What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation?

What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation?

Digital Equipment Corporation was perhaps the second most important computer company in history, behind IBM. Its minicomputers challenged IBM, and, indeed, Unix first ran on a DEC PDP-7. DEC’s Alpha CPU was one of the few chips to make Intel nervous for its x86 line. It created the first really good Internet search engine. In a just and perfect world, DEC would still be dominating. Instead, it faded away in the 1990s. What happened to Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC?

There’s a short answer and a long answer.

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HP splits in two.

Don’t you feel like trying something new
Don’t you feel like breaking out
Or breaking us in two
You don’t do the things that I do
You want to do things I can’t do
Always something breaking us in two –Joe Jackson

After years of buying up companies, HP is splitting up. While that’s probably more prudent that exiting the desktop PC business, which is another idea they flirted with in the past, it’s anyone’s guess how this is going to work out.

But it’s what all the cool kids are doing, so it’s what the investors want, and that means HP is going to do it. Read more

Expect your HP printer to get 0wnz0r3d shortly

Courtesy of Dan Bowman: You may have seen the brief writeup on Slashdot about how to set printers on fire by messing with the fuser, but in Germany next month there’s going to be a security engineer’s nightmare unleashed, courtesy of the HP printer that’s probably sitting a few feet outside your cubicle and mine.

And there’s a whole lot more to it than just messing with the fuser in hopes of killing a printer or (perhaps) starting a fire. There’s a lot more to a printer than toner and a fuser. As the link above says, a printer contains an embedded Linux or Vxworks system that’s trivially easy to install a rootkit on and that nobody’s paying attention to. Seriously, who watches traffic coming from the printer?

The possibilities are endless.
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Shame on you, Medtronic

Insulin pumps marketed by Minneapolis-based Medtronic have a serious, life-threatening security flaw, and the company couldn’t care less.

For these two reasons, this isn’t your typical security flaw, and Medtronic’s response–in 30 years, we’ve ever seen a problem that we know of–is beyond deplorable. Ford’s infamous decision to pay lawsuits rather than fix a deadly flaw in the Pinto comes to mind.
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Lenovo and IBM look back at IBM’s PC exit

The Register reports that Lenovo is gloating over its purchase of IBM’s PC division and its turnaround efforts, while IBM doesn’t regret pulling out, at all, even going so far as to call the PC dead. Who’s right?

Lenovo. Though IBM was right to get out–but the PC is only as dead as the television. Old media doesn’t go away quickly. Radio was supposed to make newspapers go away, and it’s only now, 90 years later, that newsprint is hurting. The old stuff adapts and evolves and finds new uses. Some people argue that if newspapers were managed better, they wouldn’t be hurting, but that’s a different issue. Let’s talk IBM PCs.
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Buy a used business printer and save a bundle

I’m through with cheap consumer printers.

Due to the nature of my wife’s work, we print a lot by home standards. We buy paper by the case, not the ream, and a case of paper probably lasts us a little more than six months.

Our workload just isn’t practical for the kind of printers you find next to the telephones at consumer electronics stores. So I bought an HP Laserjet 4100. And even if a case of paper lasts you a couple of years, you might want to buy an office-grade printer too.A typical consumer monochrome laser printer, if you shop around for a good sale, costs around 60 bucks. Replacement toner cartridges cost anywhere from $50-$70, depending on capacity. And at some point, which could be as little as 20,000 pages, the drum or the fuser or some other semi-replaceable part will wear out and you’ll have to replace it, at a cost of $100-$150. Most people don’t do it, since it’s cheaper to just buy another printer. And by that point, the printer will be discontinued, replaced by a new model that’s a little smaller, a little faster, a little quieter–and uses different, incompatible toner cartridges. If you got lucky and found toner on sale and stocked up, you’re out of luck.

Let’s do the math. 8 toner cartridges at $60 apiece, plus the printer at $60 gives you a total cost of $540 to print 20,000 pages. That’s 2.7 cents per page over the practical lifespan of the printer.

Businesses are discarding old HP Laserjets like crazy, either because the maintenance contracts on them get to be too expensive, or because they’re replacing them with units that can print color, or units that can scan and fax in addition to printing.

This week I bought an HP Laserjet 4100 from a computer recycler for 30 lousy bucks. The toner cartridge still has about 5,000 pages left in it, and the fuser/drum assembly will be good for another 175,000 pages. It’ll take me 17 years to wear that out–and since the printer is already 7-9 years old, I don’t know if the rest of the printer has 17 years left in it.

But there are still Laserjet 4000s in service and that printer came on the market about four years earlier, so I’m pretty confident I’ll get four years out of the hardware.

I’m less confident of current consumer laser printers lasting four years doing what I ask of it.

