The engineer lurking behind the curtain: Musical monitors on a meagre IT budget

The 'S' in SX, stands for 'Sporty', ok?


On Call One of the hardest tasks in IT is giving a user what they need, while also persuading them it's what they want. Join us for another tale from our weekly On Call column where a Register reader achieved the seemingly impossible.

Our tale takes place in the time of Windows 3.x, where the lucky among us ran 386s and the downright blessed enjoyed the heady delights of Intel's mighty 486.

Alessandro (for that was not his name) was tasked with his very first "IT transformation project." It involved inflicting Novell Netware on an unsuspecting Belgian company and then doubling down with new Tulip workstations, running Microsoft's finest, for every lucky employee.

Now long defunct, readers with long memories will remember Tulip as Compudata (and its sueball-attracting alleged copy of the IBM PC ) from the early 1980s. Compudata became Tulip and, in the 1990s, picked up the Commodore brand name before offloading it again in 2004. It attempted to buy it back in 2007 but, alas, soon had problems of its own and met its demise in 2009.

The company was in rude health back when our story is set, and supplied Alessandro's client with a variety of hardware. The medical director received a whopper of a 20-inch NEC monitor, running at 800 x 600 (due to eyesight issues) on a 386DX. The executive assistant made do with a 386SX diskless workstation, and a meagre 15-inch screen (also running at 800 x 600).

The sales director, however, considering himself the most grand of all the fromages, demanded "the biggest, fastest machine of the entire building" - not counting the server. He was therefore gifted a 486DX with a mindbogglingly immense 8MB of RAM. He still got the regulation 15 incher though.

Unsurprisingly, Alessandro found himself on the receiving end of complaints from two of the three. In came the calls:

The exec assistant, who did all the real work (dealing with the CEO's email, consolidating spreadsheets into something the executives could cope with and so on), found her 386SX not up to the job, and the screen far too small to work on the huge documents that had to be put together.

The medical director, who had requested the ginormonitor had eventually bought some spectacles and realised that the NEC behemoth was hogging all the desk space, so was there a smaller model please?

And the sales director? No complaints there, he just spent half an hour a day reading emails, and the rest of the time the computer sent Windows logos flying across the screen thanks to the screensavers of the day.

Unsurprisingly, the budget was now exactly zero because "no one wanted to dare tell the CEO that 'some mistakes were made during the User Requirements'." So Alessandro had to get creative.

The monitor was an easy fix. He swapped the monitors of the medical director and the executive assistant. The former was happy, but the latter was still struggling with the wheezy 386SX.

Gambling that the sales director would have no idea what the model numbers of the day meant, Alessandro lifted the 486DX and replaced it with the 386SX. The latter was both quieter and smaller, and he assured the bigwig that it was actually considerably more powerful. No, really.

He was able to close off the call a week later. The assistant exec was overjoyed: "Wonderful! Thank you so much! Now my job is a dream!". The medical director had space to stack even more paperwork on his desk. And the sales director? He smugly insisted: "This machine feels much more powerful than the previous one..."

Alessandro explained the secret behind his seemingly impossible trick: "to increase the speed of the 'flying windows' in the Windows screen saver by 25% because that's what the machine was doing 80% of the time, so it felt much faster!"

Ever performed an "upgrade" by simply entering a different number into a screensaver? Or kept everyone happy by playing the IT equivalent of musical monitors? Of course you have, and an email to On Callis all takes to reveal the engineer lurking behind the curtain. ®


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