Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Editorials and other thoughts about the Apple II and its community.

The superiority of obsolete operating systems

April 14th, 2014 10:09 PM
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Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
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The savvy comedians of LoadingReadyRun — who have previously tipped their hat to computers of yore with their Desert Bus fundraiser, references to HyperCard, and spotlight on the Apple II — are at it again. In today's weekly video, "The New Old Thing", they put forth an earnest proposal: replace Windows 8.1 with MS-DOS.

Earlier this year, MS-DOS's source code was donated to the Computer History Museum, joining a collection that already includes Apple's DOS 3.1. LRR's video makes a compelling argument for why this newly available older operating system is a superior productivity platform. An excerpted transcript follows, though I've replaced references to MS-DOS with DOS 3.1:

Newer stuff isn't necessarily better. Think of DOS 3.1 as a hand-crafted, artisinal operating system. [A GUI, mouse support, 3D graphics, 1080p video, the Internet] — all that stuff just slows you down. DOS 3.1 turns your computer into a mean, lean computing machine. Background processes hogging up all your memory? DOS 3.1 only runs one program at a time. Distracted by TVTropes at work? DOS 3.1 doesn't go on the Internet! It just gets out of your way and lets you get your work done.

What's so great about a GUI anyway? How many times have you lost a file in that maze of folders on your computer? With DOS, you just type the name of the file, and bam! You're there! And you don't have to worry about remembering the name of the file, because they can only be eight characters long, anyway. And another thing! A Windows 8 install is almost 20 gigabytes. DOS 3.1 is only 300K — as in kilobytes! It takes up less space than that picture you tweeted this morning of your venti ice non-fat hazelnut macchiato.

Bottom line: if you want to mess about and play Angry Birds, just use your phone or your tablet. When you want to get some serious, distraction-free work done, DOS 3.1 is for you.

I made several similar observations six years ago when I argued that GS/OS is better than Windows Vista and OS X (an article I've since wished I'd written for Juiced.GS, not Computerworld). We keep using this software because it provides a focused environment with familiar, fast methods for accomplishing specific, basic tasks. Older software is more stable, secure, compatible, and portable.

Like A2Central.com once said: it's not obsolete — it's proven technology.

Open Apple turns three

February 10th, 2014 12:44 PM
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Last week marked a significant milestone: the third anniversary of Open Apple. The monthly Apple II podcast launched on February 7, 2011, giving me pause to reflect how this adventure began.

Open AppleI first had the idea for an Apple II podcast on Sunday, April 12, 2009, while listening to the TrekCast. If there could be a podcast about Star Trek, a show that's been off the air for four years, why not one about a computer that's not been manufactured for 16? I had the topic, but no structure — I thought Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I could just spitball news and memories for a few hours, break it up into some monthly episodes, and see what happened. But nothing did.

Fast forward to August 12, 2010, when I started compiling a list of domain names that would be attractive to an Apple II user. I shared that list with some fellow KansasFest attendees, prompting Mike Maginnis to identify himself as the owner of open-apple.net, a domain I'd investigated and found to be held by a private registrant. I asked him what he was planning to do with the domain, and he said he'd been thinking of launching a podcast — a marvelous synchronicity! Given my previous enthusiasm for the idea, I asked if I could could piggyback on his initiative. He, Andy, and I started brainstorming what the show would sound like. We chatted with the hosts of the RetroMacCast for technical suggestions, built a Web site, and recorded some practice sessions (there exists a complete, unaired "episode zero").

Finally, on February 5, 2011, Andy and I crowded into the Computerworld recording studio, called Mike on Skype, and recorded our first episode… twice, due to technical difficulties. Two days later, we put the first episode online. Until that day, only the three of us were aware Open Apple was launching; it came as a complete surprise to everyone else.

Now it's three years later, and we just aired our 35th episodeactually our 41st, due to some inconsistent episode numbering. In total, the show has produced 59 hours and 39 minutes of airtime about the Apple II. If Open Apple were a sitcom, it would've been running for 162 episodes, or eight seasons.

