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Retro-innovation: Features we miss from long-gone tech products

Forget about new stuff. We want our good old stuff back.

One Silicon Valley delusion is that new technology is always better than what came before. We all know otherwise. Evidence No. 1: Windows Vista. But tech failures are not always awful new "innovations." Sometimes, great features are abandoned in the march toward "better," leaving annoyed users in their wake.

I’m not speaking purely in terms of nostalgia. We all can miss old technology and the simple “good old days.” Sometimes it’s because we don't want to learn a new technology, such as colleagues who "retire in place" and hang onto old languages and tools out of laziness or whatever.

Sometimes good features are left behind in the name of progress. The software may fail for reasonable market-related reasons, the company might go under due to corporate hijinks, or the hardware might become obsolete when competitors invent something new. Yet we find ourselves wishing for the way WordPerfect managed text formatting or CompuServe’s threaded messaging.

Here are some oft-cited favorite features that were left behind by "progress."

The user interfaces that worked just right

Sometimes it isn’t an application that we miss quite so much as the way we interacted with it.

Case in point: In its day, Norton Commander was an enormously popular MS-DOS file manager. Its big selling point was a two-column user interface that did more than show you the contents of directories. It deserved descriptions like “intuitive.” Long before buzz phrases like “a single pane of glass,” we could see what was happening at a glance or perform common functions with only a few keystrokes. You could display directory trees and differences between directories. You could manipulate, view, and in some cases, edit files and directories. And you never felt you needed a manual to figure out how.

While Norton Commander's last new version, 5.5, came out in 1998, the program lives on in abandonware sites. Of course, software that was first released for MS-DOS 3.1, when the 80386 was the hot processor, doesn't run that well—or at all—on modern operating systems and processors.

Fortunately for those who remember its interface fondly, Norton Commander clones are common. The best of these are Midnight Commander for Linux and macOS, and an unofficial build for 32-bit Windows and WinNC for modern Windows versions.

Emerging technologies are changing our future. A new world is coming.

Software features that leave us sighing sadly

In many cases, we users don’t actually want to go back to the world in which these applications were the standard. Usually, application enhancements really do make things better. It’s just one or two quirks we were fond of, and which we miss. Nobody else gets that feature quite right.

One such was the OS/2 and Windows DeScribe word processor, which supported specialized spelling dictionaries. Let’s say you were working on a project that had its own jargon and abbreviations. It’s distracting to have to overlook “misspelled” words, but on the other hand, you don’t want to add words to an application’s dictionary for a single project. DeScribe allowed you to associate a custom dictionary with a unique file or a file directory. I’ve never seen a “modern” word processor or desktop publishing system with that feature.

Speaking of word processors, writers of a certain age still long for the cool, clean WordPerfect interface that maximized the clean empty page rather than icons or menus. True, WordPerfect lives on at Corel; the latest version still includes its prized Reveal Codes feature and the command set embedded in users' fingers. But for all the nostalgia WordPerfect engenders, Microsoft Office won in market share for several reasons, among them business blunders and astute marketing by Microsoft. Sometimes we say we want steak, but we settle for hamburger.

Beyond text management, the Eudora email client had many features its users still long to see in a modern email client. Its keyboard-centric UI was unmatched for navigational flexibility. It was great for on-the-fly creation and refinement of email storage hierarchy. Its search feature supported multiple rules and criteria for pinpointing that one message among thousands. Eudora also had a flexible template system for replies. For example, when a co-worker turned in a promised spreadsheet, Eudora could automatically send an acknowledgement, "I got your work," without any effort on your part. Good luck doing that (easily) with Gmail or Outlook. And it was fast.

You can still download the original Eudora program, but it doesn't work well. A newer version, based on the Thunderbird email client, was essentially broken and didn't port over any of Eudora's advantages; it eventually died from neglect. That’s one reason that today I use Evolution on Linux.

Email message management leads me to another issue: social network message threading.

Social networks generally only have single-threaded discussions, such as you see on Google+, Facebook, and discussion sites like Reddit. If someone veers off course in a conversation—and someone always does—there's no way to navigate around it.

CompuServe, however, solved this problem back in the 1980s. Its original (text-based) forum message interface let sysops (system operators, which nowadays we’d call community moderators) split messages into different threads. So, for example, if in a discussion of HPE Superdome servers someone started talking about her HP printer, leading into an interesting tangent, the discussion could be separated out, letting the main conversation continue. With a couple of keystrokes (particularly using add-on message management applications like Tapcis), the sysop could identify the tangent messages as a new conversation, making it easier for a community member interested in printers to discover a topic of interest. Sysops also could move a discussion that was posted in the wrong section into the correct one, so that a dog-ownership discussion could be moved into a chat section rather than distract from the business-centric topic.

Some companies are reviving threads. For example, the popular collaboration program Slack recently adopted threaded messaging. But it’s nowhere near as good, not the least of which is because threads are presented in a different window. And even with online forum software that supports branched threads, there’s still no way to prune a thread branch into a new stand-alone discussion.

Speaking of “just a few keystrokes” convenience, many of us still miss keyboard macros. You might need to format a document in a special way—for example, when adding tags for conversion to a web content management system. Doing it manually was tedious and error-prone, so it was worthwhile to take the time to write macros—kind of keystroke scripts—to automate the process. Few people other than programmers use macros today, but in the DOS era, even spreadsheet jockeys like Lotus 1-2-3 users relied on them heavily. True, shell interfaces and many programs come with macro functions, but SuperKey, PC Magazine's program of the year in 1986, let you set macros for any program. Sure, you can still build universal macros, but it requires programming efforts far above what should be needed.

Hardware features that should not die

It isn’t just software that makes us yearn for idealized, simple user interfaces. Hardware got more complicated, too.

I miss physical smartphone keyboards, for instance. I used my Motorola Droid 4 with its QWERTY keyboard until the machine broke in my hands. I could type much faster on them. Now, I'm constantly backspacing to correct mistakes. Autocorrect only goes so far. Or, sometimes, too far.

You can find smartphones with keyboards, if you look hard enough. BlackBerry diehards will point to the Android-powered BlackBerry KeyOne, and the company is also still selling some of its older models, such as the BlackBerry Classic and BlackBerry Passport. Finally, there's the LG Xpression 2. It has the rectangular-keyboard format I prefer, but it is an inexpensive feature phone rather than a smartphone.

It's not just on smartphones where we miss physical keys. I'd rather have physical buttons instead of touchscreens or “soft buttons.” You can use a physical button without looking at the device. My least favorite touchscreen incarnation? Car touchscreens. This drives me nuts in rentals.

PC keyboards are still physical, but many people hate today's standard keyboard's mushy feel. Fortunately, there are still great mechanical keyboards, though you won't find them at Best Buy.

I also miss long-lived batteries. The old personal digital assistants, such as the Sharp Zaurus and the Palm Pilot, had days of battery life. With power-hungry smartphones, those days are gone. But, come on, can't we have replaceable batteries again? And that’s not just because you could easily keep your smartphone running over a three-day conference. It would enable us to keep our old favorite phones running long after their batteries reached their "replace by" date.

I think you get the point by now. A lot of good, user-oriented features were left behind. We should consider bringing some back. They made our lives easier then, and they could make our lives easier now. Why are these cherished features missing? I don't know. It certainly can't be because it's hard to revive them.

Enough. Let's return to what already works rather than inventing new, inferior, features. Is that too much to ask for?

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.