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/
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.