March 11, 2013

The accidental standard (1)

Robert X. Cringely is posting online his excellent history of the personal computer: Accidental Empires, later made into the equally good PBS documentary, Triumph of the Nerds (Netflix has it). It's 20 years old, but remains a definitive account of the early years of the digital revolution.

Some people wax nostagic about high school or college (I don't understand those people) or classic sports contests from their youths. Well, I do remember when Danny Ainge got BYU into the Elite Eight with that fantastic last-minute drive to the basket, only because I was a BYU student at the time.

But the world of the PC back during the 1980s? That's where the real action was. Reading about those old battles—the great 8088/8086–80286–80386 transition—I find myself harboring feelings of actual nostalgia, the way I suppose gearheads do reminiscing about cars that had carburetors.

The first personal computer I used was my brother's Apple IIe. (I actually wrote the first chapter of Tokyo South on an Apple II Pascal editor in the BYU computer lab.) He learned Assembly programming. I learned the miracle of word processing. There was no going back to typewriters after that.

When I was in grad school, a roommate had one of those early PC clones Cringely talks about, a Corona luggable. Corona got sued by IBM for infringing on its BIOS copyright. Compaq and Phoenix changed the whole equation by reverse-engineering the BIOS. Ah, that was when the BIOS chip was a super big deal.

Phoenix Technologies still makes BIOS chips, but like the rest of the PC component business, they're a dime-a-dozen commodity that nobody cares about but the nerds.

This was an era when a computer magazine could last you a whole transcontinental plane trip. They were the size of telephone books and crammed with ads. Rock 'n Roll capitalism at its best, technological competition supercharging technological evolution faster than anybody could predict.

Hey, a parallel port and a serial port on the same 8-bit ISA card! And EGA! 640 × 350 pixels! No, VGA! Wow, 640 x 480 pixels! That blew everybody's mind. Thanks to a swarm of aftermarket suppliers, the individual user could—was expected to—trick out a plain vanilla PC to an amazing degree.

Now a generic PC comes with 4 GB of RAM and a half-dozen USB ports out of the box (no serial or parallel ports) and VGA is lame on cell phone displays. We've come so far that these electronic miracles have become ho-hum.

But we shouldn't forget the great debt of gratitude we owe IBM and Microsoft. I speak from personal experience. My first PC was a Kaypro and my dad's was an Epson, both CP/M machines. The Epson QX-10 was faster than the IBM PC, came with a whopping 256K RAM, and had a beautiful monochrome EGA+ display.

But it was a proprietary Dodo bird. At the end of its technological life, its software and hardware died with it. And Apple at the time—quite forgotten today—was imploding. Steve Jobs nearly destroyed the company the first time around before saving it after his 40 metaphorical days (10 years) in the desert.

Entirely by accident, Cringely archly observes, IBM and Microsoft created the universal PC hardware standard. IBM later tried to go its own way with MicroChannel and OS/2, but failed its way back to PCI and Windows before throwing in the towel (and creating one of China's best companies, Lenovo).

Even Steve Jobs eventually climbed on board the Intel/PCI bandwagon, which is why you can dual-boot Windows on a Mac. And Linux wouldn't exist without those mass-produced beige boxes. All thanks to a clueless IBM desperately battling fundamental market forces. And then losing even as it won.

Do the same thing by committee and this is what you get:

Which perfectly describes the very annoying proliferation of USB cable connectors. Hey, somebody needs to create a standard.

Related posts

The accidental standard (2)
MS-DOS at 30
Pirates of Silicon Valley
Something Ventured
Too big to succeed

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# posted by Blogger Joe
Don't forget the Apple IIe.

(That led to two things; I bought my first car--my beloved Honda Civic CVCC--with the proceeds from the sale and it helped me finally understand assembly language, which helped me get my first programming job several years later; writing games for Apple II computers.)
3/12/2013 7:26 AM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Ah, yes. I added a paragraph about that.
3/12/2013 8:54 AM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
The PC industry was incredibly democratic and just about anyone could participate and make a difference. The PC as we know it was going to be a commodity parts based product. If IBM had created a closed ecosystem (like Apple) then some other open standard would have taken hold. Rapid commoditization was the only way for the industry to evolve as rapidly as the technology allowed. It was the only way for all the innovative ideas to find a way to market.

The industry successes were not all by accident but there were certainly plenty of surprises. That is what made it such a fun time.
3/16/2013 6:32 PM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
Here's an interesting economic insight. In 1989 I spent $2500 to buy a 286 PC system. This represented roughly 25% of my net worth at the time.

25 years later I am reluctant to spend $1000 to upgrade to a new laptop. The laptop I have will not run without being plugged in and is barely useful for anything more than being an e-reader / browser / word processor.

Being cheap is a factor but it seems the marginal value in a new PC is very low.

3/26/2013 5:27 PM

# posted by Blogger Joe
Dan, for what you need, you can get a decent, albeit not super light, laptop for $300 at Best Buy. For $700 you can get an ultrabook with a touchscreen!

Or get an iPad (with a portable keyboard when you need to write something.)
3/28/2013 8:37 AM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
Joe, I agree I can get a perfectly good laptop for $400 or less but there are several features I want that only seem to come with higher end systems.

I want a 900 vertical resolution screen, an i5 or i7 processor and 6GB or more of RAM. This type of system has a price point of $800 and once I'm there I want SSD.

Oh, and I want it to weigh less than 4 lbs and I want the battery life to last more than 4 hours.

I want, I want ... and since I can't get what I want at my price I am content to stay with my 7 year old Sony Vaio.

3/30/2013 6:53 AM