It’s possible to find toner cartridges for HP 4100s at a cost of anywhere from $20-$50 and last 10,000 pages. The "maintenance kit" that includes a drum and fuser costs about $150. I probably won’t ever need one, but if you find an HP 4100 with more miles on it, you may.

Old toner cartridges have an expiration date on them, but you can ignore that as long as the cartridge is still sealed. Once the cartridge is opened, you can expect it to last 2-2.5 years. So buying old cartridges for $20 or $30 off Amazon or eBay is fine, and stocking up if you see a bunch of them is fine.

Let’s do the math on a less than ideal HP 4100 that needs a maintenance kit and toner cartridge right away. At $50 for the printer, $150 for the maintenance kit, and $100 for two cartridges, you’re looking at a cost of $300 to print 20,000 pages, yielding a cost per page of 1.5 cents.

I’m looking at more like half a cent per page, since I lucked into a low-mileage unit.

Either way you look at it, a used HP 4100 is a better deal than a consumer-grade printer. The cost per page is lower, and it’s a lot more convenient because you’ll be changing toner cartridges and filling the paper tray less often.

Even if you have your heart set on buying new, the economy is similar, but the financial hit up front is a lot higher. The HP 4014 currently costs $800, and the cartridges are around $100. At 10,000 pages per year, the cost per page is a reasonable 1.5 cents over the course of 15 years.

Personally, I’d rather buy a used older model that’s already depreciated, keep the up-front cost low, and recoup the savings quickly.

And yes, I am partial to HP. One of the reasons they’re common is because they work well. When I supported printers for a living, I could almost set HPs up and forget about them. They didn’t even jam all that often. I’ve also supported a lot of Lexmark printers. They were pretty reliable, but we had more strange issues with printing than I ever saw with HPs. And I see the same pattern at work today, though I’m no longer responsible for fixing the printers. The HPs just work, but about once a week the Lexmarks die suddenly with a weird error message.

And by virtue of being the most common, HPs will be easy to find in the first place, and in the long term, it will be a lot easier to find parts and toner for them. I owned a Lexmark 4039 laser printer for many years, but the toner was more expensive than HP toner because it was harder to find, and once the printer was old enough that I needed parts, I couldn’t find them at a reasonable price.

What about cleaning the printer up? Some offices are much more kind to their printers than others. My 4100 seems fairly typical. It had a couple of stickers on it telling where to call for service, and a number of black marks that looked like they came from shoes. Maybe it sat under someone’s desk for a while and got the occasional kick.

Labels come off pretty easily with lighter fluid. Squirt a little lighter fluid onto the end of a napkin or a cotton swab. In the case of paper labels, wipe them until they’re saturated with lighter fluid and let it dry, then repeat the process a couple of times. The label will peel off very easily. If any adhesive residue remains, another wipe or two will take care of it. In the case of plastic or metallic labels, just rub the edges and let the lighter fluid wick under it until one of the corners lifts. Pull that corner up some more, then dab some more lighter fluid underneath. Eventually the adhesive will weaken enough to allow you to peel off the label. Then wipe away any remaining adhesive afterward.

Some marks will come off pretty easily with lighter fluid too. Others don’t even require that much–some will respond just fine to window cleaner, or just a little soap and water.

Stubborn marks will usually come off by buffing with car wax or metal polish.

My 4100 looked a little rough when I brought it home, but it took me about five minutes to make it look more presentable.

So if you’re in the market for a monochrome laser printer, don’t go to any of the big-box stores. Search Craigslist instead for an old HP office printer. HP Laserjet 4000s, 4050s, and 4100s are in a sweet spot right now in regards to pricing and availability of toner cartridges. Toner for the older HP Laserjet 4 and 5 printers (which date to the mid 1990s) is harder to find.

Don’t pay any more than 50 bucks for a bare printer. Be prepared to pay more for one that has extras like networking, a duplexer, or an extra tray, but it’s not uncommon for people to sell those parts separately, since they’re often worth more than the printer. Networking is nice to have if you have more than one computer. Duplexing is nice but it won’t help you if you mostly print single-page jobs. If you don’t know what you’d use extra trays for, then you probably don’t need them.

How to buy a laser printer

I had to buy a laser printer in a hurry over the weekend. I bought a Samsung ML-2525, which I believe to be a reasonable choice, but not necessarily the best choice I could have made. It’s tiny, whisper quiet, and very fast, and it was on sale for 70 bucks, though sometimes you can get one for as little as $59. At that price, it’s hard for buying it to be a terrible decision.

Please note that this advice is for home and light small-business use. For business use, scroll to the end.For several years, I kept two laser printers on hand: a Lexmark 4039 for volume printing, and a Samsung CLP-300 for color and emergency printing. The Lexmark wore out, and I dragged my feet replacing it, since CLP-300 cartridges cost $15 at 4inkjets.com, making prints from the CLP-300 ring up at just over a penny a page.

