atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#5006: The old tech

I still have a ton of documents in Professional Write (PW) format.

PW is what I used as my writing tool from about 1990 through 2000, because it was a good word processor which wasn't Word Perfect. I cannot stand Word Perfect (WP); I never liked it, could not stand to use it, and the only word processor I know of which had a worse user interface was WordStar. Holy crap was WordStar a usability nightmare; it was one step preferable to enscribing words on a slab of rock with a hammer and chisel, and it was not a very large step.

Besides, WP cost an asston, and I got my copy of PW for free, with the laptop I bought from my then-employer for $5.33.

PW was very easy to learn and use (in ways WP could never be) and it fit on--and could run from--a single 3.5" floppy. WP had to be installed. So I used it, and liked it, and wrote prodigiously with the rapid succession of cobbled-together DOS machines that was my computer world in the 1990s.

Because I was an on-site computer tech during my school years, I had access to the same suppliers my employer did, and every so often I would take advantage of that and upgrade my hardware. From the first machine I assembled from spare parts in 1992 through the culmination of Escaflowne, the Celeron box, all of them were machines I'd built and periodically upgraded. Jurai (the P3 box) was the first machine I ever bought that was pre-built and configured.

Escaflowne needed a name because it was the first machine to be connected to a broadband Internet connection; prior to that I never named them.

The laptop came first. I spent a total of about $45 on getting the thing functional, and once I found the power supply in a filing cabinet at work I was able to ditch the bench power supply. After that, $200 got me a 20 MB external hard drive for the thing, which ran via the parallel port; I still had to boot from floppy but all I needed was to boot DOS and load the parallel port drivers, after which I could do whatever else I wanted from the hard drive. It was surprisingly quick, and I actually got Windows 3.0 to run on this configuration. (It did not run well, but it ran acceptably fast.) The computer ran CGA via an Epson monitor (also bought at a steep discount for its obsolescence) and I was able to do quite a bit with this configuration. At a time when a new PC cost well over a thousand dollars, this was a bargain, even if the processor was an 8086 in a world with the 80386.

The first actual box was an IBM PC-AT motherboard crammed into a casing which wasn't meant to hold such a board. It had a single 3.5" floppy drive and a 20 MB hard drive, and the hard drive was a Computer Memory stepping motor drive. The CM hard drives had this problem with tracking; over time they'd get kind of flaky and the only way to fix it was to wipe the drive clean and reformat it...and when I say "reformat" I mean scrub it down to bare metal, peform a low-level format, and then FDISK and format and reinstall everything. In the case of this particular drive, that got me about 3 months' worth of error-free use before I had to repeat the process.

My boss sold me a spare VGA monitor for not a lot of money, and I got a used VGA card to run it; the CGA monitor got put into storage.

In July of 1992 a local computer store was having a sale on used parts, and I scored a 386-25 motherboard with 2 MB of SIP RAM. This board fit better than the PC-AT board did, but the VGA card I had would not fit; because this was a weird-ass case I had one place I could put the VGA card, and that slot had obstructions behind it that precluded putting this video card in. I had to move back to CGA for a little while, until I could get a new VGA card...and once I did, presto: a 386 computer with VGA. I was now able to play Ultima VII they way it was meant to look! (I think, in fact, that the full-height CM 20MB hard drive was part of the reason I couldn't put that VGA card in.)

The SIP RAM kept me from ever upgrading it to 4 MB. That was the only board I ever saw with SIP RAM; I could have gotten SIP RAM because it was just SIMM RAM with pins, and there were several suppliers of same, but RAM was still pretty expensive. It was on my "to-do" list.

I soon came into a Seagate ST-451 which had been dropped on its top cover, and my tests revealed that although the thing's spindle motor was noisy as hell--it sounded like a milling machine in operation--it was 100% error-free. That let me get rid of the error-prone hard drive and doubled my storage at the same time.

But eventually I got rid of the weird case, and as time went on I did other upgrades. I moved to a newer 386 motherboard with a Cyrix processor that plugged into a 386 socket but worked like a 486, and it was faster than a 486-SX processor for about the price of a 386. And at the same time I got 4 MB of RAM for it. I got a Seagate 800 MB drive which could be configured to emulate two 400 MB drives. I got a Sound Blaster. I got a CD-ROM drive, having to put in a SCSI card (about a year, maybe, before CD-ROM drives went IDE).

By 1994 I had run out of improvements. Moving to a Pentium (the original Pentium, I mean) was cost-prohibitive at the time, and I wasn't interested in it anyway; when Windows 95 came out I continued to run DOS and Win 3.1 for quite a little while at home because I didn't feel like migrating. I did, eventually.

In about mid-1998, Escaflowne was virtually a start-over-from-scratch computer. I did not reuse much from the previous computer, save the hard drive and the Sound Blaster, which was an AWE-32; the case, motherboard, memory were all new. (I kept using the old IBM 1390 keyboard, of course, which I'd gotten in 1991.) And just in time for Ultima IX I got a 32 MB VooDoo video card.

All that time, I continued to use PW to write with. I could have ganked WP from work any number of times, but didn't; there was no need for it. And it wasn't until I started the tech writing gig, where I used Word, that I made the switch.

Problem is, PW uses a proprietary file format. It's not able to save files in Rich Text or Word Perfect formats. It can save files in DCA format, which is IBM's Document Content Architecture format--and which is similarly weird and proprietary to PW's unnamed format. (I always used the extension PWT on my PW files, but PW did not have a standard extension.)

Needless to say, Word cannot read any of the formatted file formats PW is capable of writing. PW can write to the ASCII text format (.TXT) but of course you lose all your formatting--save line breaks--when you do that. Argh etc.

So what's a man to do? I've used PW to access the older stuff, and Word to write the new.

...with the upgrade to Floristica and Win 8, though, PW no longer runs. Today I downloaded DOSBox, surprised that it's not already on the system (I thought it was) and was able to run PW that way...and that way, it runs like it's 1999.


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