Memory Lane

Can you remember the first computer you ever used?

I remember playing with WordStar and SuperCalc on my Dad’s Osborne 1 when I was about 7 years old, and printing out stories I’d written on his Epson dot-matrix printer.

SuperCalc on the Osborne 1 in 1982 could resolve circular references, a feature Excel didn’t get until about 1995.

My first very own computer was a Dragon-32. The 32 was for how many kilobytes it had. Which was a bit of a con actually, only 16 of them were RAM, the other 16 were ROM.

I remember my Dad’s first ‘PC-Compatible’ computer. It was (I think) an Olivetti M24 with a green screen, and an ultra high-tech 20 megabyte Seagate hard disk. This was the cutting edge. It could store over 55 floppy disks of data! When the operating system and applications each came on a single 360 Kb 5.25 inch floppy, that seemed like more storage than anyone would ever need.

5.25 inch floppy disks really were floppy. You could fold them in half, or cut them up with scissors, although they didn’t tend to work too well afterwards. They came in paper sleeves with lots of warnings about things like not writing on the disks with pencils (always use a soft pen). Pencils are hard and could damage or penetrate the floppy plastic casing. Write protection was achieved by folding a small silver or gold sticker over a tab cut in the side of the disk.

I remember when my dad bought a daisywheel printer (actually an electronic typewriter with a printer port). Changing fonts meant putting in a different daisywheel. Bold text meant ‘hit each character twice’, giving them a slightly thicker appearance. That thing made some serious noise. It sounded like machine gun fire. I remember falling asleep listening to it hammering away at the other side of the house, and thinking ‘cool!’. The fact that you could enter stuff into the computer and have it typed out by this typewriter all by itself seemed amazing to me. Daisywheel printers were the de facto letter quality (LQ) printers, that near letter quality (NLQ) modes on dot matrixes tried to emulate. The daisywheel printer was the mainstay until HP brought out the LaserJet II. Another step change in printing technology. But less fun to watch.

The first family PC was an Amstrad 1512, which came with Digital Research’s GEM windowing environment. MS Windows was at version 1 and hardly anybody was using it. GEM was a victim of Apple’s vigorous legal campaign against encroachers on Mac territory (a fact I didn’t really appreciate at the time, being 11).

WordStar fell into difficulties, and was replaced by Microsoft Word for DOS, the first WYSIWYG word processor (as far as is possible on a DOS screen). Following Word was WordPerfect. Still the best word processor I’ve ever used, now owned by Corel. The latest version has a classic mode that recreates the original blue background and grey text of the DOS version. Superb.

Computers have always been tools of the trade for my dad, a chemical engineer. He buys them for their utility. Thing was, back in the 80’s, every new advancement had a direct and very real effect on productivity. He didn’t buy cutting edge stuff because it was cool, he bought it because it helped him do his work faster and better, thus enabling him to win more work. I of course just thought it was all really cool.

I am in many ways a child of the home computer revolution, having grown up at the same time as the industry, surrounded by its (now) historical artifacts. Sometimes I miss our mutual childhood, when everything was new and exciting.

Hilarious Hi Tech Cock Ups

One of the funniest ‘industry’ books I’ve read for a long time. Offers an interesting alternative perspective on such things as the rise of Microsoft, IBM’s repeated (inadvertent) efforts and ultimate success in killing OS/2 and the downfall of Ashton-Tate among others. I just lost most of a sunday reading it straight through. Laugh out loud funny – some of the appalling corporate stupidity that has been committed in the hi tech industry is just hilarious, albeit slightly tragic due to its vast, utter ineptitude.

In the interests of disclosure, this is my first foray into the amazon associates program. I figure I send enough money their way, maybe I can get some back in return 🙂

Reasons not use C

Just saw a program about the largest cosmological simulation ever, requiring 5 years, a 512 cpu supercomputer, a terabyte of RAM and producing 20 Tb of data. The head researcher described how they almost lost all the work due to an integer overflow, and then went on to explain how computers can’t count above 4 billion. Funny, my 1 cpu laptop with a mere thousandth of a terabyte of RAM can count to much more than 4 billion.

All of which tomfoolery just reinforces my opinion that, unless you’re writing an operating system, device driver, or similar then you have no business using C or C++.

SkypeIn + SkypeOut = SkypeBridge?

It would be really cool if Skype allowed SkypeIn and SkypeOut to be bridged, so I could have my Skype client running, and set it to dial my mobile phone (or whatever number I happen to be near) over SkypeOut whenever it received a SkypeIn call.

Even cooler if I could leave Skype running on my home broadband connection and send it commands via the web to change the number it calls when it gets an inbound call, thus allowing me to call the nearest phone to my physical location.

That would be truly awesome.

Office Open XML Standard not so open

Microsoft have announced their new ‘Open Standard’ XML file format for the next release of Office.

Being a curious sort, I went and had a look at the license here.

Where it all goes wrong for me is in the phrases below (emphasis mine):

Notwithstanding the foregoing, “Necessary Claims” do not include any claims: (i) that would require a payment of royalties by Microsoft to unaffiliated third parties; (ii) covering any Enabling Technologies that may be necessary to make or use any product incorporating a Licensed Implementation, or (iii) covering the reading or writing of files other than those complying with the requirements of the specifications for the Office Schemas. “Enabling Technologies” means technologies that may be necessary to make or use any product or portion of a product that complies with the Microsoft specifications for the Office Schemas, but are not expressly set forth or required in those specifications, such as general word processing, spreadsheet or presentation features or functionality, operating system technology, programming interfaces, protocols, and the like.

Not being a lawyer, I may be mistaken, but I interpret this to mean that the license explicitly does not allow competing productivity suites such as OpenOffice to read and write the new file formats. So much for openness then…