Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Unearthed arcana, milestones, and anniversaries.

A computer history museum returns to Boston

September 2nd, 2013 6:41 PM
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Eight years ago, I took Ryan Suenaga to the Boston Museum of Science, whose "ComputerPlace" exhibit featured an Apple II with a copy of VisiCalc. Although exciting to see, this one display was the extent of Boston's preservation of computer history. The Computer History Museum, now a Silicon Valley landmark, had its humble beginnings in Boston, where it lived for 15 years. Upon its relocation to Mountain View, California, no similar establishment remained in Boston.

Northeastern University lecturer Mary Hopper aims to rectify that. As the Boston Globe reports, when the Computer History Museum left Boston, Hopper started collecting computer artifacts (including an Apple II Plus), waiting for the day she could donate them to whatever local institution took the CHM's place. With that not having happened, she's now setting out to establish her own computer museum: the Digital Den. To do so, she's turned to crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $25,000 by September 23. She's presently at 6% of her goal.

How this project got so far under the radar baffles me. I asked local representatives of @party, the Artisan's Asylum, and KansasFest, and nobody had heard of this endeavor. I'm also concerned about how vast an enterprise Hopper is undertaking — there's more to starting a museum than having an inventory. However, a visit to the Den by local retrocomputing enthusiast Dave Ross resulted in an encouraging report:

Mary is every bit as impressive as her bio makes her out to be. She's done some impressive work and has been involved with making sure her work and the work of those around her were preserved well before they could be considered "history".

She's also been talking to lawyers and other museums to get a sense of what she can legally do for fundraising and what kind of donations she can accept. It's refreshing to see that kind of due diligence.

If Hopper can accomplish what no one else has tried in more than a decade, then I will do what I can to support her — and already have, thanks to Indiegogo. I look forward to visiting the Den for myself!

Quora asks: What was it like to use the Apple II?

August 26th, 2013 11:59 PM
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Social media offers the modern Apple II user multiple homes and sources of information. Popular destinations include Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and even LinkedIn.

But what about Quora?

Quora is a question-and-answer website akin to Yahoo! Answers, except with a more professional bent. The interface isn't the most intuitive: finding a specific topic isn't obvious, and it's hard to tell what questions and answers are new or old. But the wealth and variety of information makes it worthwhile. Questions can be career- and advice-oriented, such as "What do you wish you would have known before you became a consultant?" or more local and factual, such as "Why did the Shaws grocery store in Fairhaven, Mass., close?" Apple history is also evident, as in an exploration of how Keynote was developed for Mac OS X.

But Quora's coverage of Apple history goes back even further. Someone recently asked, "What was it like to use the Apple ][ computer?" The question's past tense alludes not just to the capabilities of the Apple II, but to the historical context and experience of encountering it. It's a question that warrants a thoughtful response — which is exactly what Oregon resident Doug Dingus has provided, with a 1,971-word essay on the subject, complete with screenshots. Some selected excerpts:

Early on, it was all like some puzzle. You learn a few commands by rote and those commands would perform specific tasks you might want to accomplish. You can see the cursor in the screen shot above as a solid green block. A command was typed in at the top, "CATALOG" and that command would give you a listing of what your floppy disk contained. Floppy disk? Yeah, those things we used to put data onto for longer term storage or for movement between computers.

It was possible to sit down and just write a program of your choosing and then ask the computer to run, or execute it. Back then, this was considered a normal and encouraged use of the computer and many computers were sold on their ability to offer up BASIC and other language programming in ways that people could understand and that were powerful, accessible, robust too.

The sense of learning and discovery isn't much different than we experience today, though the pressure to do it is. Back then, you really had to know some stuff to get the real magic out of the machine and often that meant writing your own programs to do it. Today, the magic largely happens, but the best is still from your own programs a lot of the time.

Today, it's difficult to think about computers that aren't connected to one another for communication and information transfer. Back then, it was difficult to think of computers as connected things due to the fact that we were just beginning to develop useful networks. Most people got their computer, got software and peripherals and proceeded to use it in whatever way they found useful with each machine being a little island.

