Here on Retrocomputing.SE we've lately had more than a few questions (including some of my own) about

  • Hey what about this idea, did that ever happen?

  • What if instead of doing it this way, they had done that instead?

One of the most interesting parts of Retrocomputing is seeing alternative development paths, different approaches, and various ways to approach a problem. So I wouldn't like to see them closed as off-topic, that wouldn't be right or appropriate. But these questions seem kind of out-of-place, so maybe they need a tag or something

  • 1
    We really need to define this better. Otherwise, "what if Bill Gates hadn't left Micro-Soft?" would be a valid question. Think about the questions you want allowed, and think about the questions you don't want allowed, come up with a rule, then try to break it.
    – wizzwizz4 Mod
    Feb 12 '19 at 17:21
  • 2
    Your definition of retrocomputing is different from mine. My definition includes real, existing hardware that I would like to obtain, run and preserve and the matching software. "What-ifs" have no factual answer, and are thus very unsuitable for the SE format.
    – tofro
    Feb 16 '19 at 20:38

Just realized I had created a similar question - Thus post this as an answer

"What-if" questions, or more specifically, questions that basically state a hypothetical way of building something and ask for any known example of a real implementation tend to bother me a bit - Can this really be about retrocomputing? To me, these questions sound a bit (yes, I am exaggerating here) like

I just thought about the idea of building a computer from chocolate. Sounds like a cool idea. Has that ever been done? If not, why not?

In my opinion, retrocomputing is about getting old computers (existing, real-life examples) to work, preservation of hard- and software, documentation, ask about software for and on them and (maybe, but that's already on the verge of being off-topic IMHO) ask for technical decisions that lead (or didn't) to this or that real implementation. Why something didn't lead to a real implementation (in some examples, even without any proof that that "something" was even considered) can't be on-topic - something that is not proven to exist and hasn't been thought up years ago, cannot be retro, at least in my definition.

I think I could probably at least tolerate the same questions when proof would have been given that the technical decision in question was actually considered back in the days. Without that, they are very close to asking for the chocolate computer. Sometimes interesting, but entirely academic.

Even if these questions seem, at first glance, to ask for a simple yes (with an example) or no (which you can't possibly supply for Evidence of absence), they typically spin off a discussion on the (non-) feasibility of the idea and provoke highly opinionated answers, for which the SE format is not really suitable. SE is about facts.

I take the risk of being rude and bluntly state: I feel annoyed by such questions.


As wizzwizz4 has commented, this would depend upon the question - as is so often the case.

In principle, yes, "what if" questions can be instructive when a good knowledgeable answer can be given. The reasons for the directions taken in computer development over the years can be instructive in the present day.

We do allow here anecdotal answers from people who were there at the time. Especially when they can be backed up with references. And we are fortunate on this site to have a number of people who have been in various parts of the industry for decades. Capturing this knowledge strengthens this site.

However, there is always a 'but'. I don't think that we want flights of fancy.

I would also want personalities kept out. We already reject biographical questions, I would also reject the likes of "What would the web be like if Marc Andreesen had been hit by a bus?" as not constructive.

So, yes, let us have some alternative development questions and see where we go.

  • "What if" seems (more) fine to me when there is proof given that the "if" has really been considered years ago. Without such proof, these questions are entirely moot. With that proof, I still think it depends on the question
    – tofro
    Feb 16 '19 at 20:31

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