Archive for the ‘Mainstream coverage’ Category

The Apple II is everywhere, as evidenced by these reports.

Think Retro debuts at Macworld

December 8th, 2014 11:58 AM
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Macworld has seen some hard times lately: on September 10, just a day after the Macworld staff labored to cover Apple's unveiling of the iWatch, most of its writers and editors were laid off and its print edition shuttered. Macworld was the last consumer magazine published by IDG, parent company of Computerworld, my own employer 2007–2013 and present publisher of my freelance pieces. Although I'd never written for Macworld nor knew its staff personally — Computerworld is an enterprise publication and doesn't mingle much with the consumer side of IDG — it still hit close to home to see Macworld mark its 30th anniversary in so punishing a manner.

For all that, though, there is still much good left at Macworld, including last month's debut of a new weekly column: "Think Retro", written by Christopher Phin, former editor at MacUser and MacFormat. Unlike the occasional feature or mainstream news story, "Think Retro" is a regular, ongoing "celebration of classic Apple hardware and software". While none of the four columns published to date are specifically about the Apple II, they does offer practical, relevant information to the modern retrocomputing enthusiast, such as how to use an ADB keyboard with a USB computer or how to open your old ClarisWorks files in Mac OS X.

Apple adjustable keyboard

The Griffin iMate is no RetroConnector, but chances are you have one of these.
Photo copyrighted by Macworld.

While I lament the magazine and website Macworld once was, I'm glad through columns such as "Think Retro" that the brand still offers value to Apple diehards, including us Apple II fans.

Ron Wayne's documents up for sale

December 1st, 2014 1:23 PM
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When I left my position as an editor at Computerworld two years ago, I suggested that their Apple II coverage would be no more. That was an exaggeration, of course — while I did contribute offbeat articles interviewing KansasFest attendees and reviewing Apple biopics, the day-to-day coverage of mainstream events in the retrocomputing world were Gregg Keizer's bailiwick, with frequent reports of Apple history hitting the auction block.

And so it's Keizer who put the Apple-1 back on the Computerworld.com homepage last month with news that Apple co-founder and Adventures of an Apple Founder author Ron Wayne's historical documents are up for sale. "It includes original working proofs of the Apple-1 manual, Wayne's original company logo — perhaps the oldest in existence," reports Keizer, "and design renderings of a proposed Apple II case." A phone interview with Steve Wozniak adds some perspective on the widespread interest in Apple's early history.

Wayne's lot is listed at Christie's and is estimated to sell for $30,000 – $50,000 USD. If you want a closer look at the goods in advance of the December 11 auction, Engadget posted over five dozen images of Wayne's library three years ago.

Ron Wayne's prints

Image courtesy Engadget

I'm hopeful Wayne, the perennial down-on-his-luck example of a missed opportunity, will see some profit from this sale. It's a wonder neither of the Apple co-founders shared their fortunes with their former partner — whether because he warrants or deserves it (would Apple exist without him?), or just out of pity.

UPDATE (13-Dec-14): Ron Wayne's lot sold for $25,000.

(Hat tip to Darrell Etherington and Robert McMillan)

Ben Heck's Apple-1

November 24th, 2014 10:31 AM
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Back in 2008, engineer and hardware hacker Ben Heckendorn made headlines in the Apple II world when he built an Apple IIGS in a laptop form factor. Although his first computer was an Atari 800, not an Apple II, the same wistfulness applies to many of Ben Heck's projects. In an interview for Juiced.GS and Computerworld, he told me:

People go to the junkyard, get an old car, and fix it up. There's really no point to that, but people do it because they like the car. Computers are a lot like old cars. "I grew up with this, my dad drove me around in this" — it's the same thing with old computers: I programmed my first program on this old computer, it's such a great memory, now I can remember it… expensively. I think that's what it is, almost a car culture with computers. It's a different object, but the same kind of nostalgia.

Heck insisted the interview be conducted over the phone, not email, so as to better capture his personality. Other media outlets have since recognized that same spark and have given Heck his own web series, The Ben Heck Show, in which he builds and tears down a variety of unusual hardware in zany style.

In his latest project, Heck returns to that IIGS laptop's roots and tackles designing his own Apple-1 clone. Instead of buying Replica 1 from Briel Computers, he assembles and builds his own components from DreamBoard. Over three episodes and 56 minutes that aired Nov 7–21, he demonstrates how anyone with the proper equipment and soldering skill can build their own original Apple.

