Sunday, December 19, 2004

The PC Birth

Although some may argue, today is the birthday of the Personal Computer.

It was the "Altair 8800".

It was offered as a kit officially on this date 30 years ago by Popular Electronics. The name, "Altair" came from a destination on a Star Trek episode. Ed Roberts, the guy who put it together, was a former Air Force Weapons Lab geek. He and Forest Mims III, had decided to use their knowledge to make a small computer for rocket enthusiasts.

The timing seemed to be just right. The electronics hobbyists were moving on to computers as more and more electronics turned digital, and yet they were frustrated by the low power and flexibility of the few kits that were already on the market. The Altair had enough power to be actually useful, and was designed around an expandable system that opened it up to all sorts of experiments.

Roberts needed to sell 200 over the next year to break even, but instead received thousands of orders in the first month including 200 in one day.

Within only six months, competition arrived with a keyboard, monitor, and a floppy disc controller. Apparently, Roberts spent an increasing amount of his time trying to "knock off" these competitors instead of improving the Altair. By 1976, there were a number of better built machines on the market, and his company was squeezed out of the market that he had created.

Early on, Roberts received a letter from a Seattle company asking if he would be interested in selling their BASIC programming language for the machine. He called the company and reached a private home, where no one had heard of anything like BASIC.

In fact, the letter had been sent by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and they had no BASIC to offer. When they called Roberts to follow up on the letter, he expressed his interest and the two started work. They figured they had 30 days before someone else beat them to the punch, and once they had a version working on the simulator, Allen flew to Albuquerque to deliver the program, Altair BASIC on a paper tape. Miraculously, it worked the first time, and Gates soon joined him and formed Microsoft, then spelled "Micro-Soft".

So you see, it really is the birthday of the Personal Computer.

Many of us remember that classic MAC commercial in 1984. It was a little "over the top" for most of the Super Bowl Fans though.

In the third quarter, this strange and disorienting advertisement appeared on the screens of the millions of viewers tuned in to this cultural yearly ritual. The ad opens on a gray network of futuristic tubes connecting blank, ominous buildings. Inside the tubes, we see cowed subjects marching towards a cavernous auditorium, where they bow before a Big Brother figure pontificating from a giant TV screen.

But one lone woman remains unbroken. Chased by storm troopers, she runs up to the screen, hurls a hammer with a heroic grunt, and shatters the TV image. As the screen explodes, bathing the stunned audience in the light of freedom, a voice-over announces,

On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984.


The commercial, directed by Ridley Scott fresh off his science fiction classic "Blade Runner", has never again run since that Super Bowl spot. (this will change)

But few commercials have ever been more influential.

Advertising Age named it the Commercial of the Decade.

It was a critical moment in the development of the American public's conception of personal computers. No longer were PCs just tools- utilitarian objects designed to facilitate specific tasks. With this commercial and the introduction of the Mac, they became full-fledged commodities - shiny (or dark) consumer products defined not just by their use value, but by the hopes and ideals attached to them.

With the 1984 ad, Apple identified the Macintosh with an ideology of "empowerment" - a vision of the PC as a tool for combating conformity and asserting individuality. Although Apple has not triumphed, (yet) Apple's vision of the power and potential of the personal computer has.

Happy Birthday PC


Anonymous Anonymous said...

who cares?

3:54 PM  
Blogger oZ said...

The reason I made this post is because one,
PCs are now 30 years old, older than most of us think,
and two, because part of my thesis on the cyberstate is the likelyhood of a a very advanced tool that allows for this new social contract to not just prosper but to spread like a wildfire.

9:38 AM  
Blogger John Hamre said...

In 1986, just a couple of years after the release of the first Mac, I began selling TRS-80 computers at Radio Shack. The computer had 8k of memory and no hard-drive and it sold for a thousand bucks. Back then there wasn’t even a set standard chosen for an operating system so everyone who sold computers had their own operating system. TRIS-DOS, as the TRS-80’s operating system was called, was actually a very efficient and reliable operating system.
As the years went by I was seeing the market move more and more into the BASIC operating system and every manufacturer started using it instead of the various others out there.
In 1996 IBM made one last futile effort to get out of the Bill Gates Windows monopoly by coming out with their own operating system. The once huge computer giant failed miserably at the promotion, as everyone at Radio Shack knew they would.
I still feel bad for the millions of people my old company sold those IBM machines to because those machines are worthless pieces of junk today.
BASIC did not become the standard operating system because it was better than the others, but because Bill Gates and his crew had some really great financial backers and promoters that helped build it up to what it is today.
I often wonder what additional advances we would have in the personal computer world today if had we been given a better operating system then what BASIC offers us.
Big corporate powers wins again.


1:43 PM  
Blogger oZ said...

big corporate power will continue to win until we create the new cybercoops and other new forms of social contract that can compete and neutralize there hegemony. But we cannot fight them on their turf. Rather, we should create a new playing field in which we have the home field advantage.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oz, please post something, for the love of humanity, something, where we can volunteer to help build this cybercoop. We have literally, 40 years to reverse radical climate change. In the Guardian today, there is an article that states that warming in Africa will be more deadly than HIV. We need to begin to teach the children... tell them how badly we have screwed up. Take the freakin Ipod off and listen to what we have done to your air and water.

9:30 PM  

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