Lisa operating system source code

January 8th, 2018 8:52 AM
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Last week, I wrote about Robert Taylor and Charles Thacker, whose work at Xerox PARC inspired such Apple innovations as the graphic-user interface (GUI) and the mouse. Soon, we'll get to see under the hood of how Apple introduced those technologies with the Apple Lisa.

Just as the Computer History Museum did five years ago when it released the source code for Apple DOS, the CHM will now be distributing the source code for the Apple Lisa's operating system. Museum curator Al Kossow made the announcement on Google Groups, writing, "the sources to the OS and applications were recovered… and they are with Apple for review. After that's done, CHM will do an @CHM blog post about the historical significance of the software and the code that is cleared for release by Apple will be made available in 2018."

Apple Lisa

I'm curious where the source code was "recovered" from. Did the CHM collaborate with Apple to retrieve the code from an archaic floppy disk, much as Tony Diaz and Jason Scott helped Jordan Mechner recover the Prince of Persia source code? Or did some third party, perhaps a former Apple employee, bequeath the code to the CHM?

Regardless of the source, the importance of this release cannot be understated. Rhett Jones at Gizmodo reported, "Lisa was a cutting-edge machine and one of the first to offer consumers a GUI, mouse, and file system, but it was prohibitively expensive and didn’t catch on." To see the origin of these features is to look back at the ancestors of computing staples that are still with us today.

Further, such releases are extremely rare, as Apple is known to be possessive of their intellectual property. In this case Apple has little incentive to make such a release, whether or not there is historical value or modern applications for the Lisa operating system.

Whatever the origin or motivation of both this release and that of Apple DOS before it, the precedents continue to be set, with many implications for the Apple II community. Who knows what other classic software we'll see released from Apple Inc. next?

(Hat tip to Christopher Baugh via Paul Wilson)

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.

Christmas lights

December 25th, 2017 4:52 PM
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Merry Christmas! What better time of year to decorate your abode with gratuitous displays of light and sound. It's become tradition for creative homeowners to design increasingly elaborate audio/visual performances, synchronizing music with flashing luminescence.

Such showmanship has been around as long as personal computers have enabled them. A recent story in WIRED interviews the artists behind several such displays, including one who attributes the trend to the Apple II:

The craze began in the 1980s with pioneers like Chuck Smith of Franklin, Tennessee, who linked his Christmas lights to an Apple II in the garage. "I was on the bloody cutting edge of this and I didn’t even know it," he says.

Beyond this article, I can't find any online references to Chuck Smith or his Apple II-powered holiday displays, nor videos of same. I'm curious to know how author Graham Hacia, making his WIRED debut with this byline, tracked down this early adopter. In the meantime, if anyone has examples of other Christmas lights that connected to the Apple II, I'd love to hear about them — please share in the comments below!

Unboxing Hayes Smartmodem

December 18th, 2017 2:40 PM
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Like most Apple II users, my first modem was a revelation, connecting me to people and resources I'd never imagined. For me, that modem was the Apple Personal Modem, a 1200-baud brick that connected me to CompuServe, where I "met" such folks as Loren Damewood, Tony Ward, and Ray Merlin. It wasn't until I'd attend KansasFest more than a decade later that I'd finally put faces to these names.

Sometimes, the introduction works the other way. At recent KansasFests, I've had the pleasure to getting to know Justin Scott, who I was recently surprised to discover has his own YouTube series, "Modem Monday". The first video I watched was Justin's sixth, which focused on connecting the Apple II to a Hayes Smartmodem.

It's been a long time since I used a dial-up modem on an Apple II, so to see Justin doing it today brought a big smile to my face. It made me recall connecting to Tymnet nodes and local BBSes, such as the one Justin telnets to in this video in 40-column monochromatic glory.

Beyond the content, I also enjoyed the production of the video itself. I've done a few Apple II unboxing videos myself, and I wish I had a setup like Justin's: except for one out-of-focus shot, the videography and lighting are excellent. It also seems Justin rehearses or scripts his dialogue while still sounding natural, as he brings a bevy of insights and trivia to each product he examines. When he pries open the Smartmodem case, we get live narration of each step as he's doing it. This is unlike earlier parts of the video, where the camera's audio is muted and the dialogue dubbed in later. In those scenes, I missed hearing the sound effects of the box being opened and the manual being flipped.

