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The March of Computer Time

Last night I turned in my chapter on programming–just think, all of software development summarized in 55 book pages!–and am gathering my thoughts on mass storage for the chapter I’ll begin later today or tomorrow. Again, if you haven’t seen me much lately that’s the reason.

Each of my chapters has begun with a historical perspective on that chapter’s computer technology topic. This has brought lots of things to mind that I haven’t thought about in years, like IBM cards, FORTRAN, punched tape, and Bernoulli Boxes. I still have the card deck from the first program I ever wrote, in the spring of 1970. (See above.) I did some work with paper tape as well in my COSMAC days, but whatever tape I kept has been hiding well. I’d love to get a scan of a length of ASR-33 style punched tape, or a length (8″ or so) of the tape itself to scan here. Doesn’t matter what’s on it as long as it’s not greasy or physically damaged. Contact me if you have some you could spare, or least scan.

Time marches on. I have a 10MB Bernoulli Box cafeteria tray cartridge–probably in a box somewhere with the paper tape–and an original 1983 Microsoft Mouse. Obsolescence doesn’t bother me as long as I can keep functionality. I had to buy a copy of Office 2007 to keep writing commercially, since Word 2000 doesn’t understand .docx files, and Atlantis doesn’t do annotation. Yup, time marches on.

It does. Right now we’re looking down the throat of something a little unprecedented: On April 9, Microsoft turns off security updates for Windows XP.Most of my nontechnical friends seem unaware of this, and my nerd friends have long since moved on to Win7 or 8. I’m in the middle: I’ve been using Win7 on my GX620 for about a year, and have a new Win7 Optiplex 780 on the shelf ready to be populated and configured when time allows. (I’ve done almost nothing but this book for what seems like–hell, has been!–months.) I’m about to take my quadcore in for a new sled-mounted SSD and Windows 7 Pro. The 780 will become Carol’s office machine. I will keep an SX270 XP machine basically forever, because it has pop-in drives for both 3.5″ floppies and Zip cartridges, some of which are piled in odd boxes here for no compelling reason other than they’re paid for. (Yes, most of them have probably gone to bitrot by now.) However, it will no longer be on my network, and will be powered up only as needed.

Here’s an interesting wrinkle that few people seem aware of: Win7 Professional comes with a special-purpose copy of VirtualPC, with a VM containing an instance of XP. (Win7 home does not.) I’m thinking that if I don’t enable the Ethernet connection to the XP VM, it doesn’t matter whether the instance gets security updates or not. I have some stuff here that won’t run on Win8, and possibly not on Win7 either. I can install it on my poor SX270 survivor, of course, but it will be interesting to see what limitations may exist on the XP VM. If something weird turns up in the VM, I can always revert to an archival image.

The real problem with this, of course, is that a lot of nontechnical people are still using ancient machines that won’t run Win7 ever. Only five or six years ago, I still saw Windows 95 on 486 machines owned by older people at my parish. I’ll bet there are plenty of doddering Pentia XP boxes with 512MB of RAM still crunching email and (maybe) Web, along with Office 97. What happens to them? They may well get pwned. On the other hand, I’ve seen several with updates turned off that aren’t pwned. How bad is the problem, really?

I’m sure nobody knows. Sometime this spring we’re going to find out. How many exploits are likely to be left in a 12-year-old codebase? There will be some. Not all exploits are the result of bad coding practices, though I’m sure plenty can be walked back to unbounded string functions in libc, which the C community just can’t seem to give up. XP’s security model is generally lousy, especially for people who don’t understand the implications of what they do, double-especially with Internet-facing apps. That being the case, how far does Microsoft’s responsibility extend? As big as they are, can’t they keep a few security fanatics on staff to fix the exploits that do appear?

I’m thinking that questions like this may soon be asked in the courts of law. We’ll see.

Anyway. I can fix things here, and in extended family. I do worry about nontechnical retirees at our church and elsewhere. When you’re 80, a 12-year-old OS may not seem like any kind of problem, and those on fixed incomes may not feel like $500 for a new box is worthwhile to solve a problem that remains hypothetical. (Hell, my 4Runner is older than XP.) Those of us who remember Y2K hysteria can be forgiven for a strong dose of skepticism. I expect pwnage. There’s pwnage today. The only question is how bad it gets, and how much bad PR it will earn Microsoft. My prediction: If it gets bad enough, and the lawsuits get thick enough, the updates will return.

Pass the popcorn and dig your 3-D glasses out of the drawer. This is gonna be good.


  1. BJC_ABZ says:

    Firstly, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I often lurk and am rewarded with some brain fodder.

    I apologise for only commenting to observe what I believe might be an error, but I thought you might like to make a correction.

    I believe that the VM bundled with Windows 7 is a derivative of Virtual PC, rather than VMware. I use the latter regularly and I don’t think it’s been bundled by Microsoft, as it’s more of a competitor.