It's amazing how effective Mike and Andy have been at turning a concept into reality. Every month, they keep the show moving by scouring the Web for news and guests, booking recording times, and getting the word out that we are the only monthly Apple II podcast, and the only co-hosted podcast. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, of course — there are several other excellent retrocomputing podcasts out there. But just as the podcasts support each other, so too do the crew of Open Apple, making real what no one person could've done.

My thanks to everyone who's built and supported this wonderful community outlet, from the hosts to the guests to the listeners. Here's to many more years on the air!

Also read my co-host's more thoughtful and detailed reflection on our podcast's history.

Happy anniversary, Mac

January 27th, 2014 10:31 AM
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Filed under History, Musings;
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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!

In praise of KansasFest's inclusiveness

January 20th, 2014 6:40 PM
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Filed under Happenings, Musings;
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The year has just begun, and already it's been busy with conventions! Two weeks ago, I flew to Maryland for MAGFest, the Music and Gaming Festival. My full report is on Gamebits, where I mention checking out the dealer room:

Dozens of indie shops were selling used games, original art, posters, figurines, books, dice, and more. I desperately wanted to expunge all my cash on the awesome artwork and knick-knacks, but every time I stopped myself and asked, "What would I do with it?" That question guided me to buy Moviebob's book, Super Mario Bros. 3: Brick by Brick, from the Fangamer table, though absent from the table was Fangamer founder Reid Young, whom I'd interviewed a year earlier. The last day of MAGFest, I picked up some chiptune CDs at 50% off. That's all the swag I went home with.

Today, I attended a convention closer to home. Arisia bills itself as New England's largest and most diverse science fiction and fantasy convention. This time, I hung out in the dealer room almost exclusively, coming home with dice, hats, buttons, and other assorted knick-knacks.

Arisia 2014

Geekware everywhere!

To get into either of these marketplaces was not free; registration for all of the convention was required. MAGFest was a reasonable $45 for the entire four-day event, whereas Arisia charged that much to attend just the Saturday of show's four days. I found these practices very discouraging. I'd never attended either show and would've gone to MAGFest regardless, but my motivation to attend Arisia draw was not the costume contests or the panels and workshops but solely to support local artists. To charge $45 just for the privilege of looking at the merchandise made the event less accessible to those who have only a passing interest in the hobby.

KansasFest, by contrast, makes its vendor fair open to all. Anyone from the Kansas City area is welcome to come to Rockhurst University on Saturday afternoon to buy, sell, and trade with fellow geeks. It has been this way since my first time attending KansasFest in 1998, and it continues now that I myself am a merchant. Because of this policy, Juiced.GS has a demonstrably larger subscriber base. I appreciate the larger audience and increased opportunities to sell my product, and if I were a vendor at MAGFest or Arisia, I'd be disappointed at how exclusive the event was.

I appreciate that the organizers of these events are likely not meanies with no motivation other than greedily charging admission. Convention centers and hotels have maximum capacities, and especially in the case of Arisia, which had to close registration for Saturday after selling out, it would at best be awkward for the vendors' space to be so crowded; at worst, it would be against fire code. And with the event being so popular, it's not like they need to open any part of the show to the public for the vendors to do a brisk business. By contrast, KansasFest, whose attendance is only in the double digits, doesn't have any of these concerns; and with our hobby so niche, we can't afford to be exclusive.

And yet, it's an issue worth juggling. Having done my time on the KansasFest committee, I understand and appreciate the factors that convention organizers must consider. Few such cons are profitable, instead being held for the love of the community. But that's the very reason why these cons should also serve to embiggen the community by giving them a taste of what it offers. An open vendor space would serve as such outreach while also making it a profitable and attractive proposition for the artists.