Heck ends by providing his Apple-1 something the original never had: a case. Keeping in mind the aesthetic of 1977, he designed a wooden frame for his machine.

Ben Heck's Apple-1

Grandpa? Is that you?

As someone who'd never soldered before Vince Briel showed me how at KansasFest 2009, Heck's tutorial is beyond my ken. But among today's retrocomputing enthusiasts, I'm unusual in my lack of hardware familiarity, and I suspect many hardcore fans will enjoy not his step-by-step instructions and energetic delivery.

(Hat tip to Joyniece Kirkland)

Oregon Trail Live

November 10th, 2014 9:42 AM
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At KansasFest 2014, I brought a text adventure to life, courtesy Parsely. It was an interactive, real-world, technology-free experience based on Apple II games of the 1970s — and it wasn't the first or only such game to get such a treatment.

Oregon Trail, that classic edutainment title of frontier survival, has since 2012 been leaping off the screen to educate us about the hardship of early America. Adapted by Kelly Williams Brown, Oregon Trail Live is played not in schools, but by visitors to the Willamette Heritage Center of Salem, Oregon. Emily Grosvenor writes for The Atlantic:

Oregon Trail LiveOn the trail, as in the game, if you killed a bison, you could only carry 200 pounds of meat with you. In the live-action game, participants face the task of pushing 200 pounds of meat up a hill—in this case, a 200 pound man in a wagon regaling the crowd with meat facts. In our case, it was a local butcher dressed like a cow, who later tested us on the names of cuts of a side of beef.

At every turn the live action game converts the computerized saga into a real life obstacle. Die on the real trail—and 50 percent of travelers did in the trail's first years—and you're good ole dead. Perish in the computer game—of dysentery, cannibalism, drowning, cholera, typhoid, measles, or snakebite—and you get to see your own epitaph. Kick it in the live—action game and your friends must compose a dirge to sing at your funeral.

Grosvenor's additional photos from the event make it look like a ton of fun, with players creating characters, inhabiting roles, and working toward a common goal. Although she doesn't use the term, this take on Oregon Trail could be considered a LARP — a Live-Action Role-Playing Game. LARPs are normally associate with Dungeons & Dragons-style settings, as most humorously demonstrated in the film Knights of Badassdom, but it's not a stretch to see similar characteristics manifesting itself in Oregon Trail. What's next — a reality TV series, equipping contestants with little more than a covered wagon and some mules with which to survive a cross-country trek?

Grosvenor's coverage is of the most recent Oregon Trail Live, an annual event, with the fourth OTL to be held Saturday, September 19, 2015. Can't wait until then? Other Oregon Trail adaptations abound, including a trailer for a feature-length movie. Sadly, a full movie was never intended to be completed, but The Homesman, opening in theaters November 14 and starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, looks to come close to the idea:

(Hat tip to Christopher Curley)

RadioShack's inevitable demise

October 6th, 2014 1:41 PM
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I became an Apple II user in 1983, but it wasn't until 1990 or so that I started becoming a power user. The APPUSER Forum on CompuServe had so many great games that I couldn't play due to my IIGS not having enough RAM or a hard drive. SysOp Loren Damewood and game developer Scott Everts encouraged me to call Quality Computers to make one upgrade, then another. Before I knew it, I had a juiced GS.

But sometimes, things didn't work quite as expected, and I'd need a trivial adapter for which I didn't want to wait a week for mail order to deliver. Or I needed speakers or some other generic part that wasn't specific to the Apple II. For those times, my father would drive me to local strip mall known as the John Fitch Highway, home of the nearest RadioShack. I became such a regular there that one of the clerks even invited me to his weekly D&D game.

Now, for better or worse, RadioShack's days are numbered. The anachronistically named retail stores may soon follow former parent company Tandy Corporation's TRS-80 into the realm of defunct technology.

Long-time hobbyists and hackers may not mourn RadioShack's passing, as the store has long since transitioned from catering to our needs to competing with big box stores like Best Buy. Walk into any RadioShack today to buy electronic parts and components, and you'll never get the attention of a sales clerk eager to make a commission on a more expensive iPhone or HDTV. Some may say that RadioShack's inventory has simply mirrored a larger shift to a disposable society, where computers are locked down and unable to be tinkered with. But the emergence of the popular Raspberry Pi suggests otherwise. Did you know you can buy the Pi at RadioShack? Maybe if, like the Apple Store, RadioShack held various classes and workshops for working with their products, this might've been a larger market for them.