Today it all seems archaic. To those of us who were there, it's ordinary and the computers of today seem simple and futuristic. Back then it was awesome! Every little advance was a big deal. Just getting a few more colors on the screen, or a faster CPU, or a new kind of interface card was huge! First mouse seemed like some expensive luxury where today it's hard to imagine running a computer without one.

It's a great answer to a great question. What was your first experience with the Apple II? Sign up for a free Quora account to add your response to Doug's!

(John Brownlee)

Preparing for the Jobs film

August 12th, 2013 7:36 PM
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Just a few weeks too late for a KansasFest outing, the Jobs movie finally debuts this week. To build hype, a second trailer has been released.

When I posted the video to Facebook, it received no replies — perhaps because the discussion was still active elsewhere in the group, where 35 comments reflected little enthusiasm for or faith in the film. "The clips I saw of how they portrayed Woz was enough for me to forget this film exists," wrote Paul Lipps. Similarly on Google+, Bill Loguidice wrote, "The poor Woz interpretation alone kills it for me." Added Brendan Robert, "I'll only see it if they don't screw up Woz." I agree — and so does Woz — that his character is poorly, stereotypically portrayed.

Yet I am inexplicably excited to see this film. Perhaps because it's a mass-media manifestation of the inventor whose most famous creation my fellow Apple II users and I have celebrated for decades. Too often I've been disappointed by people not knowing Steve Jobs co-founded Apple with "the other Steve". Even if our hero is poorly represented, won't it behoove us to educate the masses as to his existence?

Or maybe it's not just Woz but more broadly the history of Apple I'm interested in. I'm finally reading Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, the biography released shortly after Jobs' death in October 2011 and which I received as a Christmas gift that year. I'll never complete the massive tome in time for the film's release, but it's already refreshing my memory with details that I hope to see evidenced on the silver screen.

Or maybe I relish seeing the film because I know it'll be terrible. On the subject of ancient computers, surely nothing could be worse than my experience wanting to walk out of last month's Computer Chess. It's all about having proper expectation — though Apple Insider user Enigmamatic warns even that may not be enough:

I got to see this movie at a pre-screening this week and I don't know why they are letting people see it early. It's worse than one thinks and I went in with very low expectations. It's poorly written with ridiculous dialogue and no exposition. Virtually the entire movie takes place with no explanation as to why anything in the movie happens. It's just a parade of scenes that the viewer has to accept. Truly a horrible movie that was obviously pushed through production to get it out first and take advantage of Jobs' death.

Soon we'll all be able to reach our own conclusions of whether this film surpasses its predecessor, Pirates of Silicon Valley, or if it warrants its own RiffTrax. I hope to see it in time to provide a review to Computerworld. Follow me on Twitter, or follow my film blog, for updates!

Game Informer interviews Steve Wozniak

July 22nd, 2013 10:34 AM
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Four months ago, Game Informer's print magazine featured an interview with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. and inventor of the Apple II. I shared on this blog what little of the print-only interview was also published online, that being Wozniak talking about his love for Tetris.

Game Informer has now released the entirety of that interview online, with a 2,000-word transcript and several additional videos. Appropriate to the magazine's scope, the conversation focuses largely on Woz's gaming history, from how he created Breakout for Atari to what he thinks of Apple's future in the gaming industry.

Reflecting on the early days of game programming, Woz demonstrates his usual humility: "Hardware games — I'm sorry, it's not like software… I was one of the greatest designers ever; I was working on the iPhone 5 of its day — the hottest gadget product in the world."

More important, the above video once again reaffirms that the Apple II was designed to feed its creator's gaming habit:

I built paddle hardware into the Apple II deliberately for the game of Breakout. I wanted everything in there. I put in a speaker with sound so I could have beeps like games need. So, a lot of the Apple II was designed to be a game machine as well as a computer. That is the way to get it to people, to get people to start buying these machines.

