Tech luminaries we lost in 2017

January 1st, 2018 10:32 AM
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Five years ago this month, my tenure as an editor at Computerworld ended. But that wasn't the end of the story: the many colleagues I'd worked with extended an invitation to continue freelancing for the publication — an invitation I gladly accepted.

While Computerworld was happy to publish Apple II articles when it came for free from a staff writer, it's harder to justify paying a freelancer by the word to cover a 40-year-old computer. So my articles in the last five years explored other topics, including an annual tradition that I inadvertently began: a slideshow of tech luminaries we lost.

It was October 2011, and Steve Jobs had just passed away. I was on the features team — a group of editors who met biweekly to discuss big ideas for stories. Compared to the daily news grind, a feature could take at least a month to write and was almost always farmed out to a freelancer. Several websites were disgruntled that Steve Jobs' passing had gotten more publicity than that of Dennis Ritchie, who created the C programming language and co-created Unix. I thought this a good opportunity to shine the spotlight on other overlooked industry veterans, so I suggested we publish a feature in time for Halloween that asked the question: "Who's next?!" What other aging founders were we likely to soon lose?

The features team leader politely said, "Ken, that's a really terrible idea… but there may be a good idea we can get out of it."

Thus was born the annual end-of-year slideshow that looked back on tech luminaries we lost in that calendar year. For the next several years, including during my transition from editor to freelancer, I watched other writers assemble the slideshow. In 2014, I was honored to assigned the story, finally being given the opportunity to execute the concept I'd proposed years ago.

That first year, I included Bob Bishop, whom I'd had the pleasure to meet and photograph at KansasFest. I skipped 2015 but wrote the slideshow in 2016 and again just last week for 2017. This latest lineup was the first time I got to choose which luminaries to honor, instead of having them assigned to me. It made it much easier to ensure a diverse cast when that virtue was baked in from the beginning. It also allowed me to include luminaries who might not otherwise have made the cut at Computerworld, such as Keith Robinson of Intellivision fame.

Tech luminaries we lost in 2017

While there were no Apple II legends in this year's roundup, Apple Computer Inc. was doubtless influenced by the heroes we lost in 2017. It was Robert W. Taylor who conceived of the ARPAnet, which became the Internet — but he also worked at Xerox PARC, from which Steve Jobs got the ideas for GUI, mouse input devices, and more. Charles Thacker was another PARC alumnus who helped develop the Xerox Alto, the early computer that embodied these concepts.

Writing this slideshow is a morose way to lead up to the holiday season — but I take heart in my ability to carry the legacies of these early innovators and ensure their stories are known. For everything they did for the Apple II and its users, I salute them.

The first game I ever played

August 28th, 2017 10:23 AM
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While VisiCalc and AppleWorks may've been system-sellers that established the Apple II in the business marketplace, they're not the programs we have fondest memories of. What really got us hooked on these machines and which built communities, demo parties, and more, were the games.

Tapping that trove of memories, the staff of PC Gamer recently asked each other: "What was the first PC game you played?" The answers are fun and diverse: Full Throttle, Rogue, Lemmings, X-Wings, and more, on such systems as the Atari ST, Magnavox Odyssey II, and Windows 95. Only one Apple II game made the list, that being Choplifter.

I don't remember the first Apple II game I ever played. There were so many in that era: not only Choplifter, but also Conan, Castle Wolfenstein, Microzine, Spy's Demise, and many others.

But the game I wrote about in a similar fashion to PC Gamer was Lode Runner. In 2008, when I was still on staff at Computerworld magazine, my fellow editors and I were asked the question: "What was the first personal computer you ever owned?" I answered:

1983: Growing up Apple

I don't remember ever not having the Apple IIe that I grew up with; it must've been delivered about the same time I was.

My family upgraded to an Apple IIgs in 1988. We still have that machine, as well as another IIgs that ran a dial-up BBS for four years.

Over the years, we tricked it out with the usual upgrades: SCSI card, sound card, handheld scanner, modem, joystick, 4MB of RAM. An accelerator boosted the CPU to 10 MHz, which may not sound like much, but it was quadruple the stock speed — making Lode Runner quite a challenge to play. (The enemies moved four times faster; my brain and reactions didn't.)

The original IIgs machine is still at my father's house, where he occasionally depends on it for the family business accounting. Though my current computer is a MacBook Pro, it has all the Apple II programs and files I accumulated over the years. I access them with the Sweet16 emulator, which turns my Macintosh into an Apple II laptop.

Emulating has allowed me to have used the same word-processing software, AppleWorks Classic, for the past 20 years, for everything from a 4th grade science paper on the whooping crane to my 100-page college thesis to all my Computerworld articles. All this history fills up only 3MB of my hard drive. Most recently, I created a quick-and-dirty Apple II program to convert 700 blog posts for importing into WordPress — a huge timesaver over doing it manually.

I just wrote a story about Dan Budiac, a guy who paid $2,600 on eBay to get back an old Apple IIc. Why not do what I did and just never stop using it in the first place?

These are just a few of my memories of the Apple II. What about you — what was your first game? Do you even remember?

Apple IIe vs iMac throwdown

August 8th, 2016 9:22 AM
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In 2010, the Apple iPad was brand new, having just been released that past April. At the time, I was an editor at Computerworld, where I provided annual coverage of KansasFest, the world's premiere Apple II convention. Unlike Juiced.GS magazine, whose readers are retrocomputing enthusiasts, Computerworld's website had a more general audience, requiring I connect our favorite 8-bit machine to something more modern and relevant — such as the iPad.

