1998 vs. 2008: A Tech Retrospective

  • Price: $80Printhead: 4800-by-1200-dpi color, 1600 nozzles
  • Speed: as fast as 3.5 seconds/page in color
  • Interface: USB 2.0 and PictBridge

The Alps ALQ300 was a much sought-after printer in 1988, with its fast 24-pin print head, wide carriage, and color graphics printing capabilities.

In the dot-matrix world, you could purchase print cartridges for fonts not included in internal memory (graphical printing was interminably slow and only used for charts). Cartridges for Courier, Orator, Prestige Elite, Tiempo, and other fonts could be had for $55 apiece.

The front panel of the Alps had controls for setting line spacing, dot pitch, font, and print mode (draft, medium, or high quality). Color printing could produce 7 shades with a four-color ribbon and overstriking, and each software program that you used with it had to have its own print driver. Fortunately, the Alps was Epson-compatible, so most popular programs supported it.

Perhaps most astonishing is the Alps' price tag: $995 before add-ons such as sheet feeders, cartridges, and a serial port.

Today, you can get a high-resolution inkjet printer (like the Canon Pixma iP3500) that produces great graphics and photos for $80 or so. Though ink and paper are still expensive, they're competitive with what online printing services charge. And you can print anything on your PC at the click of a button--no changing cartridges and setting print parameters for every job.

The Pixma even has two print trays, so you can keep a second paper type on hand. And perhaps most convenient of all, we can share printers over a Wi-Fi network with Windows Print Sharing and print directly from digital cameras with PictBridge USB technology.

The printer of the future likely won't be judged on its pixels and droplets, but on how well it fabricates everyday things. The first 3D printers are already in use for design prototyping, and "fabbers" will eventually be able to make entire working circuit boards or customized objects while you wait.

1988: CompuServe

  • Price: $6.00 to $47.50 per hour ($11 to $83 adjusted for inflation)
  • Connection: dial-up
  • Speed: 300 to 9600 baud
  • Services: 400 databases, covering news, shopping, finance and the like; 140 discussion groups, e-mail

2008: AT&T Elite DSL

  • Price:  $35 per month
  • Connection: Digital Subscriber Line
  • Speed: 6 mbps
  • Services: nearly anything you can imagine

Think back to a time when you had to use AOL to get online, and were mostly limited to the channels and information that service provided. Now delve even deeper into the misty past, to an age when there was no Web at all, much less a graphical interface.

 The world of CompuServe, the leading online service of the 1980s, consisted of menus and pages in a command-line interface. You'd work your way down a series of menus to get to your car-restoration SIG (special interest group), back up and head over to check stock prices, and move out through a special gateway to make a plane reservation on Eaasy Sabre.

All of that text menu navigating was costly: $12.50 per hour at 1200 or 2400 baud, and up to $47.50 for 9600-baud access. Just getting there could be expensive, too. Unless you had a Tymnet or Telenet network gateway in your local dialing area, you had to budget for per-minute phone charges on top of everything else. A $500 CompuServe bill and a $200 access fee were by no means uncommon.

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