1996-97 Microns with single and dual Pentium Pro processors, all of which are still running. Though these days I use my Windows XP laptops more often.

Changing the CMOS battery in a Micron of that era is butt simple -- it is well exposed and pops right out and is a standard size. Changing the CMOS battery in an ancient Mac SE is by contrast a nightmare.

Good, well-built machines made with superior components. But ever since they broke up the chip and computer divisions, it has always been a matter of time. I'm thinking the last owner of MPC was a French holding company, but I don't remember.

Dr. Phil

MWT Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 2:55:00 AM EST  

I much preferred Windows 3.11 to Windows 95 for the basic reason that the former didn't attempt to pretend like it was the operating system. Off on a tangent to that: has anyone else noticed a trend toward doing nearly everything via a web browser these days? I wonder when Google is going to make one that pretends to be an operating system...

Also, Wordperfect was awesome. I don't know how anyone managed to do anything useful in Word without having a Reveal Codes function - and the codes were pretty straightforward, really. HTML looks exactly like them. Wordperfect got really hard to find after a while, but there were still people using it into the mid-2000s.

Also also, the only reason Microsoft took over everything was due to its aggressive, backstabby marketing and monopolizing deals with the hardware manufacturers. Ensure that your average computer user is completely unaware of other options, and you win. :p

I believe OS/2 is still alive and well, running all our banking systems.

Eric Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 7:41:00 AM EST  

OS/2 sort of still exists as eComStation, but I believe IBM itself has abandoned support at this point (eComStation is a separate, smaller company). ATMs and similar performance-mandatory machines continued to run OS/2 for a number of years, even after Warp v.4 was no longer widely available as a consumer product, but companies have been migrating to Microsoft (and, sadly, it's not unknown to occasionally see a BSOD on an ATM or cash register now).

The "do-everything-via-browser" is part of that whole "cloud" thing everybody is raving about. I recently read something (sort of wish I could remember where, tho' I thought it was a stupid article) talking about how one day the OS would be part of the "cloud," and I had to think, "Then how will the computer know how many drives and what kind of filing system it uses after booting?" I think it goes right to what you talk about, MWT, with the OS now being synonymous with the shell, which is insane.

(It was always kind of fun to blow people's minds by pointing out that you could bring up a text shell in Windows '95 and get the DOS version that "Windows" was really using under the hood the whole time.)

There's a great set of articles out there that I don't have time to find and link to right now (you may have read them, MWT) about how Microsoft basically killed BeOS with bootloaders: Be literally tried to give itself away to manufacturers at one point, but it turned out that Microsoft's contract at the time required them to load Windows to load itself without appearing on a boot manager. So vendors could preinstall Be, but users wouldn't know it was there. Within a year or two, Be was pretty much DOA.

Dr. Phil: I didn't know that about Micron's CMOS batteries, but probably should have guessed. Those things were built. That's awesome you still have one up and about at home.

MWT Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 3:16:00 PM EST  

The other possible route that "do everything via browser" can go is back toward the Age of Dumb Terminals. Except now it'll be multicolored and graphical instead of monochrome text.

Eric Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 3:34:00 PM EST  

MWT: that's how it strikes me, too. Which is one of the reasons the "cloud computing" idea strikes me as kind of unspectacular: it's sort of turning everything into dumb terminals or thin clients, except with another name and all your data is on some faceless company's system.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, January 9, 2009 at 9:52:00 PM EST  

I have one up and running at home and five at the office.

And under Windows 95/98SE/Me/NT4/2000/XP, I still do most of my daily file manipulations via complex OS-aware Batch files running in an MS-DOS box. (grin) I am the king of DOS batch files. (double-wide-grin)

Note that "Vista" is not a word recognized by this operating system.

Dr. Phil

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