That ridiculously low cost per page is the reason I swore off inkjets in 1993. With a little luck, you can get that price per page down even lower than that. But not with an inkjet.

Unfortunately I ran out of toner before my next order of toner came in. So faced with buying a cartridge at retail ($50-$65) or buying a backup printer, I decided to spend a little more right now, get a printer, and have some more options if a printer glitch happens at 9 PM when a bunch of stuff absolutely has to be printed before morning (which has happened before). Printer problems are much easier to fix off deadline.

The Samsung 2525 had the lowest up front cost of any printer I could find at the moment. So that’s what I bought.

What I should have done was look at other printers on the market, visit 4inkjets.com, and compare toner prices. They’ll soon be carrying 2525 toner, for 50 bucks. That comes out to a reasonable but not earth-shattering 2 cents per page. I do expect that price to fall with time, as it did with the CLP-300.

Had I looked more, I would have seen that there are Brother printers with toner cartridges that cost half as much. The up-front cost would be higher (around $99 right now), but I probably would have made up the difference after the second toner cartridge.

Better still, if you have the luxury of time, is to determine which printers currently on the market have the most economical aftermarket toner cartridges, look for any other features you might want (such as networking and duplex printing), then watch the Sunday papers for a sale.

It’s entirely possible that the cost of Samsung 2525 cartridges will come down in time, perhaps even by the time I’ve used up my second one. In the meantime, 2 cents per page still isn’t bad, and the print driver shares some components between the two printers, so I only have to deal with one printer company’s bloat on my computers rather than two.

And what if you’re buying a printer for medium or large offices? You figure out how many pages per month you’re going to print, and you buy the appropriate HP printer. Nothing else offers the combination of software compatibility and reliability of HP’s business-class printers, and there was a time when I would have had the pay stubs to prove it.

Other brands will offer cheaper toner, but if your service contract allows using third-party or refilled toner, that can negate some of the difference. The time you don’t spend paying someone like me to work out printer glitches will more than make up for the rest.

Saying goodbye

Today we hauled my trusty Lexmark 4039 off to recycling. Unfortunately its paper handling was shot, and parts and documentation for that model are nearly impossible to find. I found the alleged service manual, but couldn’t make sense enough of the documentation to fix it.It’s hard to imagine having a sentimental attachment to a laser printer. I guess part of it is because I bought the thing in 1996. Aside from an IBM Model M keyboard, there’s no piece of computer equipment I owned in 1996 that’s still worthy of daily use in 2009. (The true-blue IBM PC/AT case I used in 1996 still sits in my basement, but it’s been a long time since it’s been possible to fit a decent motherboard into that.)

I bought the printer–an ex-demo unit, sold by Onsale, the long-forgotten online auction house–originally intending to go up against the establishment student press at the University of Missouri-Columbia. It was Quixotic, to say the least. The printer didn’t last through the first issue, so I relegated it to personal use. Meanwhile, I stayed around one final year until graduation making a pest of myself.

That printer printed a lot of stuff for me, including short pieces that became the basis for my 1999 book. And sometimes I’d print a chapter off with that printer and give it the old-fashioned red-pen treatment when I needed a bit more intimacy with my words on paper.

In 2005, when I sold anything and everything in my personal library that had any value to keep the lights on while I looked for jobs, that Lexmark printed the mailing labels and invoices.

But even by then, the printer was outliving its usefulness. Toner was no longer being made for it, so buying toner was a spotty affair. The stuff’s out there, but when you buy it, sometimes it’s what the seller says it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Parts are in short supply. Modern printers have four times the resolution, four times the speed, weigh half as much and take up 1/3 the space. Oh, and they cost less than $100 and you can buy cartridges at the Office Max down the street from me.

Space comes at a real premium now, and for the last year or so the printer has been more trouble than its worth, since the paper handling required a lot of babysitting. So it’s time. Past time. I keep reminding myself it’s just a machine–and a worn-out one at that.

But for about 12 years, long past its life expectancy, that printer served me faithfully. And that’s worth something. Lexmark doesn’t make ’em like that anymore.

Knowing me, I may very well manage to get 12-plus years of service out of some other piece of computer equipment. But that Lexmark printer was the first.

Samsung printer says paper jam but there is none? Here’s the fix.

Samsung printer says paper jam but there is none? Here’s the fix.

I had a phantom paper jam in a Samsung CLP-300 laser printer. It was strange. I tried to print yesterday and got nothing but a paper jam message after the click that usually precedes the paper feeding through. So I looked inside all the covers, even flipping the printer over multiple times, looking for that stray bit of paper munging up the works. If your Samsung printer says paper jam but there is none, here’s what to do.

