Monday, January 31, 2011

Dinosaurs and Cockroaches

This was going to be a New Years' post, but since it's almost February, I think I'll give up singing Auld Lang Syne and go instead with an evolutionary metaphor.

The equipment we receive as donations at Free Geek spans around 30 years. That covers a lot of revolutionary change, from the advent of the home computer itself, to the explosion of the IBM PC format whose heritage dominates the equipment that we deal with, to the Internet age, through to the increasing domination of wireless and portable computing. And a thousand smaller revolutions in between.

Sometimes it's interesting to note what hasn't changed in all that time. And sorry, folks: I realize that this is going to be a really nerdy post.

Modern cockroaches have been around since the early Cretaceous (according to some random stranger) and dinosaurs have been around since the late Triassic (according to another guy). Cockroaches, at last report, were still doing fine. Dinosaurs, not so much (though anyone who lives at the end of the Great East Van Crow Migratory Route at Burnaby Lake would probably disagree).  I've chosen some of each from the Free Geek warehouse for a little bit of a history exploration.
Exhibit 1: PS/2 Keyboard Jack
This is the PS/2 keyboard jack. It's been around since 1987 and is one of very few ways the awful IBM PS/2 platform (see details) had a lasting effect. It replaced a plug that was physically bigger (the AT keyboard jack) but wasn't otherwise different.

This plug sucks for a couple of reasons. First, the mouse and keyboard used the same style of jack and it was possible to plug them into the wrong spots, in which case neither would generally work. (That's why someone introduced the purple and green colour coding, though not everything uses it.) Second, you had to have the mouse and keyboard plugged in when you turned the machine on; they didn't always hot-swap properly.

We've been seeing a few machines come through without plugs for PS/2 style keyboard jacks, particularly newer Dells -- in a few years we'll probably lose these guys entirely in favour of USB peripherals.

Classification: Dinosaur. Lifespan: 20-25 Years Total. Not a bad lifespan, for this industry, but good riddance all the same.

(p.s. Anyone else remember all the various attempts by manufacturers to piggy-back peripherals onto these keyboard plugs? Barcode scanners including the infamous CueCat were the most common.) 

Exhibit 2: Standard PC Screws
All right, fetishizing screw sizes this is probably as nerdy as I'm ever going to get, and those of you with dirty minds are free to go ahead and snicker. But here goes: almost every screw in a computer is one of two standard sizes, the M3 on the left, and the 6-32 on the right. The M3 is used for CD-ROM drives, floppy drives, and a few other things; the 6-32 is used on hard drives and most parts of the chassis. Boooooo-ring. But just think how things would be if these weren't standardized -- have a look sometime in one of the numerous bins of screws around the mezzanine and see what fresh hell that would be.

There are a few builders out there who will sometimes force a 6-32 into an M3 thread, or leave an M3 rattling around in a 6-32 thread. Don't think I won't notice :) and as usual, if it don't fit, don't force it.

Anyway, as far as I know, these have been standard since at least 1981 when the IBM PC first arrived. There have been numerous attempts to avoid using screws (I suppose because people are scared of screws?), which is why we have fistfuls of drive rails in the mezzanine. These cures have always been far worse than the disease.

Classification: Cockroach. Lifespan: 30 years so far, and going strong.

Exhibit 3: Molex connector
This has been around since the '50s, according to Wikipedia, and has been the standard power jack for hard drives, optical drives, and others since the late '70s.

We're receiving increasing numbers of SATA drives, i.e. hard drives and optical drives that use the new Serial ATA (SATA) standard, and these use different plugs. However, I've never liked the SATA plugs -- they're kind of fragile -- so I'm not sure how long they'll last as a replacement. However, I don't doubt that we'll be seeing the end of the Molex connector soon.

Classification: Dinosaur. Lifespan: 20-25 Years.

Exhibit 4: 6PC6 Household telephone cable / jack
This is the standard telephone cable, and it's seen a lot of changes since it was first introduced in 1975 (according to a random guy; funny, I thought this type of jack was much older). Consider the changes this cable has seen: at first it was used to plug in a rotary telephone. (Did you know you can dial a number by pretending to be a rotary dialer? Clicking the hang-up switch quickly once is a 1, twice is a 2, and so on; use ten clicks for a 0. Haven't tried this for years, but I suspect it still works.) Then touch-tone came along. Then modems, and dial-up Internet (internet-over-voice). Then broadband ADSL. And now, increasingly, Voice Over IP (VOIP) products like Skype have fully turned the telephone on its head.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that the next evolution will do away with wires entirely. We'll get fully wireless broadband everywhere, and anyone who doesn't find that fast enough will get fiber-optic. Of course, people have been predicting the demise of the plain old telephone system (POTS) network for decades, and it's still chugging away.

Classification: Dinosaur. Lifespan: 35 years for the plug; 100+ years for the twisted copper wire network.

Exhibit 5: Slot cover
OK, here's my personal favourite: the standard slot cover. When you install a new accessory like a sound card, you'll have to remove one of these from the back of the case. These date back at least to the IBM PC in 1981 and the design has survived pretty much unchanged, i.e. it's possible to pull one of these from a 30-year-old piece of scrap metal in the warehouse and install it into a brand new machine in the Mezzanine. It's survived numerous bus designs -- ISA 8-bit, ISA 16-bit, Vesa Local Bus, PCI, AGP, PCI-E, PCI-X, and maybe more, in single-width and double-width, full-height and half-height; it's been used as a break-out panel for functions built into the motherboard that didn't have space elsewhere, like extra USB ports or old-school joystick/MIDI ports.

Its territory has been slightly chiseled away by the prevalence of external USB products; it's not so necessary to install peripherals internally anymore. But I don't see a real replacement for this anytime soon.

Classification: Cockroach. Lifespan: 30 years and counting.

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