Ain't broke, don't fix: Ancient computer systems still in use today
Powering your life from punch cards to OS/2
By Benj Edwards | PC World | Published: 14:42, 21 February 2012
The United States developed many fighter jet and missile systems during the Cold War era using DEC hardware for test and control functions, says Jones, because the company's minicomputers were among the very first general purpose machines that did not require water cooling and could be used in harsh environments.
The biggest problem with maintaining such ancient computer systems is that the original technicians who knew how to configure and maintain them have long since retired or passed away, so no one is left with the knowledge required to fix them if they break.
Even if someone does know how to fix them, finding replacement parts can be tricky. Stanley Quayle, a computer emulation consultant, has seen contractors desperate to find the parts they need.
"I have a prospective customer supporting a missile defence system that is buying parts on eBay," says Quayle. "Any parts they do find are as old or older than their system," meaning they're sometimes no more reliable than the pieces they replace.
The Apple IIe warehouse
Lots of people fell in love with the Apple IIe when it was released in 1983. It supported a wide variety of software and hardware, it was reliable, and its seven internal expansion slots made it extremely flexible.
For Kevin Huffman, who owns and operates Huffman Industrial Warehouse, that love has never waned. His firm stores and ships out goods for companies that rent his warehouse space, and he regularly uses his vintage Apple IIe to track inventory and keep accounts. Huffman got started with the Apple II line in college and later bought two identical Apple IIe systems from his brother-in-law in the mid-1980s, one of which he uses today. He keeps the other unit as an emergency backup.
Huffman's Apple IIe setup is nothing fancy, but it is fully stocked. It's equipped with 128 kilobytes of RAM, the standard 1MHz 6502 CPU and AppleSoft BASIC in ROM. It contains five expansion cards: a printer card, two disk interface cards, a serial port card and an 80-column video card. For peripherals, he uses an Apple DuoDisk unit, a 10-inch amber video monitor and a trusty workhorse of a printer, a Star NP-10 that "is still going strong at 26-plus years old," he says.
Huffman runs an application suite on the Apple IIe called "The Business Accountant," first published by Manzanita Software in 1984. Of the six applications in the suite, he uses five: General Ledger, Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Inventory and Payroll. All of his data resides on the once-standard 5.25-inch floppy disks, but he's not worried about data security: "I back up the floppies with a program called Copy II+."
Huffman uses a modern PC for word processing, email and web browsing, but he's reluctant to move away from his trusty Apple IIe for accounting work.
"I still use the machine because it is so simple to use, I know the software, and I can still update the tax tables manually." He adds, "The only glitch in the entire system is that it does not recognise the year 2000, so all my printed financial reports say 1912. But on the invoices, checks and other forms, it prints in the 11/14/12 format."
He's even tried emulating the Apple IIe and his favourite software on a modern machine, but to him, the full experience matters. "I thought about changing over to a more modern system, but there is nothing to be gained. As the old saying goes, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
The Color Computer programming assistant
Few vintage computers inspire as much active devotion as the Tandy Color Computer 3, first introduced in 1986. The CoCo 3 (as it is affectionately called by its fans) never sold as many units as home computers from Atari or Commodore, but that engendered an even stronger loyalty in its users.
The CoCo 3 marked the end of a well received line of Color Computer products from RadioShack, which launched the first model in 1980. The third model in the series turned out to be an impressive swan song, adding support for 512KB of memory and implementing advanced graphics and sound enhancements, all while retaining backward compatibility with pre-CoCo 3 software.
It's understandable, then, that some folks refuse to let go of their CoCo 3 units for either work or play. One such loyal user, John Kowalski, a former console game developer, still considers his CoCo 3 an indispensable tool.
"I turn it on, type in a quick program to do something I need done, and let it run to get the results," says Kowalski. "I think of it as my personal assistant. Sometimes I program it to do tedious or repetitive tasks like automated document reformatting, and I can continue working while it works beside me."
Kowalski began his journey in CoCo-land with a Color Computer 2 in 1984. He traded up to the CoCo 3 in 1986 and stuck with the platform through the years, performing various hardware upgrades (upping the system RAM to 2MB and overclocking the 6809 CPU to a blistering 3.5MHz) along the way.
When Kowalski was programming console video games at Crystal Dynamics in the mid-to-late 1990s, his vintage CoCo 3 played a prominent role. "Every game I worked on had at least some data in it created on the CoCo," he says. Titles like Namco Museum 50th Anniversary and Tron 2.0: Killer App benefited from the vintage machine, which Kowalski used as if it were a powerful programmable scientific calculator.
For an original title like Tron 2.0 for the Xbox, Kowalski used the CoCo 3 to test 3D techniques used in the game. "Many of the data sets used by the 3D engine were generated on the CoCo, like the tables for calculating depth and perspective in the 3D view, and the data for fish-eye reduction of the view," he says. "The texture map graphics used in the game were also translated into program data by a conversion tool I wrote on the CoCo."
If speed wasn't an issue, Kowalski would quickly type up a program in the CoCo's built-in BASIC interpreter. In the cases that involved large amounts of graphics or sound data, he would turn to assembly language.
The latter technique proved quite handy when working on Namco Museum or Atari Anniversary, which both contained reworkings of classic 1980s arcade games. Kowalski used the CoCo to extract, convert and edit graphics data from the original arcade ROMs into formats a PlayStation 2 console could use. He also used the CoCo to translate vintage arcade source code and clean up sound samples used in the games.
With such an old machine, you might think it would be hard to export the working data to a more modern PC, but Kowalski has found no such problems. For years, he swapped standard 5.25-inch disks between his CoCo 3 and a Windows PC. Today, he simply connects a serial port between the CoCo and a PC, with the PC acting as a virtual disk drive emulator.
Kowalski says his current job designing electronics hardware doesn't call for much data generation, so he doesn't use the CoCo as frequently. But he hasn't retired the classic machine; Kowalski keeps the 25-year-old PC on his main computer desk, ready to be called back into service at a moment's notice.