As a YouTube creator myself, I know how time-consuming these productions can be. If you like Justin's videos, you can support production of future Modem Mondays on his Patreon.

(Hat tip to Justin on Facebook)

Bard's Tale post-mortem at GDC

December 11th, 2017 8:10 AM
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The Game Developer's Conference is an annual event that invites members of the computer and video game industry to collaborate, inspire, and share their stories and best practices. This professional affair is expensive to attend but nonetheless attracts developers both mainstream and indie.

One of the flagship offerings of each year's GDC schedule is the post-mortem, where developers take attendees behind the scenes of their memorable games, be they modern or historical. Past post-mortems have included games Maniac Mansion for the Apple II and Raid on Bungeling Bay for Commodore 64.

At GDC 2018, to be held in San Francisco on March 19–23, another classic game will enter the post-mortem vault: The Bard's Tale I and II. Dr. Michael Cranford, creator of The Bard's Tale series and programmer for the Apple II version of Donkey Kong, will host the session:

Cranford… will share the vision that led him to the game's conception, design, and development from his years as a dungeon master. The games are an expression of Cranford's personal love for the genre and desire to surpass the experience of tabletop gaming. The session will explore the vision behind the game and help illuminate a trajectory in gaming which has remained strong to the current day… [and] many elements in current RPGs are developed in 'The Bard's Tale'.

… this talk is not going to be technical. This session targets those who are interested in concepts behind game design (RPG game design in particular), how that came together in the early '80s, and how it impacted so many people.

Although I've not played many games in The Bard's Tale series, I recognize the role it played in gaming history, as it was named among the top RPGs of all time by both Game Informer and Retro Gamer, inspiring me to back the Kickstarter for The Bard's IV. I would love to be in the audience for this upcoming talk… but alas, attendance at GDC is not for the casual gamer, with passes starting at $999 $149. I will instead hope the video and slides will eventually make their way into the GDC Vault, where they will be preserved and made available to the wider audience interested in RPG history.

(Hat tip to Gamasutra)

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

December 4th, 2017 9:46 AM
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I subscribe to only two monthly magazines, one of which is Game Informer. While it's not my only source for video game news, I enjoy its in-depth features on game development, previews of upcoming titles, and reviews of games I might never play.

One of those games is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a first-person shooter and the eighth in the Wolfenstein series, released just this past October. The game follows protagonist William "B.J." Blazkowicz, introduced in 1992 in the series' original first-person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, as he sets about to free an alternate-history modern America of its Nazi rule.

I haven't played any Wolfenstein games since that 1992 title, but I was struck by this passage in Game Informer's review of the latest game:

The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole.

My first reaction was to be impressed that the game had such a strong narrative. I'm a big fan of narrative-driven games, from Life Is Strange to Gone Home, and while first-person shooters often have story, they're hardly the reason gamers play them. But it seems developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks have nonetheless taken Wolfenstein's plot seriously. For the first time in 25 years, I find myself wanting to play a Wolfenstein game.

My second reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of the juxtaposition of such a strong narrative with incredibly violent gameplay. The New Colossus is rated 'M' by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for reasons that include plot and narrative but which focus primarily on the action: "Combat is frenetic, with realistic gunfire, explosions, screams of pain, and large blood-splatter effects. Some weapons allow players to blow off enemies' heads or cut off their limbs; cutscenes sometimes show decapitations and/or acts of disembowelment." It is no doubt this gratuitous violence, not the "heartfelt moments of romance and friendship", that will attract most gamers.

My third reaction was disbelief at how far the Wolfenstein franchise has come. Although it may have achieved mainstream popularity with its 3D incarnation in 1992, the series was founded in 1981 by Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein, a 2D, top-down stealth game. Did Warner ever expect that his humble program would evolve to "make room for love and hope"? Would he see any of his genetic code embedded in this descendant? What would he think of The New Colossus?

It's impossible to say: the first and latest Wolfenstein games are so far removed from each other at this point as to share only a name and general anti-Nazi theme, such that Warner may see only a passing resemblance. But as a gamer, I'm heartened that the Apple II has made possible such a prominent, highly anticipated, and well-received entry in the modern gaming landscape. Whether or not most gamers realize it, our lineage persists.