It’s a good thing I fixed it, because I needed to print some resumes. I got the job, too.

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How eBay is ruining itself

A thread on one of the train forums I frequent mentioned today that the number of listings for Marx trains on eBay is down about 50% over what it was a year or so ago. Not only that, the listings are by and large the common, less interesting stuff.

Meanwhile, a debate rages on another forum I read sometimes, frequented by eBay sellers. On one side are the eBay apologists, saying they’ll just change as eBay changes. On the other side, people struggling to make a profit in the ever-changing environment are finding other venues to sell their wares and finding themselves a lot happier.The problem is that eBay is trying to create a sterile, retail experience. The big shareholders and the executives seem to think that’s what the consumer wants.

Another seller’s theory is that the people who sell brand new merchandise in huge quantities are less troublesome, causing fewer headaches for eBay and for the customers.

The eBay business books I’ve read talk a lot about people who drop-ship pool tables and other merchandise in large quantities, never touching any of it, and supposedly becoming millionaires by doing it.

But the people who put eBay on the map are the people like the ones I see every Saturday morning. They study classified ads the way a devout monk would study Scripture, looking for clues and carefully plotting out their routes. They get up before dawn and drive to their carefully chosen site. Their prey: The estate sale. They line up in the driveway hours before the sale opens, like bargain hunters the day after Thanksgiving. When the sale finally opens, shoppers come in, 10, 20, or 50 at a time, depending on the size of the house, while those who arrived later wait their turn. Any time someone leaves, those in the driveway gawk, trying to see what he or she purchased.

It doesn’t matter what item you can name, I know someone who goes out every Saturday looking for it. Some of these people are collectors, but some of them hawk their finds on eBay. They buy on Saturday and Sunday, then they spend hours the following week figuring out what exactly they have, carefully photographing and describing each item, then listing it, hoping to attract bidders.

The typical eBay addict doesn’t go there to buy a pool table, or the kind of things they sell at a suburban mall. Certainly there are people who buy those sorts of things on eBay. But those tend to be occasional shoppers. The biggest eBay addicts are the fanatics–the serious collectors who spend hours every day scouring new eBay listings, looking for items they don’t have in their collections.

And guess what? These collectors don’t buy from drop-shippers who duplicate the retail experience. The drop-shippers can’t get those kinds of collectibles. It’s the people who get up at 5 a.m. each Saturday to be first in line to prowl around in someone’s attic or basement who get that stuff.

The problem is that the people who do get that stuff have a difficult time becoming (and remaining) Powersellers. A Powerseller has to sell 100 items or $1,000 worth of inventory per month. If I wanted to sell vintage trains on eBay, there’s no way I could locate 1,200 items each year. Not in St. Louis. The $1,000 mark wouldn’t be much easier to hit.

So eBay is driving away that kind of seller. And as a result, eBay is going to lose that type of buyer as well.

I know for a fact there are plenty of collectors in Europe and elsewhere who are eager to take advantage of the low value of the dollar and buy a bunch of collectible American trains at bargain prices due to the exchange rate. Unfortunately the timing is horrible. The new eBay policies have driven away a lot of the people who sell the best items. So the foreigners with money to spend end up spending a lot less than they would like. Sure, they’ll buy the $10 items that are listed, but they’d really rather buy the $100 and $1,000 items that were listed last year but are conspicuously absent today.

Ten years ago, eBay was flying high. They weren’t the first online auction, but they were the most successful, precisely because they allowed ordinary people to sell ordinary (and extraordinary) things. I bought a number of things from online auctions in the mid 1990s, including the Lexmark 4039 laser printer I still use every day. I don’t remember now the name of the auction house where I bought it. I do know it went out of business shortly after eBay became widely known.

Lots of other companies wanted in on the action. Amazon, Yahoo, and others launched auction sites that looked and acted a lot like eBay. But they never went anywhere. The best sellers put their best stuff on eBay. The wannabes tended to just have second-rate stuff sold by second-rate sellers. Case point: I once tried to buy a lot of vintage train magazines from an Amazon auction. I won, paid my money, and waited. And waited. A week later I e-mailed the seller. No response. Finally after another week he responded, saying he’d been having computer trouble and asking if I still wanted the magazines. Well, since he offered me the refund, I took it. I spent the money on eBay instead.

Yahoo auctions are gone, closed about a year ago. If Amazon’s auctions are still open, they’re sure doing a good job of hiding them.

If another company wants to get a piece of eBay’s business, the time is right. There are lots of refugee eBay sellers looking for someplace a little cheaper, with a little more stable set of rules where they can sell. And if a large enough group of them take up shop somewhere, there are plenty of buyers more than willing to follow them there.

It may not happen this year. But I do think it’s only a matter of time.

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