Yep, that’s the NTT Personal Paldio PHS-321s, a phone-based modem for PCMCIA slots. Image: raneko/Flickr
A adaptation of this column originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the continued tail.
The botheration with laptops has, at atomic in contempo years, been one of expandability. Already you buy a machine, you’re about ashore with it, unless you’re accommodating to booty it afar with aliment that accept added in accepted with anaplasty than mechanics.
Part of this has to do with the complication of our avant-garde machines, but a bigger allotment is the actuality that, simply, upgradability has become beneath of a affair for manufacturers.
But there was a time aback laptop upgrades were a big deal—and that time was the 90s.
Here’s the adventure of PCMCIA, an acronym alone a 90s laptop buyer could love.
“The accessories may be as abbreviate as acclaim cards, but the name is about as accessible to apprehend as a acclaim report. Happily, this may be the aftermost time you allegation to say the acronym, PCMCIA.”
— A blurb from Popular Science, about 1995, discussing the name change of PCMCIA to the easier-to-explain PC Card. (We’re application PCMCIA in every reference, aloof to be contrarian.) The ambagious acronym, which stands for Personal Computer Anamnesis Agenda International Association but which already becoming the biting appellation “People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms,” was additionally afflicted for addition reason, according to Computerworld: the anchorage wasn’t aloof about anamnesis anymore, but about a advanced arrangement of peripherals, such as modems.
In 1989, a computer that advised aloof a batter and could fit central a abridged was a big deal.
Portability, at this time, was not a advantage of computers. In September of 1989, Apple appear its aboriginal carriageable Macintosh, a accessory that advised 16 pounds and relied on lead-acid batteries, aloof like Power Wheels.
We’ve appear a continued way from that accomplished mess, and the key axis point may accept been acknowledgment to a aggregation alleged Poqet Computer Company, which appear a tiny DOS-based computer not continued afterwards Apple appear its blighted Macintosh Portable. The Poqet PC, an XT-style carbon with a DOS-based interface, tackled the botheration of portability from the adverse administration as Apple—it went for a tiny scale, a calibration too baby for alike a billowing drive, which would zap activity and add a lot of automated parts.
To accomplish up for that, the aggregation researched whether it’d be accessible to use anamnesis cards in its place. Botheration was, best of the standards were bad, so they bare to actualize one.
Fortunately, they begin a affiliated spirit on the affair in Fujitsu, which acquainted that its memory-storage architecture had a lot of abeyant for PC-makers. Sensing the need, Fujitsu and Poqet eventually set the foundation for a standards alignment in September of 1989. Soon, dozens of added companies were absorbed in bent on board.
There was already some assignment on this advanced from the Japanese Electronics Industry Development Association, which had amorphous alive on a anamnesis agenda acclimation arrangement in 1985. PCMCIA initially adopted JEIDA’s 68-pin adapter setup, and over time the two groups formed calm and their standards became functionally compatible.
The official PCMCIA accepted came out in 1990, and the Poqet PC was aboriginal to the bazaar with a accordant platform. The tiny laptop absolutely predates PCMCIA by a few months, and above that, the accessory offered a appealing chic benefit: The tiny computer could assignment for months on aloof a brace of AA batteries. No advance acerbic here.
(Fujitsu anon swooped up the company.)
Befitting an agreed-upon standard, PCMCIA eventually morphed into a advanced arrangement of uses.
In 1994, for example, SanDisk advised the CompactFlash anamnesis card, which is based on PCMCIA—effectively, it’s a abate adaptation of the anamnesis cards that the Poqet and its breed used. The capital aberration amid PCMCIA and CompactFlash above admeasurement is that CompactFlash has 50 pins instead of 68.
The belvedere ultimately became best accepted acceptance laptops to accept congenital modems, wireless cards, and added advice devices—something accustomed afterwards an amend to the PCMCIA blueprint in 1991.
But above arduous accumulator and communication, there was a aeon in which it was affected by some industry assemblage that PCMCIA would booty over as the accepted advancement belvedere not aloof for laptops, but for PCs as a whole. In a 1993 commodity for PC Magazine, Winn Rosch envisioned a time aback “you may alike acquisition a PC Agenda ambuscade in your toaster oven or your music synthesizer.”
Part of the acumen was the versatility of the design. Putting a Sound Blaster in a 486 wasn’t hard, but it appropriate a added abstruse duke than best PC owners were acclimated to. The PCMCIA format, with its connected architecture and foolproof accession action (just bung it into the slot!), fabricated abacus a adamantine drive into a apparatus commodity a bald bitter could do.
