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2023-07-02: The Lost Art of Technical Manuals

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While working on a project to get a classic machine to run my old DOS and Windows software, I was reminded of something that I hadn't faced in quite some time -- the challenges of solving computer issues before the internet. The before-times where, when something goes wrong, your only recourse was to scour the books and printed materials you had on hand for a solution or to ask "some guy" for help. For the first time in years, I experienced the (admittedly fleeting) feeling of panic when I typed "win" at a DOS prompt, saw a brief glimpse of the Windows 3.1 splash screen, then was returned to the DOS prompt.

I recently purchased an HP T5710 Thin Client after watching a few YouTube videos on how it is an ideal machine for natively running DOS and Win9x software. I may do a separate article on that, but this has been something I have wanted for a long while. DOSBox is great, but it doesn't quite beat the native feel, and while this solution doesn't give me the satisfaction of clunking a physical AT power supply switch and listening to the loud hard disk platters spin up, it's a close-enough approximation that allows me to run my classic software emulation-free in a tiny package without any moving parts. Indeed, it has lived up to its promise, as I'm currently typing this up on it using the "edit" command in MS DOS 6.22. I'm half expecting to hear the Doogie Howser ending theme kick in at any moment.

In a twist that I should have expected, things have not gone smoothly, as is common on software from this era. There have been bumps in the road every step of the way. So what do you do in this situation? In 2023, you call up your search engine of choice and begin scrolling for solutions. But for legacy software like this, solutions are more difficult to come by. They seem to come in three forms: forum postings from modern users attempting to run legacy software as I'm doing here, 25+ year old archived desperate Newsgroup postings, and finally, maybe, if you're lucky, a technical manual produced for he hardware/software you're trying to run. I spent a few hours poring through all three, in that order, getting more and more concerned as each option failed me. When I finally happened upon the technical document, dated 1993 from Microsoft, it was a breath of fresh air, giving a clear, concise step-by-step set of options to try. And while I managed to make some progress using this ('win /s' seemed to work just fine) even the technical documents failed me. Now what?

The truth is, it wasn't a big deal. But the reason for this is that it's 2023 and this is a for-fun project. In 1993, the store would have been very different. You just changed a setting or installed some software, and now Windows doesn't start. Or maybe even worse, DOS isn't starting. The machine won't boot. There is no internet to check. You maybe have the Windows manual, and that has some steps listed in the technical document, and you can try those. But if that doesn't work -- well crap. Do you have the knowledge to get your important data off so you can try a fresh install or system restore? I know my family didn't in 1993. Also, there's only one computer, so not only have you screwed yourself over, but your entire family. Between everyone in the household, there may be TONS of data that needs saving. Do you risk poking around at config files and potentially making things worse? Do you take the machine to an expensive repair center, just to risk finding out $500 later that things are hosed beyond repair and a restore needs to be done anyway?

This was a fear I hadn't felt in decades, and one I'm glad is a thing of the past. Sure, I still occasionally feel a similar tinge when I screw up something on my modern machine, but nothing compared to this. This project took me back to the 90s in more ways than I had anticipated, and before I forget about this fear once again, maybe forever, I thought I'd document it.

Oh, and if you're keeping track, I did eventually get Windows 3.1 to run in 386-enhanced mode. Running DOS off a USB stick on some kind of pseudo drive was perhaps the problem, as installing on a local disk cleared up the problem. Puzzlingly, though, I can no longer get MIDI sound working in Windows, which DID work when running off a USB stick. And perhaps predictably, the internet was no help here...