    1. Heh. You’re right, of course, and I should have thought a little harder about the information I got from one of the local geeks.

      Thanks for taking the time to let me know. I may fix the error in the entry, but I’ll leave these comments here so you get credit for the fix.

  2. Tom Roderick says:

    Somewhere in the debris field that is my workshop/shack I probably have some ASR-33 tape from my first assembly language course on a Dec PSP-8, but without a front end loader I don’t know if I could get to it! Since winter is back down south here tomorrow I will take a look and see if I can find any.

    The punch card really brings back memories. I used two different IBM models years ago, but never any from the company that punched the round holes — I can’t even remember who they were.

    I am not sure the OS patch rat race is the path to security heaven. I am typing this on an old computer running Windows 2000 pro and either I have been very lucky or living right since I never have had a case of being pwned — and yes I would know if I had. I watch the inbound and outbound traffic on another box. I have plans to have another box built this spring with Windows 7 once I have time to research the the issues of how UEFI and dual or multi boot will work with my other operating systems.

    The big question with the end of life of XP is what is going to happen when someone has to reinstall a valid copy of XP and it needs to be authenticated. I think THAT is when Mcrosoft may have a problem with law suits since the attitude will be, I bought it, I own it, its legal, but Microsoft is preventing me from using it. I am not a lawyer (thank goodness) but it is a question I have never seen answered.

    This was a good post Jeff. Thanks for the memories

  3. BJC_ABZ says:

    Another Windows XP issue that you might find interesting is that many high-end oscilloscopes came (and still come) with Windows XP. This is XP Professional – not XP Embedded.

    When I started a new job just over a couple of years ago, a new LeCroy oscilloscope was bought, at a cost of approximately 6000 (UKP). It came with Windows XP Professional. Even back then, I asked LeCroy what would happen when Windows XP support ended, as we planned on using its network connected features. Nobody was quite sure and it wasn’t resolved. Moving on to the last few months and discussions were restarted. The basic answer was that to change the OS required a new oscilloscope, as upgrading the existing one is not cost-effective. I expect an oscilloscope to last longer than 3 years.

    Had anyone thought this is an old, solved, problem – it’s not. Just a few weeks ago, a colleague got a top end oscilloscope, on demo, from another manufacturer. The approximate cost is 12000 (UKP). Yep, that had Windows XP too.

    I’m in two minds about such oscilloscopes. On the one hand, they have very useful features. I work with low speed custom communications systems and it’s very helpful when much of the signal can be decoded on the unit. On the other hand, there are many downsides to the unit being a PC – system management, slow boot time, etc.

  4. Tony says:

    There are bits of old technology I wish I had kept through the years. Just this past weekend a 500GB IDE (not SATA) drive was surplussed and I’m looking for a way to recycle the unit.

    One reason why old technology never stayed around our house is storage or the lack of it. Then there was the task of cleaning up a house of a hoarder and that quickly dissuades one from keeping stuff that does not get used often about.

    Still the column brought back memories and a small smile. Thanks.

  5. Larry Nelson says:

    In my archive box are a couple of core boards. One is early 60’s technology, looking every bit as archaic as core can look. The other is a mid 70’s incarnation of core from a IBM mini that looks sleek even today.

    Jeff, if you need photos of core for you book, let me know. I would be glad to help.

  6. Lee Hart says:

    I must be living in the past. I’m typing this on my Win2K PC (the newest OS I run). It does everything I need, including email and web browsing. I run an antivirus program occasionally; so far it’s never found anything.

    My basement computer is a 133 MHz Pentium II running Win98. It likewise does email and web browsing, in addition to the stuff I actually want to do. My antivirus software for this Win98 box will no longer update, but it still hasn’t caught any viruses I know of.

    I have an even older PC I use for long-term testing. It runs Win3.1, though I more often use it in DOS.

    Mostly, I use computers for email, schematic capture, simulation, PCB layout, light-duty programming, looking for parts online, and various other engineering work. I’m limited by how fast I can read, type, and think; and none of these are dependent on the computer, speed, memory, OS, or its resources.

    1. Tom Roderick says:

      Glad to hear that I am not alone in having older operating systems do what I need without the overhead and bloat of the new ones!

      One thing I do know. If I need to reinstall Windows 2000 after April I can and it will run. I think that is still a big question for XP and those that followed.

      1. Lee Hart says:

        Exactly my view, Tom. I had WinXP on my laptop. It crashed, and could not be re-installed. So I installed Win2K, and it works again. If I depended on newer Windows versions, I’d be dead each time I had to repair or replace a computer.

        The other big advantage I find to running older OS is that they really *fly* on hardware that would have crawled with a newer OS.

    2. I moved to XP from Win2K only because I was starting to get software that refused to install under Win2K. It’s annoying, but nothing I could do much about. Against future Windows disruption I’ve spent a fair amount of time getting good at Linux, and testing compatibility solutions like Crossover from Codeweavers. If I had to go there I could, though support for newer things like Office 2007 (which I need to use to collaborate with other writers these days) is dicey. This is one of those problems for which there is no good solution.

  7. Jack Smith says:

    If you would like a 33-ASR, I have one in the basement you are welcome to pick up. For that matter, I also have a model 32ASR machine. Don’t have any wide tape though. Both available without charge in Fairfax County VA, pickup only.

    Also have a Model 28-KSR machine, a Model 28 typing reperf and a 28-TD (transmitter-distributor) at the same price (free) and pickup location.

    Incidentally, why did the computer types reverse normal Teletype nomenclature? It’s always been model number first, then configurtation details. For example, a Model 19-RO is a model 19 machine (the one with a type basket like a normal manual typewriter) and RO = receive only, i.e., no keyboard. KSR = keyboard send and receive, ASR = automatic (paper tape) send and receive, etc.

    Likewise with Model 28, Model 32 and Model 33 when you look at the official Teletype Corp documentation. Model number then configuration.

    On the punched card topic, didn’t one company use an elliptical punch hole – seem to recall Boroughs might have done that but then again perhaps I’m imagining things.

    1. Thanks much, will have to pass. I wanted a Model 33 ASR badly when I was wire-wrapping COSMAC machines in 1976 and 77. However, we were new marrieds saving for a house, and it was out of reach until I got a promotion and a big raise in 1979. By that time I could afford a brand-new Diablo terminal at Xerox employee discount, and grabbed it. No paper tape hardware, but by then I had a CP/M box with 8″ floppies. By the time I could afford tape I no longer needed it.

      Nomenclature is a slippery thing in tech. I want to say that I heard Teletypes called ASR-33s at Loyola University’s computer lab, where I cadged some time on a PDP-11 from a friend who worked there. That was 1974 or 75. The guys at my ham club (Northwest Amateur Radio Club, W9LM) who did RTTY used Model 15s and 19s, and that’s what they called them. Those were the only 5-level tapes I ever saw.

      No memory of elliptical holes in paper tape. I guess that was possible, but I can’t imagine how it would be better.

      1. Jack Smith says:

        The round or elliptical holes were in punch cards – paper tape had “chad” or “chadless” punching. Chad punches put a complete hole through the tape; chadless punches kept a small paper hinge in the hole, not enough to keep the tape reader pin from passing through the hole, but enough to keep the chads attached to the tape.

        Chadless punches were mostly found in reperferators.

        Chadless tape had the advantage of being easily spliced. At the leading and trailing end, punch blanks and then using a specialized tool, overlay the tapes and push the chad flaps together so the tapes would be joined. This allowed a number of shorter tapes to be made into one long tape that could be transmitted without operator intervention, or a standardized header or trailer could be attached.

        Also, a chadless tape could have the characters received impressed upon the tape – a “typing reperf” as it was known.

        And, of course, you would use a mechanically wound tape take up reel to spool off the tape as it exited the transmitter distributor.

        Someplace around here, I have a take up tape spooler for 5 level tape.

        Remington Rand and IBM/System 3 computers used round hole punch cards. I had wrongly remembered it as Burroughs. They also were 96 column devices instead of the normal IBM 80 column rectangular punch cards.

  8. Dominic Peterson says:

    I’m reminded how long I’ve been rattling around the computer business when I note that today (24th Jan) marks 30 years since the release of the original Macintosh! I was working for an Apple dealership at the time and to say it was a leap from the Apple //e and Apple III systems we where selling is an understatement 🙂

    Also notable was the subsequent marketplace “war” between Apple’s Macintosh “pure” ideology and Microsoft’s Windows pragmatism. It’s amusing to me to see that same battle being fought again now as IOS vs Android. Almost inevitably, the outcome will be the same – Apple will find itself with a loyal, but smaller, “fan base” and a pragmatic, if not technically perfect, competitor will rule. Those old enough will also recognise Beta vs VHS as another example of this pattern.

  9. marvo says:

    I think highly of virtualbox and generally run a couple of VM’s on my main box which happens to be win7 which I felt was much better than people give it credit for. So with virtualbox I have an instance of XP for civ2 and a couple of other programs and an instance of debian for utilities and so I can run my own DNS rather than use the broken ISP one. It is a shame that ISP’s feel they need to tamper with established protocols like DNS.

  10. Denis says:

    Nobody’s picked up on this yet?

    “Microsoft Extends Windows XP Anti-Malware Updates 1 Year”,25784.html

    1. I did see that. I’m not sure it matters. I can’t think of a single person who relies on MS anti-malware software, and if updates to anti-malware packages are good enough to blunt the effect of losing security updates for XP, then Avast and AVG and Norton and even the marginal McAfee should be good enough to make the threat moot. I don’t think they are. As with the rest of it, we’ll soon find out.

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