September 15, 2016

The cover

The cover of a magazine for baby boomer geeks and nerds can change the world—when the right person sees it.

The personal computer, posits Robert Cringely, was the product of "people who find creativity so effortless that invention becomes like breathing or who have something to prove to the world."

They are the people who are left unchallenged by the simple routine of making a living and surviving in the world and are capable, instead, of first imagining and then making a living from whole new worlds they've created in the computer.

Even when the computer in question exists only on the cover of a magazine. Because of deadlines, the actual Altair computer gracing the cover of that famous issue of Popular Electronics was a mockup, not a working model. When the photograph was taken, a working production model wasn't available to demo.

That didn't matter. For Bill Gates, "enlightenment came in a flash."

Walking across Harvard Yard while Paul Allen waved in his face the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics announcing the Altair 8800 microcomputer from MITS, they both saw instantly that there would really be a personal computer industry and that the industry would need programming languages. Although there were no microcomputer software companies yet, 19-year-old Bill's first concern was that they were already too late. "We realized that the revolution might happen without us," Gates said. "After we saw that article, there was no question of where our life would focus."

The difference this single-minded focus made on the future is apparent in the interviews with Bill Gates and Gary Kildall in the first (Feb/Mar) and third (Jun/Jul) issues of PC Magazine. (The first three issues are bound together into a single volume; you can find Kildall's by searching on his name.)

Gates comes across as hyper-aware of the emerging digital zeitgeist, the needs of his client (IBM) and the geek culture that spawned the then-nascent PC industry. But he is also thinking past all of them to all the ordinary consumers out there who just wanted a tool, an appliance. They were the future.

"A computer," Gates boldly promised in Microsoft's mission statement, "on every desk and in every home all running Microsoft software."

Kildall, by contrast, is very much the tenured professor he was before founding Digital Research. He's not quite sure what the rush is all about (a big reason the hard-pressed Boca Raton IBM team quickly turned to Microsoft to supply an operating system for the IBM PC).

Kildall gets animated about the then-arcane subject (a decade premature) of "concurrency" (multitasking) and proudly points to the assembly language compiler and debugger that ships with CP/M and CP/M-86. "So you can just pick up CP/M-86 and start developing your own high-performance applications."

Well, um, no. The vast majority of us can't, and neither could most of the geeks and nerds excited about the new, affordable "personal computer."

Okay, I used Kildall's debugger to hack the screen display and printer buffer in the CP/M version of WordStar so it'd run correctly on my Kaypro II. That was pretty much the beginning and the end of the life as a developer of "high-performance applications" using machine code.

In his interview, Gates instead enthuses about BASIC. BASIC is literally about as basic as a programming language gets. BASIC compilers were even a thing for a while, because ordinary computer enthusiasts (like me) could understand BASIC well enough to write working code.

Microsoft BASIC was initially the only reason to buy an Altair or an IBM PC. Microsoft Corporation was created to sell BASIC for the Altair, and the IBM PC shipped with Microsoft BASIC in ROM. The importance of BASIC (and a smattering of assembly language) is reflected in the early issues of PC Magazine.

"The Microsoft Touch" in the September 1983 issue of PC Magazine nicely ties BASIC to the beginnings of Microsoft.

But even in the premier issue, the emphasis was on the up and coming commercial apps—in particular, the spreadsheet and word processor—not programming languages. The VisiCalc spreadsheet made the Apple II the first "office PC," and Lotus 1-2-3 would do the same for the IBM PC.

Though Kildall was right for a time. Because of the enormous cost of memory and the constraints on bus and CPU speeds, DOS programs like WordPerfect (up to version 5) were written in assembly language. But it took thousands of employees to develop and market WordPerfect 5.

So Gates was being amazingly prophetic when he predicted in 1982 that in the future,

We'll be able to write big fat programs. We can let them run somewhat inefficiently because there will be so much horsepower that just sits there. The real focus won't be who can cram it down it, or who can do it in the machine language. It will be who can define the right end-user interface and properly integrate the main packages.

But I don't think Gates could have imagined then just how much of the technological world 30 years hence would run on high-level interpreted code, or that hardly anybody would notice or complain because the hardware had gotten so fast and so inexpensive. (Well, I notice on my old Windows XP laptop.)

In 2015, Apple produced a watch with orders of magnitude more memory and a CPU a hundred times faster that cost a tenth as much as the original IBM PC. Though, frankly, a creaky old IBM XT running Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect 4.2 would be a lot more useful.

Productivity. That's why the PC changed everything.

Related posts

The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30
The grandfathers of DOS

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# posted by Blogger Dan
Per the book Fire in the Valley the Altair computer photographed for the magazine was a fake - the real Altair was lost in the mail. The "Fire" book is a quick, fun read and captures with some nostalgia the early days of the PC revolution.

9/23/2016 4:29 PM