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Windows Phone: Remembering the LAN

Windows Phone:

A memory and a dream.

How it was

I started programming in the 1990s living above my parent’s medical practice.
We had 15 PCs for the business, and one for me.
The standard OS was MS-DOS.
The network started off using IPX over coax to a Novell Netware server,
the fanciest software we ever owned.
IPX was so much easier than TCP/IP.
No DHCP and address allocation, it just worked.

Eventually the PCs would run Windows, and a Windows NT server took
over file sharing over TCP/IP.
The business software survived this transition unchanged,
though there was more operational overhead.
We assigned IPs manually.

Home was a small town in Northern Australia.
The internet was far off for me at this point,
and would remain so longer than it did elsewhere.
Eventually we would be able to make long-distance phone calls 2000
miles to try it out for a few minutes here and there.
(At this point Americans had AOL.)

Before we had internet there were some lackluster local BBSs,
and at one point a local university account my father acquired
(somehow or other, none of us were students or university employees)
that we could dial into and try out my first Unix on a Sun box.
It was a limited experience even though technically it was on an
internet link.
My distance from university culture meant I wouldn’t see Linux until
the mid-90s, when we picked up a copy of Slackware on a trip to
Hong Kong.
I didn’t really get Unix until I used OpenBSD, which put enough of the
pieces together for me for Unix to finally make sense.

I wouldn’t see root on a Sun box for more than a decade, now the early
2000s, when I bought half a dozen UltraSPARC servers as a lot second
hand in Berkeley (for around $100, a lot of money for me at the time).
I assembled a working machine from the carcasses and used it to write
a sparc64 C compiler backend. Even though more time has passed since
than between these times, it is hard for me to hold both lives in my
head simultaneously.
They were different worlds.

The childhood magic

The LAN was a magical place to learn about computers.
Besides the physical aspect of assembling and disassembling machines,
I could safely do things unthinkable on the modern internet:
permission-less file sharing, experimental servers with no security,
shared software where any one machine could easily bring down the
network by typing in an innocuous command. Even when I did bring
down the network the impact never left the building.
I knew who I had to apologise to.

(Two decades later when I took down a borgmaster with a misconfigured
MapReduce as an engineer at Google, I could not figure out who should
get an apology email.)

With our LAN easy things were easy, and some hard things were possible.
There were high-level interpreted languages where UIs were
straightforward, and scary languages which could make the computer
really shine.

A 200MHz Pentium Pro felt blazing fast and 32MB of RAM could do anything.
By the time I had OpenBSD I could recompile Apache httpd in a few
minutes with my own bad ideas.
My wrist watch could compile it faster today, as long as I stuck to
GCC 2.95.

Later I would carry a PC to houses of my friends where we would build
ephemeral LANs and play games like Starcraft.
(Cathode-ray monitors were heavy.)
The LAN was an education and a lifestyle.

The small business magic

My father, a general practitioner, used this infrastructure of cheap
286s, 386s, and 486s (with three expensive laser printers) to write
the medical record software for the business.
It was used by a dozen doctors, a nurse, and receptionist.
You can do a lot with file-based database software (in this case,
Clipper) and a mouse-less curses interface.

There are several astonishing facts about this.
As an engineer, it is astonishing that Netware file locking, then SMB
file locking, worked well enough to implement a database used by ~15
concurrent users.
I suspect most career programmers today have never used file locking,
let alone seen it work correctly.

The business story is even more astonishing.
Here is a non-programming professional, who was able to build the
software to run their small business in between shifts at their day
job using skills learned from a book.

Today a professional could surely pick up the skills to build a CRUD
app, but they would be hard pressed to tune their software so
relentlessly to minimize the keystrokes a receptionist needs to use
to check-in a patient, or support a magnetic card reader, or teach
laser printers to precisely print onto specialized prescription paper
(the printers spoke postscript, but the MS-DOS programming language
had an easier instruction layer over PS that made this possible).

The result in the 90s was the business needed fewer staff than everyone
thought a medical practice of that size required, doctor’s time
was used more efficiently than any other software allowed, so
productivity increased.

My father made more money as a part-time programmer optimizing his
small business than he did as a doctor seeing patients.

How it is

If my 90s childhood were transported to today, so many new things
would be possible.
I could draw high-quality graphics easily with JavaScript.
It is not clear that would be more compelling than the pixelated
gorillas and bananas I played with in BASIC. I could develop apps
for my phone.
In theory at least. In practice, I wasn’t particularly patient with
slow compilers as a kid, and as an adult I still have trouble
stomaching the development environment for apps, so that’s off the table.

I wouldn’t build a toy website to put school stuff on,
because I would have facebook for that.

Games would be easier to play with friends.
We wouldn’t have to lug heavy boxes or learn to debug our TCP/IP
configuration or actually see each other in person to play.
I guess some people would see that as an improvement: more candy,
less content.

All the technology is better. The resources to learn are better.
But it is not clear to me I would program at all today.
Learning how to store passwords or add OAuth2 to your toy web
site is not fun.
So much of programming today is busywork, or playing defense
against a raging internet.
You can do so much more, but the activation energy reqired to
start writing fun collaborative software is so much higher you
end up using some half-baked SaaS instead.

What about my father?

Could a part-time programmer like my father write small-business
software today?
Could he make it as safe and productive as our LAN was? Maybe.
If he was canny, and stuck to old-fashioned desktops of the 90s and
physically isolated the machines from the internet.
But there is no chance you could get the records onto a modern phone
safely (or even legally under HIPAA) with the hours my father gave
the project.

If confronted with the build v. buy decision today, I strongly
suspect he would buy. Or even more likely, subscribe.
The practice would be less productive for it.

The programmers of the world have built this fantastic internet,
full of magic.
Free inter-continental video calls.
“Micro” VMs available for free from Cloud providers with more
processing power and memory than anything I could have bought when
I started programming.

For all our mastery, something has been lost.
If programming a LAN in the 1990s was the care-free tending to a
garden in the countryside, then programming on the internet today
is tending a planter box on Madison Avenue in midtown.
Anyone can experience your work. You will also have your tilling
judged by thousands of passersby, any of whom may ruin your work
because the dog they’re walking hasn’t been city trained.

A dream: How it will be

In some moments the right threads of change meet and create something
Many of these moments are short-lived and will not repeat, destined
to be, at best, remembered.

The magic moment of small trusted networks and care-free programs
does not need be relegated to memory.
With enough work, we can bend technology to recreate the magic.

We can have the LAN-like experience of the 90’s back again,
and we can add the best parts of the 21st century internet.
A safe small space of people we trust, where we can program away
from the prying eyes of the multi-billion-person int

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