Memories on floppy disks

Windows 95 floppy

Sorting through some boxes and things in storage as part of the type of chore you often do on a Bank Holiday Monday, I came across some items that took me on a little journey.

Floppy disks. The 3-1/2 inch, double-sided, 1.44Mb type. Boxes of them. I had time only to look in one box (thus exhibiting an extraordinary level of self-discipline) and encountered a few great memories (pun not intended) of my computing landscape 25 years ago.

While my curiosity didn’t extend to viewing any of the disks (or ‘diskettes’ I remember often calling them) as I no longer have a working drive for this media, I can recall quite a bit about many of them.

Let’s start with this, the installation disk for version 2.04 of WinNET Mail, an email program offered by The IBM PC User Group in London which I remember joining in the early 1990s.

This was a program you installed from Windows 3.1. As I recall, once it was installed from the floppy disk, you ran the software and used it to connect to the User Group’s email server via a dial-up modem connection and to’d and fro’d with your email. A big part of it was News Groups although I wasn’t that active with those via this program.

But WinNET Email was my first proper introduction to email outside of a closed environment like CompuServe.

Next is my favourite Windows utility of all time: a shareware file manager called Windows Commander, known as Total Commander since 2002.

I bought it when it first came out in 1993, sending 30 Swiss francs to the developer Christian Ghisler in Switzerland. Probably my best software purchase ever as my license is a lifetime one and I still use it today on a Windows 10 PC.

The big appeal? Well, I was a huge fan of Norton Commander in the 1980s that ran on DOS (I have the original disks somewhere, probably in one of the boxes I didn’t look at yet). In the Windows environment, I never found a program that offered what that version did at a good price, not even when Norton had a version for Windows 3.1.

Windows Commander was exactly what I was looking for in the early 90s. As it’s turned out, 25 years later as well.

Speaking of file managers, there was Lotus Magellan that I used at about the same time.

More of a desktop search engine than a file manager, Magellan was a brilliant program for DOS that gave you powerful search and indexing capabilities for the files on your PC.

Remember, these were simpler times where the search capability on a PC was rudimentary and where a typical PC contained about a tenth of the files you have now, and nowhere near typical files sizes in the hundreds of megabytes.

Still, easily finding stuff was a problem then as it is now.

And speaking of space, who remembers and/or used Stacker?

I remember using it in the constant quest for making the existing puny-size (compared to today) hard disks in my PCs store more through reliable file compression software.

Stacker fit the bill nicely. But it’s future wasn’t promising when Microsoft released its Doublespace file compression capability as an integral part of MS-DOS 6 in 1993.

After lawsuits, the Microsoft withdrawal of Doublespace and the introduction of its successor DriveSpace, the market for third-party compression tools like Stacker went into decline. The company behind Stacker wound itself up in 2002.

Another favourite tool 25 years ago was Lotus Agenda, a powerful free-form personal information manager for DOS that let you enter information in an unstructured way.

I loved it even though it had a steep learning curve and I never mastered it fully. Agenda didn’t survive the advent of Windows 3.1; Lotus stopped development and instead released its successor, Lotus Organizer, designed for use in Windows. I found it too simple, though, and didn’t really like the Filofax-looking interface.

Finally, let me conclude this memory lane journey with two items that took me by surprise when I found them among the floppy disks for programs and other software.

I had forgotten all about these until I saw them. These are two applications I made in the early and late 1990s. I think they illustrate the relative ease of coding and creating things with the digital tools of the time, simpler though they are compared to today. I was a big fan of BASIC and DOS batch files!

They also remind me that I was an experimenter and tinkerer then as now.

First, in 1993, I made a digital CV and had it available on floppy disks.

It worked by running a batch file that checked to see if WordPerfect for DOS was installed on the user’s PC; if it was it opened the doc, if not it opened a plain-text version of the CV in a text editor on the user’s PC.

Pretty clever stuff, eh!

Then, in 1998 when I was working for William M Mercer, I led a small team that built a screensaver for Windows.

This was a marketing tool: we’d give out the floppy disk to clients and potential clients, as well as journalists and others. It was a big deal. This was not long after Windows 95 and Windows NT 4 introduced the GUI into the wider workplace.

It was the time of PointCast , Johnny Castaway and others. Programs that did something cool and graphically-appealed to a lot of people.

Now that I mention that, I can’t actually recall what the screensaver looked like or did. Same with the CV: I can’t remember how it all looked and what the user experience was (as we’d describe it today).

I need a floppy disk drive! Amazon?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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