Jean Armour Polly put computers in libraries

October 21st, 2019 7:00 AM
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Last month, the Internet Hall of Fame inducted a new class. Among its members was Jean Armour Polly, who pioneered free Internet access in public libraries.

And she did so with an Apple II, according to Syracuse.com. While the Internet and the Apple II were not exactly contemporaries, Polly was an advocate for computers in libraries well before they were put online.

It was 1981 and this was groundbreaking. They set up the computer, a black Apple 2 Plus, in a spot where everyone could use it. The American Legion raised money to buy the printer. At the time, Liverpool was one of two libraries in the country with a computer, said Polly, a Syracuse University alumna.

That's not Polly's only contribution to computer literacy and Internet lore: she also popularized the term "surfing" for Internet activity.

While Polly popularized the phrase, she didn't coin it. The first use of "surfing the Internet" was by Mark McCahill on the Usenet newsgroup alt.gopher on February 25, 1992:

There is a lot to be said for surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack.

I'm a big fan of public libraries, making weekly visits to mine to get free movies, books, and video games (and to look for Apple II software). While I haven't needed to use a library's computers, I realize that making this resource available to the community is an invaluable service with a high return on investment.

Our thanks to Polly for being among those who got the ball rolling with an Apple II Plus!

(Hat tip to Andy Molloy)

Jeri Ellsworth of Tilt Five

October 14th, 2019 8:51 AM
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Sometimes, Apple II users have ambitions bigger than their humble retrocomputers. Steve Chiang went to work at Zynga and Warner Bros. Richard Garriott flew into space.

And now, Jeri Ellsworth is setting out to redefine reality with Tilt Five.

Jeri's mixed reality rig is impressive in its own right. But it's all the cooler due to Jeri being an Apple II rockstar, too… Well, maybe more Commodore 64.

But she was a cover story for Juiced.GS, too!

Jeri Ellsworth on cover of Juiced.GS

Doug Cuff's interview with Jeri opens:

She's a self-confessed hardware nerd, and she has a mission. She wants to rebuild one of the most popular and beloved microcomputers of the 1980s: the Commodore 64.

On the way, she's going to be a big help to the Apple II. But even if she wasn't, you would still want to pay homage to Jeri Ellsworth.

When she was 16, Jeri Ellsworth was playing with her Commodore 64, and she wanted it to have more colors. (Just as with the Apple II, people mentally dismissed the C-64 long before production stopped. The last C-64 rolled off the production line in 1992.)

By the time she had explored the idea of improving on the C-64's hardware, Jeri wanted to create a C-64 on a single chip. She liked the idea of a C-64 palmtop. And she was still being driven by forces that most of us can understand: she wanted to play all her old games, and at the same time, she wanted them to have better graphics.

Jeri is also an alumna of KansasFest, Vintage Computer Festival East, and the JoCoCruise, at all of which our paths have crossed.

Tilt Five's Kickstarter was the latest opportunity for me to intersect with Jeri, as her project was a perfect fit for my monthly gaming podcast, Polygamer. Our hour-long chat (with a few opening and closing remarks about the Apple II) aired last week.

It was a pleasure to catch up with Jeri. It was also completely unsurprising to discovery she is as much an ambitious yet humble geek as ever. I didn't feel like I was talking to someone who had outgrown the Apple II; rather, it was two old friends picking up right where we left off.

Jeri asked that I not air the video of us singing karaoke. In truth, no such video exists —  but there is video of her beating me badly at arm wrestling. So really, even if I did have any dirt on Jeri, I'd be highly incentivized to keep it to myself!

Prince of Persia turns 30

October 7th, 2019 9:00 AM
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Back in July, I blogged about Prince of Persia's pending thirtieth birthday. Well, it happened! Last Thursday, Prince of Persia turned thirty years old, having originally been published on October 3, 1989.

Several mainstream and gaming news outlets commemorated the occasion, reflecting on the Prince's place in history and how it impacted game design and development. Goomba Stomp's Patrick Murphy waxed about the game's fluid, groundbreaking rotoscoped animation:

Here was a video game character that didn’t go from standing to jumping in one frame, whose run action didn’t come off as robotic and endlessly recycled. The Prince seemed to move like a real person (or at least a beautifully drawn cartoon), with all the fluidity and momentum that living beings have.

In contrast to the game's historical significance, Forbes' Matt Gardner shared a fact that I was unaware of:

Despite great reviews, Prince of Persia sold poorly in North America; just 7,000 copies were bought in its first year. It was only when it reached Japan and Europe that it became a true hit with audiences, due to the game finding ubiquity through official ports.

That slow, international acceptance of the game reminds me of Wizardry. Bitmob once wrote of Sir-Tech's computer role-playing game:

When it first came to Japan in the eighties, Wizardry had also inspired a media blitz across print and video that left a huge impression on the RPG audience. Not only did its phenomenon reach across media channels in Japan back in the day, the series continues on with a list of spin-offs and original productions catering to a dedicated fanbase.

Both Prince of Persia and Wizardry have had spinoffs, some more successful than others. In Let's Play of Prince of Persia: Escape, the endless runner released earlier this year for mobile devices, I was lukewarm at best. PocketGamer's Cameron Bald was less reserved and more decisive, calling it "a sham product: ugly, cynical, and cruelly manipulative." Oof!