Thanks to the loan of Loren Damewood's iPad and Tony Diaz's Apple Graphics Tablet, I produced the photo gallery "Face-off: 1979 Apple Graphics Tablet vs. 2010 Apple iPad". Comparing a drawing tablet to a tablet computer was, of course, ridiculous; a fairer comparison would've been to compare the Apple Graphics Tablet to a Wacom tablet. But where's the fun in a fair fight?

The esteemed WIRED magazine adopted a similar philosophy when they recently pit ancient technology against new. They took an Apple IIe and an iMac — coincidentally, my father's first and last computers — and compared their specs, dimensions, expansibility, and more. The resulting smackdown is this two-minute video:

When I bought my first Macintosh in 1997, I did so begrudgingly, to comply with the requirements of my university. At the time, I felt my Apple IIGS could still do everything I needed from a modern machine. Times have changed, of course, and an Apple II is no longer a viable primary computer for someone who wants to engage in mainstream multimedia, gaming, and social networking. But it's fun to see WIRED still acknowledge some of the foresight Apple had in designing their first machines, giving it strengths that modern computers lack.

Today's computers may be more powerful — but that doesn't necessarily make them "better".

(Hat tip to David Schmenk)

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs

October 26th, 2015 9:01 AM
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The third Steve Jobs film in two years opened nationwide this past Friday. Having just seen the Steve Jobs documentary last month, I wasn't inclined to consume more history of Apple's co-founder — not to boycott his deification or the potential misrepresentation of Steve Wozniak, but due to an oversaturation of the topic.

In fact, this past August, I emailed my freelance employer, Computerworld, to ask which they wanted me to review: the documentary, or the drama? They responded with the former. I assumed this was because every media outlet was going to review the Michael Fassbender movie, whereas the documentary was more likely to fly under the radar; Computerworld could stand out by being one of the few sites to cover it.

Then they emailed me this month to ask that I review the Fassbender film anyway, with the thinking being that, if everyone else is reviewing it, Computerworld would be remiss to not also do so. I guess it works both ways: if no one is doing it, you should; and if everyone is doing it, you should!

My review was published last week, but here's a summary: of the three films, Steve Jobs is the least historically accurate — and the most enjoyable. I was surprised how much I liked it, though I think it helped that I knew not to expect it to be true to life. For example, the character Seth Rogen plays is not Steve Wozniak — but he is a good character who serves a narrative purpose and drives the plot forward. It's a good story, and a good movie.

Seth Rogen admitted that, despite meeting and studying the real Woz, the script made any adherence to Woz's personality almost impossible:

… the character wasn’t really written that much in the voice of the actual Steve Wozniak, in my opinion. I think the themes are real to Steve Wozniak, the things he cared about, but the way he presents those ideas and the way he literally just interacts with people, from what I see, it’s not an incredibly realistic interpretation.

The cinematic and actual Wozes recently appeared together on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where they played the game "True Confessions". Woz, Rogen, and Fallon each wrote a truth and a lie about themselves: one was then chosen at random and shared with the other players, and they had to guess if it was the truth or the lie. Woz went last, with his turn starting at 6:11 in this video:

They obviously had fun playing this game — just as I enjoyed Rogen's spin on Woz.

Look for Eric Shepherd's review of Steve Jobs in the December 2015 issue of Juiced.GS.

(Hat tip to Seth Sternberger)

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

September 7th, 2015 1:24 PM
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Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine debuted last Friday. While lacking the marketing and star power of next month's Aaron Sorkin dramatization featuring Michael Fassbender, this documentary offers a more authentic look at the life Apple's co-founder.

That's not to say that documentaries are inherently accurate and unbiased; King of Kong proved otherwise. But I appreciated this film's take on Steve Jobs, even if it took me two viewings. The first time around, I saw it merely as a presentation of facts, none of which were new to me: having been a life-long Apple user, read Walter Isaacson's biography, and seen the Ashton Kutcher film, there's little about Jobs' life that would surprise me. But some additional perspectives granted me new insight into the film. Those views came from Dave Ross, whom I previously quoted for my Halt and Catch Fire review; and Steve Weyhrich, whom I quoted in my 2008 story about an Apple IIc unboxing. Each are bonafide retrocomputing experts, without whom I likely would've produced a much more critical — and boring — review.

The resulting article, "New Jobs movie: A quieter, more authentic portrait", was my first for Computerworld in 2015. I applied my usual editing process of printing out my draft, reviewing the hardcopy, then soliciting feedback of the edited version from a few friends (in this case, Steve and Dave) before submitting the final copy.

Draft of Steve Jobs documentary review

The more red I see on my drafts, the happier I am with the final copy.

With Juiced.GS's launch of Opus ][ just the day before my Computerworld deadline, and the beginning of the academic semester the day after, it was a stressful week — but everything turned out excellently.

It's a good film, too — perhaps a bit long at two hours, but there's plenty of good material in there. Here's my favorite scene:

And here are some additional stills that were submitted to, but not used by, Computerworld:

Lest I overdose on Jobs, I'm inclined to skip Fassbender's interpretation of the character… but I doubt I'll be able to keep myself away. Stay tuned.

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)