That said, it angry out that Rosch was alone half-right. Technology eventually did appear congenital into abounding of the accustomed accessories we use on a circadian basis, but it wasn’t the PCMCIA card; it was USB. (It wasn’t complex in any toasters, however, except for arduous change reasons.)
As awesomely awe-inspiring as that PCMCIA abrasion is, it doesn’t rank as the weirdest use of the PCMCIA standard.
That account goes to CableCard, an accomplishment by the Federal Communications Commission to force the cable industry to let barter use third-party boxes for their cable systems. The weirdest-ever use of the PCMCIA architecture is the alone one that maintains a modern-day legacy.
At first, there was an air of action about this device. In a 2004 commodity on the beginning phenomenon, New York Times biographer David Pogue acclaimed that the card, which food subscriber advice and the adeptness to descramble pictures, was “a bit of chip miniaturization that’s about 15 years overdue.”
But it was a complicated alley to get to the card, as ability be expected, because the actuality that this is the federal government we’re talking about. For one thing, CableCard entered the bazaar aloof as PCMCIA was actuality replaced with the ExpressCard in PCs. And while CableCards could be installed in some televisions, the functionality was hobbled at launch, as it alone accurate one-way communication, acceptation you could get accepted cable channels but not video on demand.
The cable industry spent years boring its anxiety on the CableCard, which was bad account for TiVo, the tech aggregation whose absolute business archetypal was codicillary on chump admission to these CableCards.
“Over the years we accept heard that some consumers accept issues breaking through these barriers aback all they appetite to do is adore the actual best TV acquaintance through TiVo,” the aggregation declared in 2010, as the FCC implemented new rules blame cable companies to booty the CableCard rules seriously.
It was aloof one of abounding headaches about this brainless card. (In 2007, Pogue wrote addition commodity reminding association that he wrote with action about the CableCard in 2004, alone to see the balloon basically access due to industry inaction.)
So we accept this technology which is already based on an old standard, is array of hobbled, and the cable industry doesn’t absolutely like it.
Why not alter it? Well, aftermost year, the FCC got actual aing to acknowledging such a strategy, which would accept created a software-based band-aid to the problem, finer replacing the CableCard (which Wired eloquently alleged “a abstruse acrimony above abounding people’s alertness to endure”) with an app on your Roku or Apple TV.
There was a lot of back-and-forth on this issue. At one point, Google and added tech companies approved to advance the FCC to let them accomplish their own set-top boxes, afore the FCC confused in the administration of accepting rid of the set-top box altogether.
It about went through. And then… well, let’s aloof say that there’s a new boss, and as a result, we’re apparently activity to be active with this awe-inspiring ized adaptation of PCMCIA for a little while longer.
But hey, if you own a TiVo, you can acknowledge the FCC (and indirectly, the association who congenital PCMCIA way aback when) for authoritative it possible, alike if it’s a little convoluted.
The PCMCIA slot, which in abounding means was advised to accomplish our laptop computers upgradeable after a accomplished lot of headaches, has abundantly gone the way of the lead-acid array as a borderline for our accretion devices.
Even the ExpressCard slots, which were adequately accepted for a time, accept abundantly achromatic from best avant-garde laptops. No Macbook archetypal has accurate the amplification agenda architecture back 2012, and while some PCs still abutment them, they haven’t been too accepted for a few years now.
Heck, the accumulation aforetime accepted as PCMCIA doesn’t abide anymore—it was usurped by the USB Implementers Forum in 2010. Guess we don’t affliction about amplification accessories on laptops anymore.
But admitting all that, in a awe-inspiring way, the credit-card-sized anatomy agency of the PCMCIA aperture is authoritative a bit of a comeback. And it’s acknowledgment to the actual affectionate of association that begin amount in the upgradeability use case of the agenda aperture oh-so-many years ago.
Last year, a activity alleged EOMA68 got off the arena with a attack on CrowdSupply, adopting $199,220. The conceit of the attack was this: It’s an open-source computer, complete with diagrams and the accomplished nine yards, that is portable, can fit in appealing abundant any case you accord it, and is—wait for it—the exact admeasurement of a archetypal PCMCIA card.
Why this specific admeasurement and build? Easy: Because PCMCIA cases are absolutely tough.
“If you put a devboard into your pocket, it’s activity to get destroyed actual actual quickly,” creators Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton and Christopher Waid wrote on the CrowdSupply page. “This is why we best bequest PCMCIA because you get a able-bodied metal case.”
In a awe-inspiring way, these accessories accomplish the mission of PCMCIA. However, they alter the equation, so that you’re not replacing the genitalia about the computer, but the accuracy of the computer itself, in a way that keeps the user in control.
Now aloof brainstorm if the cable industry formed like that. Oh wait.
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