On Call Remember when you wanted to be contactable at all times? No, neither do we. The subject of today's OnCall, however, was the kind of aspiring departmental head who was hellbent on impressing the bosses, no matter what he broke in the process.
The tale comes courtsey of "Keith", a Data Systems Technician for the US Navy, who told us he was "officially trained as a combat computer repair technician". He also considered himself a bit of a hobbyist where PCs were concerned.
He had been stationed at a Naval Research facility, the last duty station before his retirement, and while the majority of the facility's population were blessed with bachelor degrees or higher qualifications, Keith lacked one, having not been too interested in academia but possessed of "an avid curiosity about hardware (all kinds) with a special interest in computers and programming".
The job was an easy one, with little to do until the warm embrace of retirement beckoned.
Keith's story took place sometime between 1993 and 1996. The official desktop computers were either Sun boxes or Intel 386-based PCs running Windows 3.1. Windows 95 was also being evaluated and some machinery running IBM's OS/2 were sprinkled into the mix. The (new for the time) network could just about manage speeds of 1Mb/s.
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Our tale, however, concerns email running on that bastion of stability: Windows 3.1.
"We were running the Eudora email program under WinSock TCP networking stack," recalled Keith, adding: "Keep in mind, Windows at this time was still not a true multi-tasking operating system and the computer was still a single core setup with threads not even a dream yet."
Younglings not familiar with Eudora may be interested to learn the email software harked back to the late 1980s prior to acquisition by Qualcomm in the early 1990s. Originally free, it was swiftly commercialised, although a "Lite" incarnation persisted and Eudora gained quite the following. Sadly, things looked a little iffy as the century turned, and by 2006 Qualcomm handed over development to Mozilla. Qualcomm would eventually pass the email client's source code to the Computer History Museum in 2018.
But back in the carefree days of the 1990s, Eudora was a force to be reckoned with. That said, Windows being Windows, on the day in question it was performance that Keith was called out to deal with.
"My computer is running really slow," whined a department head.
Keith pitched up and peered at the computer. Incredibly, the bigwig was running sanctioned apps only – Office, Eudora and so on. "Just the normal stuff," Keith said.
Our hero ran some tests. Windows 3.1 appeared to be running normally, just really, really slowly.
After watching the poor thing thrash itself, Keith found the issue. Eudora was set to check for email every minute.
Those spared Microsoft's earlier versions of Windows will not be aware of what happens when a so-called background task runs. In this case, no processing would happen until the task was complete. "Although we were fully locally hosted with internet services including our own email server, it can still take some time (albeit measured in seconds) for network activity," recalled Keith.
Keith asked why, exactly, Eudora needed to check for mail once a minute?
"In case someone needs something right now and can't wait. I need to be able to respond in a timely fashion!" came the retort.
In later decades the bigwig would get his wish as the world decided that anyone with an internet connection must be available at all times of the day and night, and subject to a succession of increasingly hysterical "PLS RESPOND" messages if a reply is not immediately forthcoming.
Back in the 1990s, however, Keith simply pointed out that the department head was also possessed of a telephone and anyone needing anything really urgently could simply use that.
He set Eudora back to a less stressful once-every-10-minutes check.
"Needless to say, the computer started working reasonably normally after that (relatively speaking – this is early Microsoft after all)."
Ever been called out to deal with some self-inflicted silliness? Or had to explain the inner workings of Windows to a mighty brain? Of course you have, and you should share your story with an email to On Call. ®