Pre-Amazon (circa 1990), it was almost IMPOSSIBLE to find programming books about subjects that were “too niche” for Borders and Barnes & Noble unless you ALREADY knew they existed, or you were lucky enough to live somewhere like Boston or Silicon Valley (where there presumably WAS a bookstore or two that made a point of automatically carrying at least one copy of nearly every programming-related book from a respected publisher). And if you rolled the dice and special-ordered a book “sight unseen” based entirely on its title that you managed to stumble upon, you had a good chance of spending a lot of money, waiting weeks or months, and ultimately ending up disappointed.
By 1990, I was lucky enough to have internet (specifically, Usenet) access (courtesy of my university), but it didn’t really help much. My own university only kept Usenet traffic around for 2-4 weeks, and its mainframe-based client didn’t have any way (at least, that I was aware of) to bring replies to your own posts to your attention, so they were as likely to roll off and be forgotten as you were to ever see any that existed. Thanks to the hard archival work by DejaNews (ultimately scooped up by Google), I actually stumbled over a reply to a long-forgotten post I made on comp.sys.amiga.programming in 1989… approximately 20 years later(!!!). From what I recall, I made the post the week before final exams in December, went home for a month, and by the time I got back in mid-January, it was gone. That was life back in the dark ages.
Pre-Google (and pre-www in general), everything was extraordinarily ephemeral. Aside from Usenet, we had Fidonet and BBSes, but with no real ability to search past posts (or even keep them around much longer than a few months at most, knowledge evaporated almost as quickly as it was shared.
As far as the challenges faced by new programmers today, I’d say it’s the sheer volume of knowledge you have to accumulate just to make it to “Hello, world!” in a language like C# or Java.
Back in the mid-80s, a computer like the Commodore 64 came with a ~150-page book that had enough real information in it to write meaningful programs (as opposed to a useless booklet containing nothing besides legal disclaimers, regulatory notices, and a page of diagrams for people who are too stupid to know how a keyboard and mouse are supposed to be connected), and for another $25 or so, you could buy the Programmer’s Reference Manual which wasn’t particularly nice to read, but contained almost everything ELSE you REALLY needed to know to write programs (at least, in BASIC).
If you went completely nuts, you could buy a half-dozen additional books on topics like assembly language and advanced graphics… but the point is, even a HUGE personal library of programming books consisted of MAYBE 6-12 books, with 2,000-3,000 pages total between them.
Compare that to a single book about C++ programming with Visual Studio for Windows, which could easily exceed 2,000 pages and barely scratch the surface.
Contemplate for a moment how many pages it would take to print the complete official javadocs for the Android API… using 1/4" margins, 2 pages per side, double-sided printing, and 8-point type.
I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a teenager today who has to master object-oriented design, functional programming, and MVVM architecture just to write an Android app that doesn’t completely suck. Or a J2EE web application. Or a Windows app. The bar to entry is staggeringly higher today than it used to be.
The fact is, StackOverflow and Google are the only things that keep Android and IOS development from collapsing into themselves like black holes from their own sheer volatile mass.