Sometime in the early 1990s I came into possession of a Wang word processor -- one of the ones with 8" floppy drives. I tried to find out about that particular model, but quickly learned that you have to be careful how you search for pictures given this subject matter.
My favourite things at Free Geek are the technological neanderthals -- the also-rans and could-have-beens. I've posted numerous times about obsolete laptop teardowns and the strange shapes that portable computers tried out before the bog standard laptop emerged. (And who knows how long that'll last -- personally I'm not sold on the idea of tablet computing just yet, but who knows.)
A strange one came into Free Geek over the last week.
This isn't even really a computer; it's one of the last of the dying breed of dedicated word processors -- basically a device entirely dedicated to writing and storing documents. If you think of a spectrum with a plain old typewriter at the dumb end, and a computer that can only run Word or OpenOffice at the smart end, these devices fell somewhere in the middle.
One hallmark of modern computing is that computers are multi-purpose. You can use a computer for a lot of different things. Back in the 1960s when word processing got its start, it wasn't at all clear that this would happen.
Word processors looked at first like this...
...and gradually changed to look like this...
...skip a few decades, and they look like this...
obligatory Wikipedia entry. )
...and suddenly we have our particular specimen, the Brother PN-8500MDS pictured at the top of this post. This device comes from a long and proud lineage of heavy hardware costing untold thousands of dollars each, but by the time the evolutionary tree has thinned out into this sad little shoot, the lower supporting branch has become diseased and the whole thing is doomed.
By the late '80s and early '90s, dedicated word processors simply couldn't compete with the increasing popularity and affordability of home computing. The last gasp for these devices was the portable market, as laptops were still maturing in capabilities like battery life and were still relatively expensive. But even this competitive edge was getting very slim.
So back to our poor, doomed specimen:
Documents are saved to a 1.44" floppy disk, which is at least formatted for DOS compatibility, which apparently couldn't be said for all of Brother's earlier word processors:
Features features features!
Spell corrector! PerfecType keyboard for that quiet, professional touch! And don't be left behind by the break-neck pace of modern communications technology -- you can even access CompuServe and Internet email! (This wouldn't look anything like the Internet you've been using for the last 15 years or so -- this would look a lot more like a BBS. I promise I'll write up a future post on this subject.)
But the hits don't stop coming. This model came in with the optional battery already installed!
Of course, it was missing a lot of things that are pretty important if you're building a computer, but less important if you're limiting yourself to just word processing. There was no mouse or other pointing device, and no built-in storage beyond a bit of flash memory to store the built-in word processing software. That software likely couldn't be upgraded, and there was certainly no provision for any kind of hardware upgrade beyond the much-vaunted Optional Modem. The screen was apparently junk. It's fundamentally pretty difficult to get excited over a device that will only ever do a crappy job of word processing.
The FCC id reveals that this was licensed in 1992, and therefore it probably sold as new in 1992 or 1993. By this time, it was already competing with some pretty modern devices -- the first IBM Thinkpad, for example. There is simply no comparison between the two devices. The only possible downside to the Thinkpad is a pretty stiff price ($4350USD list price) and a lower battery life -- because hey, it costs energy and money to actually accomplish something useful, and that's off the feature list for this little Brother.
It's pretty difficult to find any information about this particular device online, which is further evidence that it was one of the last of its kind to crawl into the coffin before it was nailed shut. There's a totally disinterested review and a slightly more forgiving one. I did find one gem: a discussion between a user of one of these devices and a support techie, trying to figure out why a 19-year-old word processor won't work with a 10-year-old printer. Neither of them seem to have any idea that the word processor is tremendously, laughably old -- the 10-year-old printer is the least of their problems. The expert recommends a new printer.
I made a quick attempt to power it up before I tore it apart. 5 minutes' searching didn't turn up a compatible power supply, and I wasn't really that interested, so I moved on to the screwdriver. Here's how it looks topless:
It looks to me like there's an unpopulated spot on the board, on the upper left-hand side. I have no idea what that would be for. You can see what are probably some RAM or static RAM chips below that. The big chip is not actually the processor -- it's the LCD controller. Just to the left of that is probably the processor.
So it turns out that at least one company is still kicking a dead horse: you can still buy something similar from AlphaSmart. Why? Well, ask them, not me.