Home Accidental Time Capsule: Moments from Computing in 1994

Accidental Time Capsule: Moments from Computing in 1994

If you ever have your friends and/or relatives help you relocate, be sure to keep the security cameras rolling. There will be packing and unpacking decisions that are made for you, some of which you will never be aware of unless there’s evidence in front of you. Sometime during the late summer of 1994, I lost a small briefcase.

It had no valuables in it; in fact, it had but one purpose. I carried magazines in it, typically computer mags. I had been married almost a year. My wife, not yet my business partner, was an editor and contributing author for what was then Prentice-Hall on the north side of town (it’s where I met her; she was my editor on a book). There were picnic tables set up outside the office, and as I waited to pick her up for lunch, I’d bring this briefcase of magazines with me. It’s a sign of how importantly I treated computer mags: I intentionally scheduled my time to allow for one hour for lunch with Jen, and one hour reading my mags.

They were my connection to a brighter world – the continual, monthly affirmation that everything I believed to be important as a kid (not that long before), actually was. I often used a computer magazine as a prop for my presentations for editors or business executives. I described it as “a more important convergence than the TV with the PC:” the fusion of journalists, programmers, and teachers. We’re all becoming the same group, I’d tell audiences, and the economy your children will inherit will be powered by their ability to discover, to teach, and to code.

Two months ago, at the bottom of a cardboard box of spare bed linens we had intentions to donate at some more convenient year, someone had stuffed my magazine briefcase. It had been resting there since Jen and I moved into our first house, waiting there ever since we had our child. Inside it was, for me, a love letter from the twentieth century.

Software Development

One of the feature articles in the August 1994 edition of Software Development was about the IEEE’s efforts to develop a standard for creating new documentation for old software. There was a new programming paradigm that businesses were just now waking up to: client/server. It was a multi-tier model of computing where logic was distributed and communicated through these emerging digital networks. But businesses and especially governments were realizing they could not justify the near-term costs of replacing existing software – much of it having been conceived in the FORTRAN era – versus continuing to expense the existing costs over the coming decade, the turn of the century.

The job of CIO had not yet caught on in most corporations; budget specialists and procurement agents evaluated software replacement costs in terms of lines of code. As ridiculous as this sounds in hindsight, if newer software was shorter than the programs it replaced, budget officers would compute “lines of code destroyed,” and treat it as a cost.

So the IEEE thought perhaps an interim solution would be to produce a standard for reverse-engineering existing code, with the objective of producing documentation. This way, it might be easier for companies, from now until the end of time, to continue using the old software since they’ll never replace it. “Maintenance as usual is the origin of CEO cynicism toward remedies to cut the costs of maintaining long-lived systems,” wrote physicist Moisey Lerner, at a time when tech news stories were written by physicists. “The new IEEE Standard 1219-1993 for software maintenance is destined to cure this cynicism.”

Windows Magazine

Windows Magazine was edited by a man I would later the privilege of calling a friend and colleague, Fred Langa. His July 1994 scoop was the first pictures of “Windows 4.0” – the system that Microsoft had been calling by its code name “Chicago,” and would soon be re-dubbed Windows 95.

The existing edition, Windows 3.1, was perceived as a most welcome correction for the slow, overbearing monstrosity that was Windows 3.0. It was more reliable, easier to maintain, and more standardized in its tools and features. It crashed less often, and gave the user fewer reasons to exit back to the old command line, MS-DOS, to do “serious work.”

But the next version was due to introduce something not copied from the Macintosh: a curious new creation called the Taskbar, which had an omnipresent button marked “Start.” It implied that Windows was taking over from DOS as the operating system.

It was a turning point in the industry, and Langa knew it. “Chicago sports a completely redesigned user interface with new ways to navigate and use the system,” he wrote. “If Chicago delivers on this promise, mainstream computer users will have more power at their fingertips than ever before. The industry will respond with a flood of Chicago-specific software and hardware… and the entire computing industry will take on a new Chicago-centric aspect. Almost every piece of hardware you use and almost every piece of software you run will be affected. If Chicago fails, the downside could be just as significant… We need a modern 32-bit platform, and we need it soon. If Microsoft can’t provide it, someone else (maybe IBM? maybe Apple?) will, and we’ll be faced with an entirely different set of hardware and software choices. Win or lose, Chicago will shake the industry and affect us all.”