Why are games so important? Easy: "Your life is all about happiness — that's how you judge it. It's not how successful you are, or how many yachts you own, or that kind of stuff — it's how much you smile."

By that standard, I wonder how happy a life Woz would feel Steve Jobs had?

The full, 48-minute interview is available after the break.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kickstarting the history of Sierra On-Line

July 8th, 2013 2:00 PM
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We retrocomputing enthusiasts have seen Kickstarter used for books (The First Apple, What's Where), games (Shadowgate, Ultima), and documentaries (GET LAMP, 6502). Now it's time to open your wallets again, as the latest project to warrant an Apple II user's investment is a documentary of Sierra On-Line.

Sierra On-Line was the developer and publisher of such classic point-and-click adventure games as the noble King's Quest, comedic Space Quest, avaricious Gold Rush!, and lascivious Leisure Suit Larry (a modern remake of which was published just last month, courtesy Kickstarter). Many of these franchises got their start on the Apple II, so naturally we should be keen to back this project, right?

I bid caution: Kickstarter is an investment platform, and you'd do well to research this project. In this case, this project already toured the Kickstarter circuit in 2012, when the creators asked for $40,000; they received $1,312. Their pitch video at the time consisted entirely of gameplay footage and title cards — no interviews, no introductions, no voiceovers. To their credit, that initial fundraising failure didn't deter the film crew, as their new pitch video demonstrates they've spent the past year conducting interviews with Sierra On-Line luminaries. Having that in their pocket may justify their new request for $125,000. (Makes you wonder what they were hoping to accomplish with just a third that sum!) They have thus far received $10,367, or nine times more than their last effort — but it's a slow start, an still a long ways from their goal.

One thing missing from their new video is the talent behind the camera. I'd like to know that the documentarians dedicating themselves to this project are as passionate about adventure gaming as they need their backers to be. The enthusiasm that Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder brought to their comic strip documentary, Stripped, was contagious and, I suspect, a large part of why it raised double its goal on its first Kickstarter and its second Kickstarter. Between the lack of personality in the video and the relatively terse text write-up, the drive behind the Sierra On-Line film is not as explicit.

The Sierra On-Line documentary is entitled Heroes, an improvement over the original name, So You Want To Be A Hero? One backer suggested, why not call it Quests? I like the ring of that, since it abstracts and plays upon the King's/Space/Police Quest series. The project creators acknowledged and thoughtfully responded to that suggestion:

We chose the title Heroes for the film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, the term "Hero" was a theme rooted in the adventure games. From the perspective of all of us who played the games, we had the opportunity to be a hero. We also felt that this was an appropriate term that serves as an homage to all of those at Sierra who worked tirelessly to create the games we all know and love a success.

Will this Kickstarter meet or even exceed its fundraising? Will the final film, scheduled for a March 2014 release, reveal anything new about this storied game company, or will it cater more to nostalgic fans? We'll begin to have the answers when the Kickstarter campaign closes on the evening of August 5.

In the meantime, digital antiquarian Jimmy Maher, whom we interviewed this year on Open Apple, has written extensively about the history of Sierra. Although he's not collected his works on this particular subject into a book, I encourage you to scroll through his posts and read them in the order in which they were published; the detail and accuracy of his narratives are remarkable.

UPDATE: This project has failed, having raised only $28,872, or 23% of its goal.

First reactions to Jobs movie trailer

June 24th, 2013 2:59 PM
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There was an occasion last year where I wrote a blog post for Apple II Bits but, prior to clicking "publish", realized the subject had a broader appeal. The same thing happened today when I started writing about the new trailer for the Steve Jobs film. Previously we saw only a clip of the movie, resulting in mixed receptions. Now that a two-minute trailer garnered two million views over the weekend, has public reception to the movie changed?

Find out by reading my Computerworld blog — but you can watch the trailer here, or see the film in theaters on August 16.