Yet even that shift alone might not have saved RadioShack. "Call it death by a thousand cuts," said one marketing professor, citing many other changes that have made RadioShack obsolete. For example, as much as RadioShack hawks its cell phones, those very products may also be killing the store. Almost everything RadioShack sold in 1991 can now be done with cell phone apps. Why buy a dozen bulky gadgets when several 99-cent digital widgets can perform the same functions?

Regardless of the chain's current worth, it's always sad to see an old friend go — especially one that, for Apple II users, is still a useful source for batteries and cassette players. It seems unlikely RadioShack can reverse their downward spiral. But we'll always have memories of their years of value to the community.

(Hat tip to Bryan Villados)

Losing Apple II writers to GamerGate

September 22nd, 2014 10:57 AM
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The video game industry has been ashamed to host a recent debacle known as GamerGate. At its heart are matters of equality and diversity in the tech industry, which hits close to home for me: I host a podcast about those very issues.

The fallout from GamerGate is that voices that were already marginalized — in this case, women's — were silenced, with several accomplished writers leaving the industry. I don't blame them: no one should have to tolerate the abuse, harassment, and threats that these professionals have.

Despite a thirty-year gap between the Apple II and GamerGate, these writers' departure is to the detriment of even our retrocomputing community. Jenn Frank, whom I support on Patreon, not that long ago wrote over a thousand words on the legacy of Mystery House. In this piece, she outlines how the game launched Sierra On-Line as a company and the genres of graphical adventure and graphical mystery-horror. Frank does this not by examining her own navel, as this blogger does, but by interviewing a cavalcade of modern and legendary game designers, including Ken Williams, Jake Elliott, Erin Robinson, Ken Levine, Jane Jensen, and Al Lowe.

Mystery House, despite not being that much fun, even opened the door for women — maybe even Frank herself — to make names for themselves in a traditionally male-dominated industry:

Best of all, Mystery House resulted in the founding of Sierra itself. While many female developers often find it difficult to break into the modern-day mainstream games industry, Jensen remembers Sierra as a boon to women: "I was lucky getting into Sierra Online," she reminds us, "because there were already a number of strong female designers there — Roberta Williams, Christy Marx, Lori Cole. So I never felt there were any stumbling blocks at all in my path."

Mystery House

How one game defined a genre (or two) without being particularly enjoyable.

Don't expect any more research and writing like this: Jenn Frank has left the industry. Trolls and thugs drove her off.

Who's next? Leigh Alexander? One of the most distinctive and prolific voices of modern gaming journalism, Alexander's gaming origin is rooted in the Apple II. She's been revisiting the computer games of her youth, narrating her gameplay experiences on YouTube. She too has applied her unique lens to Mystery House. But she's not going anywhere, despite some gamers making it clear her voice is not welcome — to which she taunts, "What, you want to leave me death threats? Go for it!"

If you want to read more about Mystery House, Jimmy Maher has written on the subject extensively. But that's not the point. Who knows what Frank's next piece would've been? We'll never know. Will Alexander continue sharing her unique experiences on YouTube? If things get worse, maybe not.

Yesterday's games are treasures for today's journalists and historians to discover. It is important to preserve not just the subject of their study, but the dedication and perseverance of those skilled professionals who will deliver it to us. By supporting those who support the Apple II, we make an investment in their future. Alexander tells us how:

When you see something unjust happen, say that you condemn it. When someone's the victim of destructive sexist behavior, defend them — not in a brownie points-seeking way, directing your comments at the victim herself or copying women into your Tweets so that they know you’re a good guy — but in your own channels. When you see friends and colleagues passing on destructive opinions, challenge them. By engaging the issue yourself, you take responsibility.

Be aware of your own power and how you can use it to help others. … Don't just send her a nice note in private about how bad it looks like things are sucking and how you "have her back." Actually have her back. Stand up in public and say that yours is not a professional infrastructure that allows women to be abused or treated unfairly. Say that so-and-so is a talented, valued asset you’re proud to work with or for.

Ernest Adams has similar words of advice. Read his "Call to Arms for Decent Men".

Whatever your generation or gender, we're all gamers. Let's stand up for one another.