Retro Computing

Once, everything was new. You woke up one day thinking you knew how the world worked and somewhere along the way something happened that changed everything. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this happened a lot for computer enthusiasts. Things were changing so fast no one knew what was supposed to be normal; no one knew who was going to make the next, great thing. Everyone had a more or less equal chance to build something that would change the world or make a million dollars (this is back when a million dollars was a lot of money.) Surplus parts from the defense industry started spilling over into academic and commercial worlds a decade before. Big business already understood the benefits of computing, but viewed information processing merely as an extension of accounting and financial controls.

But the home computer revolutionaries of the late 1970s injected a spirit of playfulness into the market. The best product developers of the era not only approached engineering problems from a rational perspective, they sought to become artists and achieve an intuitive understanding of their new medium. Micro-computers from this era weren't only interesting for the new applications they made possible; they were downright fun.

That's what I see when I look at these old systems. They're not just old junk, they are (or were) the living embodiment of modern playful novelty. There was no time to get bored because every month a new system would be released or a new type of peripheral or a new type of computer program (or an old, expensive peripheral would become affordable.) There was a time before the first spread-sheet and before the first computer joystick. There was a time, not too long ago, when computers didn't have video displays (much less touchscreens, mice or wi-fi.) There was a time when text adventure games were new and 9600 baud modems were fast.

And retro-computing is about more than just hardware, it's also about user experience. There were no rules in the old days; no one said you had to have an app store for your Atari 2600. No one said you had to run a virus scan on your TI-99/4A cartridges.

The Commodore 64 booted into a BASIC interpreter in about five seconds; modern systems take at least twice that at least. When I want to type out some notes, I still reach for my TRS-80 Model 102. It goes from "off" to "typing" in about four seconds. There's also no username / password screen to navigate past and I don't have to wait for the text editor to load. You just turn it on and start typing.

The Canon Cat introduced a world that could have been. Everything you do today with a mouse, trackpad or touchscreen today, the Canon Cat did with a keyboard. You never move your fingers from their resting position on the keys. Even stranger, it's primary abstraction was a typed document. You didn't use menus to navigate through applications; you typed out a few commands, selected them and told the system to execute them; that's how you launched new applications, by typing "run terminal program" or "enable forth interpreter."

Random Stuff

How much has computing changed over the years? Explaining Modern Computing to Someone from 1982.

And now a small story. In 1990, I worked for a company called PCSG (Personal Computer Support Group.) At the time I viewed management there as myopic, but they were probably living under greater constraints than I was aware of. This is a brief narrative I wrote to try to make sense of what we probably should have known at the time: Talking with Michael.

Here is the description of a project I undertook to make a web page look like a classic Macintosh from the mid-80s: The Discovery Web Desktop.

It's easy to get nostalgic for the old days. Individual programmers are considerably more productive now than they were in the days when you had to use 6502 or 8086 assembly to get decent performance out of a machine. However, there was a strange joy in programming "close to the metal." If you're interested in reliving the glory days of MS-DOS development, I have some links to various references on the Some Old Software from the DOS Days page.

And for fans of interactive fiction, I wrote a brief article about rolling your own adventure game in BASIC: SUNDOG.BAS - How We Made Adventure Games in BASIC.

Things that Look Like Essays

What's life without a few essays to prove you can string sentences together? In this first essay I argue that modern programmers are pale imitations of the coders of yore. The types of programs we write today are, I suppose, radically different. Or at least the user interfaces are different. If you're building something with a UI, you have to consult with specialists to ensure it's accessible and exports the appropriate abstraction. But in the old days, we didn't care about such optimizations because Software Giants Walked the Earth.

It's also possible we have too much software chasing too small a problem domain. Do we turn to software inappropriately to solve problems that shouldn't be solved? With respect to software, how much is too much?

For many of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s, our first personal computers were under-powered beasts, barely capable of running a decent PacMan clone. But the most interesting part of early home computers was the assumption that the end user would write their own programs to solve their own problems instead of purchasing off-the-shelf software written by someone else. Even after the IBM PC was released, it was still common for home computers to "Boot to BASIC." There are few programming languages maligned with such regularity as Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC), but it's not without it's charms (or it's utility.) Compared to modern languages like C++ or JavaScript, BASIC seems ill-conceived and incapable of tackling modern information problems. But in it's day, it was exactly what the industry needed. People have forgotten (or never knew) what it was like back in the day, so I wrote this short essay In Defense of BASIC.

Another aspect of old computers is their single-taskedness. Old machines were so under-powered, it seemed superfluous to ask them to do multiple tasks when they could hardly do a single task well. But now fast forward 35 years and respectable operating systems like Windows and MacOS-X allow applications to take over the whole screen, as if the user were interested in only a single task. Modern machines are more than capable of doing multiple things simultaneously, but it reminds me of The Joy of Single-Tasking.