The Apple II community in general and KansasFest in particular have not only survived but thrived due to the collaboration and openness of its contributors. The KansasFest vendor fair is one of many things we do right. When and where possible, other cons should look to us as an example of how to make its members feel welcome.

An elementary Apple museum

January 6th, 2014 11:25 AM
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Filed under History, Musings;
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Fifteen miles north of downtown Chicago, Illinois, is an Apple museum you've never heard of. It's not open to the public, but it is nonetheless being put to good use: students of Kenilworth's Joseph Sears School are learning what computers of yesteryear were capable of and how they evolved into the machines we use today.

In the Wilmette Sun-Times article "Apple display both time travel and education for Sears students", library technology services director Elisabeth LeBris and former school computer coordinator Matt Brackett discuss how they "agreed to keep one of each Apple computer model used in the school (which has a long history of Apple use) even as each made way for successor machines". Students then use these artifacts to research how they compare to today's machines as part of their expository writing classes. The students' work is exhibited as a series of narrated slideshows summarizing the models' capabilities and places in history.

Several of the students' findings will bring a smile to an Apple II user's face: "[The Apple II] could not reach the Internet, because the Internet was not invented until WAY after the Apple II's time", for example. It's true the World Wide Web, which is often confused for the Internet, wasn't developed until a few years after the last model of Apple II was released in 1989, but the Internet was certainly something early Apple II users were connecting to — more so now, thanks to the Uthernet card. I'm also intrigued to know the calculations that led to statements such as this: "A modern 16-gigabyte smart phone has as much computing capability as 3.4 million Apple IIe computers." Despite being dwarfed by modern processors, one student admitted, "I was surprised at how much [the IIGS] could do, and how many parts there were." It's another great example of how classic technology, from Ultima to the BBC Micro, can be used in a modern education environment.

I emailed RJ Bialk, technology facilitator at Kenilworth School District #38, to ask if the video slideshows could be made available in an embeddable, shareable format, such as YouTube. There's been no response to that email of December 10, but I'm hopeful once the holidays are past and school is back in session, something might come of it. In the meantime, check out the article and videos for yourself and see what today's students are learning.

A matter of style at Computerworld

December 16th, 2013 12:36 PM
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Filed under Mainstream coverage, Musings;
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The longest I've ever stayed at one job was six years at Computerworld, during which time I saw the publication's transition from a magazine with a Web site to a Web site with a magazine. Through it all, we had copyeditors to ensure the continued quality of all our content, checking articles for clarity and consistency issues that may've escaped the news editors who worked directly with reporters on assignments and story structure.

As with most publications, Computerworld maintained a style guide — a shared document that all copyeditors referenced to verify whether the magazine presented quotations are in the past tense or present, if it was "Web site" or "website", and other common questions. My own first need to consult this guide came in March 2008 when contributing to the anthology, "Tales from the crypt: Our first computers". I was unsure if I should write my model of Apple as IIGS, IIgs, or something else.

This is what the style guide had to say on the matter:

Computerworld style guide

Ancient microcomputers from Apple?!
Click to enlarge.

As Computerworld's resident Apple II fanboy expert, I long wondered if this style guide entry was not written with me in mind as a sort of gentle ribbing. Although most of my co-workers had been in the industry long enough to remember and appreciate the elegance of the Apple II — heck, one of my colleagues was none other than the former editor-in-chief of inCider/A+, Dan Muse — it is nonetheless difficult to explain why one would carry that torch into the 21st century. Easier to poke fun at it, right?

It was only when researching this blog post that I confirmed this particular entry in the style guide well predates my tenure at Computerworld. It figures that a publication that had been around since 1967 would've addressed this issue long before my arrival. I should've checked my ego at the door!

Computerworld was a great source for Apple II news during my time there, and they continue to entertain the topic with coverage such as video profiles of KansasFest 2013 attendees. Given this support, readers should be glad to know the Apple II has earned a place at Computerworld, both behind the scenes and on the front page.

(Screenshot used with permission.)