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A Brief History of Computer Terminals
Compared to modern devices like iPhones and iPads, the earliest computers seem very archaic indeed. They were large, often requiring huge purpose-built facilities to house them, they were delicate, requiring large air conditioners and constant cooling to stay operational, and they were slow. The earliest systems could only handle one job at a time, and programs had to be loaded directly into the system via punched cards, magnetic tape, or paper tape.
As computer systems have evolved and become more capable, efforts have been made to make more efficient use of available computing power. Operating systems and technologies were developed that allowed multiple users to access a host system from a convenient location, both simultaneously and interactively. One of such technologies was a computer terminal.
Computer terminals were devices that usually consisted of an electron beam display tube and a keyboard used to interface with the host system. The first terminals were called “green screens” due to the very common monochrome phosphor displays used by most terminal screens. Another common nickname was “Dumb Terminal” due to the fact that all the processing was handled by the host system and the actual terminals could do almost nothing themselves. In effect, the host computer had to constantly check the connection to the terminal to determine if there was any input from the user. This put a heavy load on the main processor with a lot of precious computing time spent traversing terminals; 40% of available computer time was unheard of. The larger the installation, the more users and terminals, the more time was spent.
To overcome this problem, “smart” terminals were introduced along with dedicated I/O processing units. A smart terminal is so named for its ability to handle relatively simple local processing, such as validating user input fields and the ability to allow the user to navigate a form while adding data. When the user fills out the form, the terminal will send back the results of the user’s input to the host as a block of data. These smart terminals are also called lock mode terminals.
System manufacturers soon realized that they could be more profitable by making their products unique and locking customers into their product range. The end result was that each manufacturer had its own assortment of terminals that were largely incompatible with anyone’s host system. The purchase of a particular mainframe computer system required the purchase of compatible terminals from the same manufacturer. As a result, throughout the 1960s and beyond, there was a relatively large number of different computer companies, each with their own unique and incompatible terminals.
In the late 1970s, however, this trend reversed, and some of the new players in the computer industry, including Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), developed more standardized general-purpose machines. These machines used a standard serial connection along with standardized character sets and “output sequences” (commands used to specify text formatting, layout, and other display options on the terminal). This made it much easier for other manufacturers to connect terminals and equipment to the host system.
Due in large part to this openness and the size of the market that existed for terminals, a number of companies emerged whose sole business was to manufacture terminals to connect to host systems manufactured by others. These companies created terminals that could connect to any number of systems available on the market and often had functionality that made them a cross between dumb and smart terminals without the expense of the latter. Terminals from manufacturers such as Televideo had highly desirable and unique functionality that software developers took advantage of to improve their own programs. At the same time, the software again became dependent on the hardware, although in this case on the terminal and not on the host system. (The software can be run on different host systems, provided the program is “portable”).
Finally, in the modern era, the computer terminal has been almost completely replaced by the ubiquitous and multifunctional PC. In the early days of the PC, it was common to find a PC literally next to a computer terminal on the user’s desk. However, this very poor use of valuable desktop space and duplication of PC and terminal investment soon became a problem. The solution to this problem came in the form of a program that ran on a PC and simulated the function of a terminal, a terminal emulator.
Terminal Emulation software has put an end to the expense of purchasing and maintaining terminals with their narrow, specialized functions. With a terminal emulator, users can access host systems directly from their PC. Terminal Emulator software replicates the functionality and behavior of several types of terminals and is available in versions that run on a variety of devices found in today’s workplace, such as a laptop computer, mobile phone, or even a web browser. In many cases, terminal emulation software integrates with word processors, spreadsheets, e-mail, etc., greatly reducing the cost of host access while increasing capabilities and providing the end user with a familiar and modern interface for legacy technologies.
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