I don't remember on what platform I originally played Prince of Persia; by the time it was released in 1989, I was deep into console games, meaning I may have first played the Super Nintendo version published by Konami.

Wherever it's been popular or ported, or however successful its regions or spin-offs have been, Prince of Persia's release was a landmark in computer gaming. May it celebrate many birthdays to come — long live the Prince!

Bizarro caller ID

September 30th, 2019 10:33 AM
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When I ran my BBS, I kept a corkboard on the wall above my computer — probably because it's what my dad did above his computer in his home office, of which my BBS occupied a corner. Little that I put on my board was practical or relevant, consisting primarily of mementos or jokes from completely unrelated affairs, like parking stubs from a summer trip to the beach.

But while recently cleaning out my house, I discovered that I'd kept the contents of that board from two decades past. And one such item actually did pertain to my BBS.

Sherlock Holmes speaks into phone: "Did you just dial my number by mistake and hang up before I answered, Watson?" Caption: "Sherlock Holmes gets Caller ID"

This comic strip from Dan Piraro's Bizarro highlights a groundbreaking technology of the 1990s: Caller ID. The strip is from 1995, which was my sophomore year of high school. I distinctly remember how excited I was for this feature to become available: how it arrived first at my grandmother's house one city over, then in my hometown a day later. Phones didn't have inbuilt digital displays back then, so I had to buy a separate caller ID box to sit between the wall jack and my BBS modem.

Finally, I could see who was calling my BBS before they even logged in! And it became an effective deterrent against pranksters and trolls. If I saw multiple accounts log in from the same number, I could call out these sockpuppets (though they always had what they thought was a good excuse, such as "Oh, that's my brother"). If someone used *67 to block their caller ID, I would sometimes use that as grounds to disconnect the call entirely. (In the early days of my BBS, I would verify each new user by calling their landline and asking to speak with them. Needless to say, that got onerous for both parties pretty quickly.)

This comic is a fun reminder not only of my BBS, but of how something we now take for granted — knowing who's calling before we answer " was once revolutionary. Some things don't change, though: I still read Bizarro every day. Its online archives extend only to 2005, so please enjoy this glimpse further back into its history.

Pete Perkins' Apple II clone

September 23rd, 2019 1:13 PM
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As proprietary as Apple likes to make their products, given enough effort, even Apple's hardware and software can be copied. Some Apple II clones were broadly distributed commercial products, such as the Franklin Ace 100; others were region-specific, such as the Bulgaria's Pravetz computers. There were enough other clones and manufacturers to fill an entire Wikipedia page.

But not all clones end up being historical footnotes in Wikipedia; some were commercially available but produced in such small quantities that they flew under Apple's radar. Pete Perkins, proprietor of Honda Computers in Tokyo, was such an entrepreneur, using his technical wizardry to build on and profit off Apple's innovations by implementing expansion ports for networking and selling his creation for half of Apple's.

We might never have known about this early hacker and pirate if not for Thames Television, the production company behind the British television series Database, which IMDb describes as "an early series for computer addicts". For the episode that aired July 6, 1984, host Tony Bastable traveled to Japan, where he interviewed Perkins about his homebrew machine.

I love how guileless Perkins is in this interview. He claims he didn't copy the Apple II, since it looks different — a defense that leads to a knowing grin that such an argument would never hold up in court. Later he goes on record as saying it might be illegal — he just hasn't gotten caught yet!

Where are they now? Bastable passed away in 2007. Perkins later ran the CortNet BBS and Janis II; in 1996, he was running a combination Internet café and classroom. Where he's gone since then, I don't know — though I remain hopeful he escaped Apple's wrath.

The Appleworks of Harvard, Mass.

September 16th, 2019 11:27 AM
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I've lived my entire life in Massachusetts, having often driven or cycled the roads between Boston and my hometown to visit family. One particular path to my cousin's house has always brought a smile to this Apple II user's face.

AppleWorks is many things: it's a word processor; it's an environment in which I spent twenty years building my portfolio and honing my craft; it's a legendary Apple product that Quality Computers got the rights to upgrade; it's a program from a company with a complicated history; it's compiled from source code we'll almost certainly never see.

But in the small town of Harvard, Mass., it's also a company.

Appleworks post sign

Bold move, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off.

I've driven by this sign many times — you can see it from the road on Google Maps.

For decades, I've wondered how this company has retained its name, especially given how boldly it hangs its shingle. Apple is infamously litigatious, and any company that overlaps with the computer manufacturer's industry would be susceptible to a threat to change its name, which Steve Jobs would consider no big deal.

Has the AppleWorks business held the name since before the Apple II existed? Was it a publishing company or computer repair service? If not, why would the owners name it Appleworks? Were they taking inspiration from being two towns over from Johnny Appleseed's hometown?

After years of wondering these questions, it wasn't until I sat down to write this blog post last night that I finally got the answer: Appleworks isn't a business; it's a place. It's the name of the strip mall that houses the Siam Pepper Thai Cuisine restaurant whose website gave me the clue I needed, listing its address as "Appleworks Building, Harvard, MA".

At first, this revelation felt anti-climactic — but now I'm free to drive by this building, smile, and rest easy that it's an unlikely target for Apple legal.