[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Canon Personal Computer

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Canon Personal Computer IBM PC compatible clone Advertisement 1985May the Clone Wars begin.

Here’s another obscure IBM PC clone from the depths of time, the Canon Personal Computer.

As I mentioned in a recent RSOTW, it was pretty easy — even within a few years of the IBM PC’s release — to undercut IBM price-wise by integrating ports and peripherals directly into the motherboard of a competing computer.

Note that the Canon PC used an Intel 8086 CPU, which packed the full 16-bit data bus (verses the 8-bit bus on the IBM PC’s 8088).

[ From TIME (Small Business USA Insert), May 6 1985, p.2]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Canon is best known for its imaging products, but it made computers too. Can you think of any other companies best known for something else that made a PC?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] MacCharlie’s FrankenMac

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Dayna Communications MacCharlie IBM PC accessory for Macintosh ad - 1985I’d like to have heard Steve Jobs’ reaction when he first saw this.

Long before Boot Camp and Parallels, if you wanted to run IBM PC compatible software on your Mac, you had to strap on this unholy contraption — the Dayna Communications MacCharlie.

If I recall correctly, the MacCharlie was essentially an IBM PC clone in a beige box that hooked to the Mac’s serial port. As a result, the Mac merely served as a serial terminal for the MacCharlie via custom terminal software running on the Mac. That’s not a particularly efficient setup, but the lack of expansion ports on the original Macintosh meant that there was no other reasonable point of entry.

Since it worked through the serial port, the MacCharlie could only run text-based MS-DOS applications. Conveniently, the MacCharlie shipped with a keyboard extender that added the IBM PC’s special function keys and a numeric keypad to the Macintosh keyboard.

[ From Byte Magazine, April 1985, p.71-73 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a hardware system adapter (something that lets you use software from one platform on another through hardware, not software emulation) for any computer system?

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] A 1985 Solid State Drive

Monday, November 5th, 2012

SemiDisk Solid State Disk SSD Disk Drive Emulator Ad - 1985This IS your daddy’s SSD.

Back in January, I traced the evolution of the Solid State Drive from its 1978 origins to the present in a PC World slideshow. From that experience, I learned that SSDs, as a product class, were far older than most people realize.

Case in point: Seen here is an advertisement for a 1985-era SSD called the SemiDisk. The company behind this early SSD, SemiDisk Systems, sold a wide range of “disk emulators” (as they were called back then) for platforms like S-100 bus systems, the TRS-80 Model 2, and the IBM PC. All of them used solid-state RAM chips to achieve read and write speeds far beyond those of rotating platter drives at the time.

The 2 megabyte SemiDisk for the IBM PC retailed for $1,795 in 1985. That’s about $3,860 today when adjusted for inflation. Amusingly, at that vintage price rate — about $1,930 per megabyte — a 256 GB SemiDisk SSD would cost over $494 million today. Yep, that’s a 494 followed by six zeroes.

Of course, you can buy a 256GB flash-based SSD right now for under $180. Not bad.

[ From BYTE, September 1985, p.329 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: When did you buy your first solid state PC drive? How big was it?

The Secret History of Microsoft Hardware

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The Secret History of Microsoft Hardware on PCMag.com

Microsoft’s recent announcement of its Surface tablet line has brought a lot of attention to the history of Microsoft’s hardware products. Unfortunately, most accounts of that history are sorely lacking, rarely going beyond Microsoft’s involvement in PC peripherals like mice.

I thought I’d remedy that gap in history by digging back into the past and bringing to light a forgotten era of Microsoft hardware — all of which, it just so happens, launched in the 1980s.

The result, “The Secret History of Microsoft Hardware,” is now live over at PCMag.com. I hope you enjoy it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Official IBM PC Desk

Monday, July 9th, 2012

IBM Synergetix Personal Computer PC Work Station Ad -  1983The IBM PC Workstation: Almost as small as a refrigerator.

Once upon a time, IBM made furniture.

Specifically, they created a custom folding desk for its IBM Personal Computer called the “IBM Synergetix PC Work Station,” which we see in the 1983 ad above.

IBM registered the trademark “Synergetix” in 1981 to cover its line of IBM PC-related furniture, which even included an official IBM PC Table and IBM PC chair. Big Blue let the trademark expire in 1989, which shows you how successful that idea was.

I’ve been trying to think of modern analogies to the IBM PC Work Station, and the closest I can come up with is Apple making a special cover for its iPad — although Apple’s Smart Cover has been popular and well-received. The Smart Cover also doesn’t cost $850 like the IBM PC Work Station did (that’s about $1,961 today).

[ From Personal Computing, November 1983, p.249 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever used a desk specifically designed for use with a computer?

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of shareware games. Specifically, I love shareware from the “golden age of PC shareware,” an era I just made up that roughly spanned 1988-1996.

And by “PC shareware,” in this case, I mean IBM PC compatible. I was not involved in shareware or BBS scenes for non-IBM computers, so I am not nearly as familiar with them.

With that in mind, take a gander at this new slideshow over at PC World in which I attempt to pick the The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time. Whether I have succeeded or failed is not exactly the point, because as I always say, you can never objectively rank greatness. But even if you don’t agree with my picks, it should provide a fun journey down memory lane.

When you’re done reading it, I’d love to hear from you guys — what are your favorite shareware games of all time? Feel free to bring other platforms into it if you want.

If you love shareware games, check out my 2009 interviews with the twin titans of PC shareware, Scott Miller of Apogee and Tim Sweeney of Epic MegaGames.

IBM PC 30th Anniversary Extravaganza

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Can You Do Real Work With The 30-Year-Old IBM PC 5150? at PCWorld.com

If you haven’t heard by now, the IBM PC platforms turned 30 years old today. On August 12th, 1981, IBM announced its new PC, the 5150, at a press conference in New York. It was a big deal then, and it’s an even bigger deal now. For the last 30 years, most of us have been using computers descended from a standard set in motion 30 years ago.

To celebrate this momentous anniversary, I’ve put together a few articles for PC World and Technologizer. The first is titled, “Can You Do Real Work With the 30-Year-Old IBM 5150?” A few weeks ago, I locked myself in a room with a vintage IBM PC 5150 to see if I could use it for real, modern computing work. That article spells out the results.

The second is something more predictable: IBM PC Oddities over at Technologizer. It’s the latest in my Oddities series of interesting and bizarre trivia slideshows for that site. If you’ve ever used a PC, you should enjoy it.

Then there’s the stuff at VC&G. I just posted a few thoughts on the IBM PC’s anniversary and an essay on history’s treatment of the IBM PC, and on Monday I posted a new Retro Scan of the Week that features a 1982 IBM PC ad. In turn, that Retro Scan post lists previous Retro Scan entries that deal with the PC.

Happy Birthday, IBM PC!

The Beleaguered IBM PC in History

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The IBM PC 5150

From the 1990s until very recently, the press has been generally unkind to the achievements of the first IBM PC. Due to the PC platform’s utter dominance of the personal computer market, popular accounts of personal computer history commonly paint IBM as the slow, lumbering, clueless enemy while cheering on spunky underdogs like Apple. I’m not even going to cite specific examples: Google “computer history.” Read. You will see it.

But that perspective is not fair at all. IBM truly pulled off something smart, savvy, and remarkable in designing the IBM PC 5150 (and the machines that followed it, into the PS/2 era). With the 5150, a team of 12 people took the machine from concept to shipping product in less than a year. And yet many focus on how IBM supposedly lost its way.

IBM PC KidMuch ballyhoo has been made, for example, about how IBM lost its grip on the PC’s direction as clones flooded the market. From a different perspective, that runaway-freight-train-of-a-platform is a success story for IBM.

While Big Blue lost market share to clone manufacturers, you have to keep in mind that IBM’s percentage shrank as the market size exploded. IBM fostered a rich PC standard that it kept reaping until it sold its PC division to Lenovo in 2004. IBM may not have kept steering the ship, but they sure made a lot of money in the cargo hold.

And if you think IBM’s influence on the PC standard ended in the early 1980s, think again. Real history is not so cut-and-dry. The PS/2 era (which dawned in 1987) gave us stalwarts like the PS/2 mouse/keyboard ports and, ah yes, that minor display technology called VGA. You can also thank the 1990s ThinkPad line for its part in streamlining the modern laptop.

Apple vs. IBM

The popular narrative of IBM vs. Apple in the 1980s, with its strong contrasts of Good vs. Evil and Hero vs. Villain was largely a creation of Apple’s marketing department. The image of Apple’s David verses IBM’s Goliath got repeated so many times that the press started using the supposed rivalry as the basis of dramatic stories. Humans need narratives to make sense of history, and writers have forced the PC market story into that archetypal mold.

Sure, IBM and Apple competed for dollars — and they may have even done it vigorously — but business is business. It’s not swashbuckling. The first thing you learn when actually studying computer history (i.e. interviewing folks) is that just about no one involved in creating these products thinks they were doing something so incredibly amazing that it should be turned into a movie. They were just doing their jobs, developing good products, and trying to make money like everyone else. When the project was over, they moved on to other things. That story is incredibly boring if you don’t dramatize it.

By using the IBM PC for a week for a recent article, I learned firsthand that the original PC really was an amazing machine for its time. It wasn’t just a generic box that happened to have an IBM logo on it, as some people argue. Sure, it didn’t have flashy graphics or a GUI, but it was solid, reliable, well-designed, and it was definitely the most qualified personal computer for getting work done in 1981. There is a reason it became a standard, after all — everyone imitated it, and they imitated it because it was amazing.

A Few Thoughts on the IBM PC’s Birthday

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The IBM PC Turns 30

When the IBM PC turned 20 back in 2001, I said to myself, “Really? It’s that old already?” I was honestly surprised. Now that the PC platform is 30 (as it just turned today), that age seems obvious. (“Thirty, you say? Sounds about right.”)

Computer technology has come a long way since 1981, and the last 10 years in PC land have been just as eventful as the first 20. We’ve seen the Internet’s social explosion, juice-sipping Intel Atom processors, netbooks, powerful sub-$500 desktop PCs, the iPhone, the rise of the consumer tablet computer, and — oh yeah — Macs are more like IBM PCs than ever, living their lives in an x86 world. PCs aren’t necessarily beige metal desktop boxes anymore (as they still were in 2001) — in fact, folks are more likely to buy a thin laptop computer in 2011.

My point, I guess, is that I’m glad the IBM PC is 30. It is probably time to move away from the paradigm set in motion by the Wintel duopoly in the 1980s, although we may never fully escape it on the desktop. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s time to try some new ideas in personal computing. And we are. With non-x86, non-Windows tablets and smartphones as influential as they are now, the winds of computing seem to be blowing 180 degrees away from the Intel-Microsoft PC platform. It’s exciting to think where those winds will take us in the future.

Great Moments in Shareware: ZZT

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

ZZT

Read any popular game publication these days, and you’ll probably come across ample mention of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, the 3D powerhouse behind blockbuster first-person shooters like Bioshock and Gears of War. Believe it or not, one of today’s hottest game engines traces its roots back to a 2D text-based game programmed by a University of Maryland college student during the golden age of shareware.

Tim Sweeney founded Potomac Computer Systems in 1991 with the release of ZZT, a graphical ASCII character-based game that ran on a simple object-oriented platform programmed by Sweeney. With an in-game editor, Sweeney created multiple ZZT episodes that he sold to finance the new company. Luckily, Sweeney didn’t limit the in-game editor to himself; it featured prominently on the title screen of the free shareware edition. Much to Sweeney’s surprise, the editor itself soon became the most popular part of ZZT, allowing players to create their own games in the ZZT engine. Potomac changed its name to Epic MegaGames, and a shareware giant was born.

ZZT Title Screen ZZT Game Screen ZZT Board Editor ZZT-OOP Code

A large community of rabid ZZT fans still thrives thanks to the Internet, where enthusiasts trade nostalgia, user-made games, and the latest attempts to squeeze every last drop out of the ZZT engine through emergent programming techniques. For example, clever world builders have managed to reproduce just about every major 2D game genre — even genres the engine wasn’t designed for — in ZZT‘s editor, albeit in primitive forms. For modern ZZT fans, the game’s fun lies not only in playing the community’s user-created games, but in the challenge of creating new and unexpected things with a simple set of tools and components.

The original shareware package of ZZT only included one game: Town of ZZT, a whimsical adventure created by Sweeney that calls upon a player’s action and puzzle-solving skills. But in the late 1990s, Epic released all of Sweeney’s classic ZZT episodes as freeware, so you’ll find those worlds in the file below as well, including Dungeons of ZZT.

Have fun. Feel free to share your fond ZZT memories (or latest ZZT exploits) with the rest of us.

(Update – 05/25/2009: If you love ZZT, check out this interview I conducted with its creator, Tim Sweeney.)

ZZT 3.2
Release Date: 1991
Author: Tim Sweeney (Epic MegaGames)
Platform: MS-DOS
Runs Best On: Any 286 PC or faster with MS-DOS
Notes:
Includes full Town, City, Caves, and Dungeons of ZZT episodes. ZZT runs pretty well on modern computers under Windows. You might also want to try running the game under DOSBox. Uses the PC speaker for sound.
– Download ZZT 3.2 – (175KB)