Dead Ends in Microcomputer Technology
Microcomputer technology does not always proceed onward and upward. Sometimes it lurches off-course, backward and downward. In evolutionary terms, there are plenty of extinct fossils in the history of microcomputers. Herewith, a fanciful look at some of the wrong turns progress has taken:
- The LP-ROM Drive.
Some may recall that when home computers first came out, cassette tapes were used for storage, much as floppy disks are now. The latest storage medium is the Compact Disk (CD), which holds many millions of bytes in a laser-readable form. Following the use of cassette tapes and before the use of compact disks, the Long Playing record album (LP) seemed like the next logical step. However, plagued with difficulties, including the infamous tonearm-skip problem, this up-and-coming line of research was abandoned.
- The C-- Language.
Envisioned as a subset of the C language (much as C++ is an object-oriented superset of the C language), C-- did away with both data and function entirely. A typical program in C-- simply sits there, serenely doing nothing. Rumor has it that several popular database programs are coded entirely in C--.
- The Sonar Printer.
Designed by some ex-Navy submarine engineers, the sonar printer was intended to be a low-cost alternative to the laser printer. Finely aimed ultrasonic beams would burst microscopic ink droplets onto the page. Although it worked well in development, in everyday use a sonar printer in draft mode could shatter windows at 30 paces. It is now being marketed as part of a home security system.
- The Smell Screen.
What computer monitors are to the eyes, and speakers are to the ears, and touch screens are to the hands, the smell screen was intended to be for the least-powerful human sense. The concept worked too well, however. Spreadsheets, frankly, stank. Word processors seized up if the user was drinking herbal teas. And strong cologne routinely caused system crashes.
- Bottom-up Programming.
In top-down programming, popularized in the 70s, one began with a simple statement of the desired functions of a program. One then progressively refined the detail of this statement, until computer code was written to perform the functions. It was found, however, that the resulting programs almost never did what they were originally intended to do. For this reason, Bottom-up programming was invented. The typical Bottom-up software development cycle worked like this:
This resulted in a far more efficient process, since debugging was unnecessary. Perhaps this should not be listed as a dead end at all. In fact, all known applications are written this way!
- Write the program first
- See what the program does
- Market the program accordingly
- Trinary Number System.
Trinary numbers are based on powers of three, much as binary numbers are based on powers of two. It is a little-known fact that, after working out the rules of arithmetic for binary numbers, Leibniz then did the same for trinary numbers. More recently, engineers tried to design circuitry to work with trinary numbers, but hit a snag. While it was easy to model the 0 and 1 of binary with off and on circuits, it wasn't easy to model the 0, 1 and 2 of trinary. Also, in logic, 0 and 1 naturally corresponded to false and true, while in trinary, 0, 1 and 2 corresponded to false, true and well-maybe. As a result, trinary logic is now used mainly by politicians.
- The Intel 80 1,000,000 86
This chip was developed in the same series as the 80286, 80386 and 80486 chips. The ``million-86'', as it was called, did not enjoy the same popularity as the other chips, probably because it required a data bus the size of, well, a bus.
- The True Monochrome Monitor.
As you know, the monitors called monochrome are actually bi-chrome: two colors (a foreground color on a background color). The true monochrome monitor was just that: one color for the entire screen. There were several advantages. First, screen I/O was speeded up tremendously. Second, it could be used with any display adapter. Finally, it could be very energy-efficient, especially if the color chosen were black. Alas, users complained: Tetris and Flight Simulator were rendered practically unusable, bringing all normal use of computers to a halt.
- Electrostatic Diskettes.
While regular diskettes work by recording data magnetically, these diskettes recorded data electrostatically. Unfortunately, only one bit could be recorded per diskette. And the diskettes had to be enveloped in rubber or you could get a hell of a shock (but only from the diskettes with a 1 on them).
- ShoulderTop Computers.
While laptop computers have proven very popular with commuters and travelers, not all traveling is done seated. For those lapless commuters who must stand on trains or buses, the shoulder top computer was invented. Two curved and padded struts sat on the user's shoulder, suspending a small monitor at about eye level. A separate belt unit held the keyboard. Dismal sales caused its untimely demise.
- The Personal Computer Punched Card Reader.
Intended as a transition from mainframes to personal computers, the PCPCR would read a deck of computer cards through a slot on the front of the machine, then eject them out the rear. Further research was abandoned in favor of the LP data storage system (see above).
- The Single-key Keyboard.
A perennial complaint of touch-typing users is the distance hands must travel over the keyboard to reach all the keys. The Single-key Keyboard totally eliminated that problem. There was only one key on the main keypad. However, there were also 8 different Control and Alt keys, to modify the meaning of the single key. For example, to type the letter ``a'' would require . Obviously, the big drawback to this was the large number of key combinations to be remembered, even though this was actually less than what's required to operate most word processor programs.
- The Mousintosh Computer.
This clever device merged a mouse with a computer by mounting the entire computer base unit on a large movable ball. By moving the entire computer around the desktop, on-screen choices could be made. Although never widely popular, this is still a ``cult'' favorite among bodybuilders.
- The Floor-screen.
The makers of this product would replace the floor of your office with a gigantic touch-sensitive screen. The user would make on-screen selections by leaping from place to place. The aerobic advantages of this technology are obvious. In fact, it was soon discovered that certain famous ballets were actually intended as keyboard macros for spreadsheet programs. Unfortunately, rearranging the furniture or even moving your chair could result in undesired loss of data.
- The Voice Modem.
With this device the user could yell into the computer. The Voice Modem would convert the sound into electrical signals and send them along ordinary phone wires. Replies would be received electrically, converted to sound by another Voice Modem and bellowed back from the computer. The sight of people screaming at their computers became quite common, and in fact can still be observed. After several years people realized somewhat sheepishly that the function of the Voice Modem was equivalent to that of the telephone.
Write-Only Memory (WOM).
Originally promoted as an efficient information storage system without the costly equipment needed for retrieval of the information, the perpetrators of this scheme were eventually convicted of fraud. Think about it....CFH