Horse Sense #125

Lessons Learned from Ancient PCs

[Windows XP reached end of support 4/18/2014 and Windows Server 2003 reached end of support, yesterday, 7/14/2015.]

I just decommissioned my 2003 Pentium 4 Windows XP desktop. I used it daily. Many of my clients are still running older versions of Windows and older PCs, so I kept using it to see how they saw things. I also have been working on a number of machines older than 4 years old lately and discovered a few interesting things....

(1) Undemanding chores, like some simple word processing or casually surfing the Internet can be done even on ancient PCs. [Tony's note: If you have an old PC that can play DVDs and keep the 5 year old visiting your office happy, you can make huge productivity gains!]

(2) Users often fill their machines up with programs and detritus over time until they become unusable. Professional maintenance restores their speed and functionality, extending their effective life. Unfortunately, my well maintained Pentium 4 is the exception. This week's machine had software that was way out of date, raising security (it had an undiagnosed infection), performance, and usability issues. Two thirds of the storage space was taken up by useless programs and personal stuff they never looked at. All sorts of programs were set to run automatically and slowed the machine down dramatically. It still does not run at lightning speed, but it is now safe and usable.

(3) New software can run on older machines. Windows 8.1 works better on many older machines I have tested better than Windows XP, Vista, 7, or 8. LINUX and Android operating systems are often quite snappy on older hardware. LINUX also tends to support older hardware better than the brand new stuff. My firewall, web site, and e mail server software continues to run well on a Pentium 4 machine built in 2003. It sent 40,000 people this e mail.

(4) I had to continually remind myself I was working with old technology. What was good for the time might seem ludicrous today. The laptops might weigh 10 pounds and the charger another three. The fans were loud and were in silly places like on the bottom of the laptop. USB ports were fewer, slower, and in inconvenient places. The processors these days are a lot faster, but what was even more noticeable was how slow the drives were. When these machines were new, the hard drives seemed lightning fast. Now I have to remember the machine is not broken or virally infected when the disk responds slowly. Once you get used to the blinding speed of solid state drives, you have to make huge allowances for the creep of older spinning hard drives.

(5) Many of the older designs (that survived until now) were pretty tough. Consumer grade equipment tends to break, burn out, or become useless quickly. Business computing equipment does not.

(6) The RAM was miniscule, the hard drives were small, wireless networking was slow, Ethernet was 100Mbps at best, and the Internet was (maybe) accessed by a 128Kbps connection at work, but limited to modem speeds at home. Yet, we got a lot of things done with our equipment. Looking at the work we did then and the tools we have available now, I am somewhat chagrined to say that we were often more productive then. Part of it is probably because we would never think of using the Internet for video. Those communication links were so valuable we sent only the most critical stuff through and did not gum it up with fonts, pictures, and other stuff. We kept things short and sweet. We were lucky to have e mail. In fact, this newsletter list was initially faxed to thousands of people rather than e mailed because clients had faxes, but no e mail. With TV we say, 500 stations and nothing to watch. Now we have all sorts of ways to communicate and often all sorts of data coming in, but we cannot listen to all of it nor is a lot of it even relevant to us. We think we need all kinds of options and that we can multitask well, but human beings do better with simpler tasks and designs that require little in the way of multitasking. "More and better" tools do not necessarily imply more productivity. We did not multitask much in years past.

(7) We did not have to be connected to the Internet to do our work. Software manufacturers delivered products to us and rarely updated them. Software patches were small, meant to be downloaded once and shared with all the machines that needed the patch, and/or were available by mail. Today's workers may not be able to work at all if they cannot connect to the Internet. Program patches are frequent, huge, and often unavailable if you are not on the Internet. Software manufacturers seem to assume infinitely large pipes to the Internet, lots of processing speed, and gargantuan hard disks where they do not have to clean up after themselves and can leave temporary files lying around or installation programs around totaling hundreds of megabytes "just in case." There is a huge emphasis in turning out the latest and greatest features so that software often seems to be continually in beta (not ready for prime time). This thinking harms modern productivity.

(8) Many of the devices we had then were multipurpose and meant to get work done. Now, most computing devices are based on either communication (phones) or entertainment (TVs, electronic readers, tablets) and lack even physical keyboards and are meant for consuming content, not doing doing work.

(9) Our computers waited for input from us. Now with social media, voice over IP, video teleconferences, and the like, our computers are often demanding our attention. It sometimes seems they are driving us rather than we them. They want us to multitask and pay attention to all sorts of incoming data. Unfortunately, more of it is data than information and we humans multitask and filter poorly.

Have you looked at whether the way you are now doing things is robbing you of productivity? Want to talk to a sympathetic ear? We are listening!

©2015 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse