Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

Halt and Catch Fire's take on 1983

July 14th, 2014 11:12 AM
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Last month, television channel AMC debuted the original series Halt and Catch Fire. Like their prior success, Mad Men, this show uses a specific industry and era as a backdrop — but instead of an advertising agency in the 1960s, it's a computer hardware company in 1983.

That was a magical time for Apple and the rest of the industry: IBM was making moves into consumer desktops, the Macintosh was in development, and the Apple II was riding high. Halt and Catch Fire tries to capture some of that energy and drama with its own versions of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, but with some additional variables, players, and catalysts thrown into the mix.

I reviewed the series for Computerworld.com, a former employer I'm always happy to collaborate with (and which last month went out of print). As a freelancer, I'd previously reviewed the films Jobs and Her, which were creative exercises in reminding me I was writing for Computerworld, not Cinemaworld — critiquing the cinematography and acting wouldn't cut it for this audience.

So for Halt and Catch Fire, my first professional television review, I dedicated some paragraphs to analyzing the show's tech props — details that geeks would pick up on but no one else would notice. Although it's atypical for a review to bring in outside voices, I nonetheless consulted with Dave Ross, a neighbor who happens to have also been the president of the South West Regional Association of Programmers, a Chicago-based Commodore 64 user group. Since in that era I was an Apple II user exclusively, Ross's perspective on the technology of the times was useful. Steve Weyhrich and Vince Briel also provided some insight, though without being directly quoted.

Halt and Catch Fire's Byte

A Byte from 1980? I don't think so.

I don't know if I'll continue watching the show beyond the first five episodes, but I did enjoy this assignment. On Google Plus, John Kocurek offers some projections for the show's future:

Episode 6 lays the groundwork for an interesting arc. It is set in August of 1983. Just a few months later, the Mac is introduced — which offers the possibility of the writers taking the series into a parallel universe where you have the easy-to-use Mac having an easy to use machine that also runs PC software. Assuming the writers are consistent, it would remember things about you, be able to make suggestions. Be an assistant. That would have been a game changer at the time.

Watch Halt and Catch Fire Sundays at 10 pm on AMC, or stream it live via Amazon Instant Video. For more details, read my review for Computerworld.

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977

The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87

The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

Replaying the founding of Apple

June 2nd, 2014 9:35 AM
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Gender Inclusive Game Design by Sheri Granar RayAfter recently finishing the Austin Grossman novel You, which featured many references to classic computers such as the Apple II and Commodore 64, I moved onto the 1986 novel Replay, a time travel tale by Ken Grimwood. It's a bit like Groundhog Day, except instead of the main character repeating the same day, he's reliving the same 25 years. As in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, he naturally uses his future knowledge to ensure his financial security — except where Biff Tannen relied solely on sporting events, Jeff Winston also plays the stock market, making investments in companies he knows are bound to succeed.

At one point, his wife laments to him a recent business meeting:

"Hippies, that's all they were. That tall boy was barefoot, for God's sake, and the other one looked like a…a Neanderthal!"

"Their idea has a lot of potential; it doesn't matter what they looked like."

"Well, somebody ought to tell them the sixties are over, if they want to do anything with that silly idea of theirs. I just don't believe you fell for it, and gave them all that money!"

He couldn't really blame her for the way she'd reacted; without benefit of foresight, the two young men and their garageful of secondhand electronic components would indeed seem unlikely candidates for a spot on the Fortune 500. But within five years that garage in Cupertino, California would be famous, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would prove to be the soundest investment of 1976. Jeff had given them half a million dollars, insisted they follow the advice of a retired young marketing executive from Intel they had recently met, and told them to make whatever they wanted as long as they continued to call it "Apple." He had let them keep forty-nine percent of the new enterprise.

"Who in the world would want a computer in their house? And what makes you think those scruffy boys really know how to make one, anyway?"

The ability of Grimwood's protagonist to meddle with history is inconsistent. In this particular 25-year bounce, all the hero's investments accomplish is to funnel various companies' profits into his bank account. But Steve Weyhrich of Sophistication & Simplicity points out how dramatically the above cash influx would alter Apple's evolution: "This person who invested $500,000 in Apple before Mike Markkula came around would potentially have made it unnecessary for Markkula, regardless of this investor’s recommendation. Markkula's personal involvement in the company would possibly have been diluted, since it was not his cash that was at risk. The outcome of the early days of Apple could have been quite different with a large, non-Markkula-based capital investment. Jobs would probably have decided he didn’t need some old-school business person telling him what to do, which could have removed the adult supervision they needed in those early days."

However, Steve and I disagree over whether such startup capital would've even been welcome. Mike Markkula had invested $250,000 in Apple in exchange for becoming a one-third owner of Apple, this being after Ron Wayne had temporarily owned 10% of the company. In neither case did Jobs or Wozniak relinquish majority control of their fledgling company. Last summer's Jobs film suggested Jobs was a shrewd businessman in his negotiations with Markkula, and while I suspect that particular scene was exaggerated, I absolutely believe Jobs as a man insisting on being in control. For him to settle for keeping only 49% of his company, even in exchange for a half-million dollars, is unbelievable.

But Steve points out, "Remember that before Markkula came along to invest, Jobs was willing to sell the Apple II to Chuck Peddle and Jack Tramiel of Commodore in exchange for jobs with that company and a specific salary. With an offer of $500,000, he would have probably been willing to [settle for a] 49% or less share."

What do you think? Would Woz and Jobs have taken this offer? And, if so, how would it have affected Apple's development?

Apple rocks Fraggle Rock

May 19th, 2014 10:36 AM
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Last month, I had the pleasure of patronizing my local independent theater for a double feature of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal one day, and a Muppet triple feature the next. I grew up with the work of Jim Henson and, having recently seen Muppets Most Wanted, I was happy to revisit my childhood with Kermit and company's earlier incarnations.

Another significant influence on my youth was, of course, the Apple II. I was only four or five years old when my father brought one home. Just as Sesame Street and the Children's Television Workshop opened my imagination, the Apple II gave me a workbench on which to express that creativity.

I didn't realize the intersection of the two arts — puppetry and computers — extended beyond my own experience (and various Apple marketing materials). Although Henson didn't use much CGI to perform his magic, according to Starring the Computer, an Apple II did feature in an episode of Fraggle Rock. The show, which bore similarities to the Mary Norton novel The Borrowers, split time between the workshop of Doc and his dog Sprocket, and the underground world of the Fraggles. In the first season's 14th episode, Doc and Sprocket challenge each other to a game on an Apple IIe. The game is unidentified, but wrote Starring the Computer commenter rjluna2, "I recognized the BASIC program that alternates the color line and black line to the randomized point that is rendered. A small delay to see the beautiful pattern before refreshing by executing 'HGR2'. I wrote a program like that more than 30 years ago."

Fraggle Rock

Challenging the Fraggle Rock Doc.
Image courtesy Starring the Computer.

Perhaps it aired at the wrong time in my market, but I never caught much of Fraggle Rock's five seasons. But the work of Henson and his collaborators nonetheless left an impression, to the point that I am still shy around Carroll Spinney like I am with no other celebrity.

Today is May 19. On May 17, 1990, I walked to the corner store and to pick up the local newspaper. On the front page were juxtaposed two stars: Jim Henson and Sammy Davis Jr. Both had passed away the previous day. Henson was 53.

Too young.

(Hat tip to Kelly Guimont)

Triumph of the mod

March 31st, 2014 2:52 PM
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Although improved access to tools and funding are allowing more people to become developers of full-fledged games like Dead Man's Trail, in the days of the Apple II — when almost everyone perforce had some programming ability — the best most of us could do was work within the games others had already created. Usually, this hacking took the form of copy deprotection (and their accompanying crack screens). But sometimes, it was more creative.

In "Triumph of the Mod" a 2002 article by Wagner James Au for Salon.com, Tom Hall, a co-founder of id Software, says he recalls the first mod — "a fan-made modification to a pre-existing game" — as being Castle Smurfenstein, Andrew Johnson and Preston Nevins' hack of Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II. Writes Johnson:

The nazi guards became Smurfs, the mostly uninteligible German voices became mostly unintelligible Smurf voices. We created a new title screen, new ending screen, new opening narration, and an opening theme, and changed the setting from Germany to Canada. (I'm still not too sure why we had this Canadian fixation, but then growing up near Detroit does expose one to a fair degree of Canadian culture.)

The conversion was pretty straightforward, needing only a paint program, a sector editor, and Muse Software's very own 'the Voice' to add in the new audio. I think we did this during the summer of 1983 but I'm not completely sure.

As indicated, the hack involved the game's audio, visuals, and text. A deafening WAV demonstrates the Smurf's trademark chant as digitized for an 8-bit computer, and screenshots show the hack's new splash screen. (Oddly, I could find no YouTube videos of Castle Smurfenstein, but Johnson does offer a disk image that works with most any emulator.)

