Researching the history of PC computing

Finding out what happened in the world of PC computing 20 or 25 years ago isn’t always easy. The 1980s were over before the Internet took off, which means that most of the information was never publicly available in electronic form. Old print magazines ended up being pulped many years ago. People often forget what happened 20 years ago, and their recollections cannot be always entirely trusted.

However, there are other trends working against amnesia. Some old print media are being digitized and indexed. Sifting through the back issues of InfoWorld with the help of Google Books is infinitely more efficient than the methods which were actually available around 1990. Old floppies and CDs are likewise being archived in digital form. Developer releases of Windows from 1984 are now available on the Net, as well as early previews of Windows NT from 1991. At the time of their release, those materials were only available to a select few, often under strict non-disclosure agreements.

Ironically, decades later, certain information is publicly available which had never been available before. There have been several high-profile court cases involving Microsoft, IBM, SCO, Novell, and other companies. As a result, many internal company documents, often classified as highly confidential at the time they were originally written, are now in the public domain. In the early 1990s, only very few people really knew what the relationship between IBM and Microsoft was like, how Microsoft competed against companies like Digital Research and Novell, or how many copies of MS-DOS were sold and at what prices.

Another valuable and now easily accessible source of information is the IBM online announcement letter archive. The archive is obviously very useful for researching the early PC history, when IBM was the leading PC manufacturer and defined the PC market. Detailed information related to IBM’s DOS and OS/2 releases can also be found in the archive.

Most of the people involved are still alive, even if often retired or working in different fields. Whatever they say today is not likely to have any material impact, as it would have back when the history was being made, so they’re more free to talk.

Last but not least, the distance of two or three decades provides perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to trace back the trends which ended up being significant, while ignoring short-lived fads, rightfully forgotten. It’s easy to see which promises were wildly unrealistic, or how badly the announced development schedules slipped. What happened in the 1980s or the early 1990s can now be dispassionately evaluated and analyzed, without getting into partisan flame wars. There are no more axes to grind because they largely rotted away a long time ago. While finding some sort of objective truth may never be possible, it’s much easier today than it was back then.

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2 Responses to Researching the history of PC computing

  1. ths says:

    the german magazine c’t was a wealth of information about DOS, Windows and even OS/2 internals. It was one of the very few magazines which not only wrote about the existence of OS/2 but in fact also published some very good knowhow articles about OS/2 architecture, WPS programming, Rexx etc.
    c’t archives are available on DVD from the first issue in 12/83.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    Good to know, I’ll keep this in mind. Fortunately I have no trouble reading German computerese 🙂

    There’s another German magazine that should have some really interesting information in it: UNIX Magazin from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among others it published a series of articles on 386BSD developments by William Jolitz (in 1991/2). I’ve unfortunately not been able to find any trace of the old UNIX Magazin issues.

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