Inspired by a discussion on the Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists Yahoo! Group related to the recent VCF East 9.1 event and whether certain computing platforms should or should not be present at the museum location, I decided to offer up my thoughts on the often argued issue of what exactly constitutes "vintage" when it comes to computing hardware. Of course, me being me, I'll touch on videogame and mobile hardware as well.
It has been said that there's no one right answer for what constitutes "vintage," as it's naturally a constantly expanding target due to the simple passage of time. While this is true in the absolute sense, it doesn't mean that we as a community can't create an effective dividing line, no matter how much time passes, particularly once we introduce the concept of "intrinsic value" being tied to "vintage." For instance, I think we can all pretty much agree that generic PC DOS and Windows systems past a certain vintage - say mid-1980s - are generally out, which covers nearly all of the countless PC clones that continue to get produced to this day. It's not that some of these don't meet the basic criteria necessarily, it's that there's nothing notable about these boxes that anyone and everyone, be it a company or individual, could, did, and still do put together. It's even arguable that some of the parts - particularly certain expansion cards, like for video or sound - are worth more than the sum of the box, which is pretty telling for how we should generally value them in our determination of what is "vintage" and worth preserving and appreciating. [read more]
It's also easy to argue that by the mid-1990s - once the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga stuff went away commercially for good - that that is forever the dividing line between what constitutes "vintage" in how we're using it. Those were the last of the non-generic computing machines with distinct "personalities." Once Apple went Intel, that too seems like a pretty good dividing line between "special" and "generic" for the Macintosh line. In other words, I'd say that aspect of the "problem" has sorted itself out, particularly as it becomes increasingly trivial to move our current computing setups/environments to the latest and greatest hardware and not miss a beat with our software and services. The hardware has truly become a disposable commodity, which explains part of the reason why so many of us have techno-lust for the newest replacement devices within a year or two.
Clearly, with the newest class of popular computing devices - smartphone and tablets - it's hard to imagine a scenario where most of these devices will ever qualify as "vintage" in the sense that we're describing. This is mostly because both of these device types suffer from being "generic" (i.e., easily replaceable) and also that they're so critically tied to specific online ecosystems or services that have a limited lifespan. This doesn't mean that these devices can't and won't be hacked for other purposes in the future, but the reality is there won't be that much particularly interesting about a future "vintage" iPad tablet, Galaxy smartphone, or Windows hybrid device. The latest version of whatever its successor is will provide the same effect, albeit with the added benefit of being "new and improved." It's not so easy to say the same for something like - as just one vintage example - a TRS-80 Pocket Computer, which provides a unique experience. Obviously, with that example, your personal mileage will vary on whether or not it provides a worthwhile experience, but that's not the point. The point is, it's collectible and clearly museum worthy.
Videogame consoles are quickly approaching this same type of dividing line. While Microsoft flirted with a completely connected console with the Xbox One, they pulled back to the point where the Xbox One still has significant value just by putting a disc in. The robustness of the connected features of the Xbox One, however, like the Sony PS4, does point to what seems to be the inevitable. Once physical media goes away, the value will no longer be in the box, but in the services, much like the earlier examples. Still, for now, there is no clear dividing line with the videogame stuff, be it console or handheld, though certain similar devices and set top boxes, like the Ouya, NVIDIA Shield, or the Amazon Fire TV, already embody the type of commodity hardware that suddenly renders something of little future value beyond, "oh, that was an interesting form factor those primitives in the 2010s used."
Clearly, I've only just touched on what is a very big subject, so let me know your thoughts!
Regardless of someone's take on the word "vintage" - something can have value for different reasons. Its hard to draw a line in the sand and say "well its after 1989 its a generic pos" when people who maybe have used one of those clone models every day for years, even if they did just play a game or type out their homework, would have a nostalgia value for a particular unit.
The context of the discussion on the MARCH list wasn't about whether a Packard Bell belongs on the exhibit floor. (Thats a different topic) It was whether or not that Packard Bell should even be allowed in the consignment room at all. The fact that people wanted to see it, and the fact that even people on the list are showing interest in it means that while it may be a "1 of 10,000" generic box, it definitely represents something to somebody, enough that they'd want to see it and maybe buy it. While I would hate for the consingment area to become a pile of 1990s clutter, I think if there's items that present a nostalgic value, where people could attend the event, then see something and say "hey wait I used to use one of these, let me dust off my dos skills", that just propels March's mission, even if its slightly outside the "focus".
Its just funny that people who have a nostalgia for something instantly discount something "newer" as trash when in fact, to the next generation, it may have nostalgic value to THEM. Any group or project dealing with the past, whether "vintage" or "history" needs to remember time marches on :-)
Lastly, I think the discussion is very civil and as long as both sides are heard, thats all that matters. Everybody's entitled to their opinions while they still count! :-)