One of Windows Mag’s reviews for July 1994 was for a personal information manager (PIM) package called Polaris Advantage. It was a $149 scheduling, note-taking, and contact management program, in the era before Outlook and in a world that still viewed the central destination of all data storage as the PC. As quickly as they could, developers were conceiving new ways to import data from these weird new portable data collectors, and store it all in the hard drive where it belonged.

“Importing data is fast and flexible,” wrote James E. Powell. “You can save an import setup with its field mappings and reuse it. Advantage will accept dBASE, Paradox, Excel, Btrieve, and text files, as well as files from the Sharp Wizard or Casio BOSS.”

A major advertiser for Windows Magazine in 1994 was Apple. Always the company to bring out these cool devices for PCs, the QuickTake 100 Digital Camera was being touted as “the fastest way to give everything from proposals to catalogs more impact… And at $749, accountants love it, too.


Byte Magazine is one of the reasons I’m here today, doing what I do. Every month, Byte set its sights on the bigger picture, a significant trend that might be far ahead or way far ahead. And in July 1994, Jon Udell (to this very day, among the most insightful people ever to sign his name to an article) was setting his sights on the inevitable convergence between the computer and the telephone.

The FCC had set a deadline for April 1995 for telephone carriers to implement Caller ID, which meant that digital content would be carried alongside the phone call by law. Engineers had already foreseen the benefits of gathering this digital information and leveraging it for computer-based telephony. But this was the ’90s, and DEC, Rolm, and the other behemoths who tried and failed the first time, were being swept aside by sleek, savvy, streamlined newcomers to this industry like Novell.

“Novell says you’ll pay $75 to $200 per seat for NetWare Telephony Services,” Udell wrote, “depending on the number of users (and not including the cost of the link). If you’re not running current PBX hardware and software, though, you’ll need to upgrade, and that can be painful.” Udell then cited one source who was given an upgrade quote of $30,000. But since the upgrade came in the form of software, he suggested, rather than hardware (usually a capital expenditure along with furniture), accountants could find a way to amortize the costs long-term.

Elsewhere, Bruce Dawson reviewed a ruggedized notebook PC from IBM, that even featured the little track pointer you still see on Lenovos today. A magnesium alloy case protected a PowerPC 601-based system running AIX (not Windows), with plenty of memory (16 MB) and more than enough hard drive space (340 MB), all for a low price ($11,995) that rendered it potentially “indispensable,” he wrote.

Lost Bits

There’s a warning frequently given to children about protecting themselves when they do anything online. “Everything you do online is searchable and is permanent.”

Don’t tell this to your kids, but statistically, there is no greater falsehood. Of the tens of thousands of online contributions I have made in 28 years’ time, less than 10% of it is obtainable through the Web at this moment. If it weren’t for my obsession with archiving, most of my work would not exist. In a half-century, my daughter may uncover a hard drive buried in a box of linens whose donation worthiness she happens to be reconsidering. Will she even remember what it is?

The computing publications of 1994 were our connections to a broader, brighter world of insight, audacity, wisdom, and adventure. Each one had a collective character, an amalgam of all its editors and contributing writers. Its voice had personality, intelligence, spirit. What’s more, each voice was unique, in the same way people are unique. Each magazine’s structure was its own psychology, its arrangement of cover stories and features and reviews as great a statement of its character as any one of its articles. You didn’t read Byte by accident, or because you stumbled upon an article or someone ripped it out, folded it into a paper airplane, and tossed it at you. You read Byte because you were a Byte reader. We didn’t call the act of reading a computer magazine “consuming.” And we didn’t call the messages it conveyed “content.”

There is a message from that time that is missing in the message from ours. Sure, there were writers who were pushing dBASE and trumpeting the marvel of megabytes. But they were the first to believe and uphold the ideal that they could speak to you, the reader, as an equal and as an intelligent thinker. They didn’t write above you. They wrote to you.

They wrote to me. Some 12,000-plus responses later, I’m still just catching up.

Scott M. Fulton, III is the author of this document, and is solely responsible for his content.

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