Castle Smurfenstein

Despite the fame of this hack, it was likely not the first-ever mod, since Johnson and Nevins both document an earlier Smurf-inspired hack: Dino Eggs became Dino Smurf. A proposed third hack would've turned Sky Fox into Sky Smurf, completing the trilogy. "Unfortunately the third game only got as far as the new plot and a partial title screen before college beckoned," laments Johnson.

Still, modding has become a lucrative industry and backdoor into the gaming industry. Would it be a stretch to say the Apple II led the way?

Happy anniversary, Mac

January 27th, 2014 10:31 AM
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January 24, 2014, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the Apple Macintosh. Although Apple had by that point already developed multiple platforms with varying degrees of compatibility — the Apple-1, Apple II, Apple III, and Lisa, to name a few — the Mac would prove to be the machine on which they'd focus their efforts long after all its in-house competitors were cancelled. It was not an immediate success: the Apple IIGS, released in 1986, was more popularly received than the Mac. And it wasn't until 1997 that I made the switch.

My family purchased an Apple IIe shortly after its release in 1983 and kept it until we moved in 1988, outfitting the new house with a IIGS. We added a second GS in 1993, when I launched a dial-up BBS. When I started college a few years later, I shuttered the BBS, left the Apple II at home (until recently), and purchased my first Mac, a PowerBook 1400cs. It was around that time that Bernie ][ the Rescue, one of the first Apple II emulators for Mac OS, added the ability to print from AppleWorks. I was insistent on using the Apple II environment, if not the hardware, for as much as my college work as possible. For all four years of my undergraduate studies, almost all my papers were written and printed in the original AppleWorks.

One year into college, I traded the 1400cs for a Wall Street, which Ryan Suenaga considered the perfect Mac with which to emulate the Apple II. It was one of the last models of laptop Mac to feature ADB and SCSI support, offering compatibility with a wide range of Apple II storage and input devices. I used this Mac for five years, until late 2003, when I bought a new laptop that came with Mac OS X. That computer's successor came in 2007, which was then replaced by Apple (under warranty) in 2009, which lasted until my 2013 Retina purchase.

Just as I wouldn't've been led to the Mac without the Apple II, others trod a similar path. Jeff Gamet, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Denver Apple Pi and CoMUG meetings, wrote for The Mac Observer about his own inventory's evolution, and the excellent reasons it took him so long to come to the Mac:

In high school I got my first taste of Apple computers thanks to the Apple ][+ lab. My parents bought me a Franklin Ace 1000 my senior year, and that computer served me well through college. It was an Apple //e clone with 46KB RAM, upper and lower case text support, built-in 80-column text support, and a 5 1/4-inch floppy drive.

When I had the chance to really get to work on a 512K Mac, things changed and suddenly I could do so much more. And yet I still didn't buy one. Instead, I bought an Apple //GS because it came with a powerful 68C816 processor, color graphics, great sound, a graphical interface that looked just like the Mac (but color!), and — best of all — could run all of my Apple //e programs as well as GS-native titles. At the time it felt like I was getting so much more for my money compared to the Mac.

It's not just the users who the Apple II brought to the Mac; the latter platform simply would not have existed without the former. Ross Rubin writes for CNET not only about how the Mac experience has informed iOS, but also how the Apple II inspired the Mac, both in similarities and differences:

When Apple introduced the Mac 30 years ago, it was already a successful computer company with the Apple II, a product that would continue to be successful for years after the launch of Apple's new darling. If it had taken the approach Microsoft had with Windows 1.0, and later Windows 8 and Surface, it would have grafted a graphical interface onto the Apple II — something that actually eventually happened toward the line's decline with the Apple IIGS — and perhaps provided a more limited number of expansion slots.

Instead, the Mac was almost a complete break from Apple's first hit. It had an integrated monitor, eschewed color, said farewell to its ProDOS interface, and seemed to offer a keyboard only reluctantly, omitting cursor keys to push people toward the mouse.

Pessimist Steve Weyhrich predicts the computers may be more alike than different in their ultimate fate. Weyhrich takes exceptions with Jason Snell and Phil Schiller who extol "The Mac keeps going forever". The same was once said of the Apple II, which proved a promise Apple couldn't keep. Any number of scenarios could toll a similar death knell for the Mac: Apple goes bankrupt, the Mac is outmoded, or Apple's growing divide between programmers and users means that Mac OS X is supplanted by the more mobile and restricted iOS.

However we got here, and wherever we're going, I'm grateful for all the fruits produced from that initial union of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. On the occasion of this thirtieth anniversary, I offer the company a platform-agnostic wish: Apple Forever!