The end of an era: Dwight Silverman signs off from reporting on tech

It’s time for something completely different. I’m going to take time out and shift gears completely from my usual modus operandi, and show some gratitude for someone who has definitely left his mark on technology reporting, particularly in Houston. I do realize this is somewhat late, but a lot of things got in the way of me posting this closer to the time of the event.

Dwight Silverman recently posted his final entry to TechBlog entitled, appropriately enough, “So long, and thanks for all the tech” (also in the style of Monty Python). With that post, Dwight ends nearly three decades of reporting on technology, in deference to his recently accepted position as Senior Web Producer for Premium Products, still at the Houston Chronicle.

As someone who has been an avid computer user since about the same time Dwight started reporting (if not a year or three earlier), allow me to offer a perspective of just how much has changed since Dwight started reporting in the mid-1980s. (He does not name an exact year, but since this is 2016 and he refers to “nearly 30 years” I’m going to guess it was the latter half of 1986.)

At that time, the IBM PC clone market was barely getting started, and it was still fairly likely that people were using the original IBM PC. Yeah, I know it probably sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie to some of you, but IBM used to actually make desktop computers (they wouldn’t sell off that business to Lenovo until 2005). Microsoft Windows 1.0 was released in 1985, but wouldn’t become the least bit dominant for close to a decade, with the dominant operating system on “PC compatible” computers remaining MS-DOS through at least the end of the decade. (Actually, Windows relied on MS-DOS until the release of Windows 95, and the first consumer version to be a true standalone operating system was Windows XP, but to most people the Windows environment fulfilled the role of operating system even if technically layered on top of MS-DOS.)

The mid-1980s were also the era in which the GNU Project was just barely getting started, with the incorporation of the Free Software Foundation occuring on 1985 October 4, just over three decades ago. The GNU operating system wouldn’t be anywhere near complete for some time; in 1992, Linus Torvalds released version 0.12 of Linux, the kernel, under the GPL, which allowed the first GNU variant operating systems comprised entirely of free software (GNU/Linux). BSD (Berkeley System Distribution) Unix wouldn’t be released under its eponymous license until 1994 due to a lawsuit from AT&T‘s Unix System Laboratories.

The dominant digital storage media of the mid-1980s were floppy disks; our first PC compatible computer in 1990 had both 5¼” and 3½” drives, with the latter becoming dominant by the mid-1990s until the effective end-of-life of the floppy disk medium around 2010 or so (we wouldn’t have CD-ROM drives until the mid-1990s and they wouldn’t dominate until close to the turn of the century). Public access to the Internet was still a few years away (to arrive in 1993).

In their place, we had analog modems which connected over phone lines, on which some ran electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes) and amateur communications networks such as FidoNet. My first modem ran at a whopping 2400 bits per second (I was a bit of a late adopter; the first widespread modems ran at 300 bps with 1200 bps coming in shortly thereafter). Large downloads (such as BBS software, like TAG or Maximus) would often take most of an hour or in some cases, over an hour or even multiple hours at 2400 bps (later I would get a 28.8k modem which would ease the pain of large downloads significantly). These same analog modems would be how most of the first home Internet users would connect, and before the end of the analog modem era, the technology was pushed to its limit: 33.6 kilobits per second, and then 53 kilobits per second over digitally-originated lines (“56K” speed, though the FCC never approved the output power necessary to allow a download speed of 56 kilobits per second).

I could go on and on waxing nostalgic (I could probably write a horror novel about things like debugging IRQ conflicts), and maybe I’ll do some more of that in a later post. Sometimes even I can’t believe the progress that technology has made. I’m known as one of the most “technology literate” people in my family, and even I am not able to keep up with all of the latest developments.

Dwight’s reporting will be dearly missed, but I am confident he will still be able to help the Houston Chronicle remain successful working at his new job there.

In closing, there are eight posts on this blog where I have mentioned or linked back to TechBlog. I present the list primarily as a further testament of Dwight’s impact as a reporter (i.e. even this blog won’t quite be the same going forward).

A truly embarrassing truth for wireless phone companies

A recent story in the New York Times (which I learned about by way of an entry in Techblog) exposes quite a bit about how wireless carriers transmit text messages (SMS). These articles (the NYT article in particular) are good reads for the terminally curious. I’ll summarize the main points for those readers who lack the time, however:

  • Text messages ride the control channel, space normally used to control operation of the network (hence its name).
  • Thus, text messages cost very little, in fact almost nothing, for the wireless carriers to pass along.
  • The 160-character limit comes from the length of a call set-up message.

Now, combine these points (particularly the first two) with the fact that all wireless carriers which charge separately for text messages, have doubled the rate for casual use messages over the past three years ($0.20 now versus $0.10 before). If anything, this rate should have gone down with time, due to advances in technology, not up.

I have always smelled a very faint odor of bovine excrement even during the dime-a-message era. Something told me it can’t possibly cost the wireless carriers this much per message, even with an allowance for a reasonable profit margin. Turns out I had a pretty good hunch. Unfortunately it took the greed of the wireless carriers to turn the right heads (Senator Kohl) and trigger a closer look.

The profit margin today is anything but reasonable. This makes the long-distance rates of the AT&T monopoly era (often a full order of magnitude what they were after the deregulation of telephone long distance) look like the convenience store clerk keeping the penny when you’re owed change of $0.71 on a soda. If the phone companies were selling gasoline, we’d probably be up to $8/gallon, with station owners scrambling to prepare for an inevitable $10/gallon (most current signage only goes up to $9.999).

Am I going to cancel my text messaging plan? Of course not. I will, however, follow this closely and hope we at least get reform, if not some of the money back.

(All currency amounts are US dollars.)