Confessions of a naked programmer. (Reminiscence - software, stores and magazines) Michael Shrayer.
It feels kind of funny writing a piece about the "good old days" of microcomputing. I see them more as the bad old days. This is a very progressive industry, and things are a lot easier now than they used to be--except marketing, perhaps, but marketing isn't my specialty.
In the old days, you had to hassle with front panels, hardwiring and hand entering monitor programs and cassette I/O routines via switches or numeric key pads. Nowadays, the hardest part is opening the bubble package the software comes in.
To me, making things easier has always been the name of the game. I think that is the way most people feel. Almost all of us look forward to the day when we will no longer have to go to an office to earn a living. The objective is to be able to work at home or not to have to work at all.
I see computers (and technology in general) making it possible for many of us to work at home in the near future. With high speed telecommunications, video recorders, holography and the like, why should anyone have to go to a particular locale to be "on the job"? In a few years, modern communications will be able to put you literally face to face with anybody in the world.
Personally, I achieved a state of independence years ago that freed me from the obligation to leave my house to go to work. Nero Wolfe, eat your heart out! Since I don't usually wear clothes in bed, a big problem (for me) is finding my bathrobe so that I don't freeze on my way to the next room where my work station is. But of course on warm days, even that is not a problem.
Actually, I prefer working in bed, but I find handling the computer a little awkward when I'm under the blankets. Maybe an improved version of the IBM PCjr keyboard will be the next step--an X-ray keyboard instead of infrared.
I work at home on tasks of my own choosing. If you are wondering why you haven't seen too many new Michael Shrayer products lately, it's because the software I write is so esoteric that I am the only person who cares about it. On Electric Pencil
A notable exception to this is IJG's IBM version of the Electric Pencil. Unlike all the other versions of Electric Pencil, the IBM version is not a rewrite of my original word processor. It was rebuilt from the bottom up. I worked on the design philosophy with Dale Buscaino and Scott Daniel of Progressive Software Design, and my old friend, Harvard Pennington of IJG. The result is a much better word processor than anything we had in the "good old days"--better than any other word processor I've seen around these days too.
There are many features in IBM Pencil that I never thought of putting in the older versions. It is not that the machines we had then weren't sufficiently powerful--many of them were. It is largely because I never did enough writing to appreciate fully the many features that writers find so very important.
I developed the original Electric Pencil to document something called ESP-1. At that time, I didn't even know that a product like Pencil was called a word processor. In fact, Electric Pencil was the first word processor ever written for a microcomputer.
I used Pencil to document ESP-1 and then itself. The Electric Pencil was always very popular. I think that's because my dedication to the ideal of eliminating all unnecessary labor from a task resulted in a product which was very easy to learn and use.
You may be getting the idea that all I am interested in is staying in bed and playing with computers. That's not at all the case. For instance, I have several hobbies. I have a ham radio license, and I have studied firearms. On Work
I am attempting to find a vocation that combines my various interests. I tried to get a job with the FCC shooting computers that emit too much TVI (Television Interference), but they were already swamped with applicants.
Speaking of jobs, I may be fostering another misimpression here. Some people think I am lazy. My late father thought that I never had a real job in my life. Actually, I have held a variety of jobs ranging from intense physical labor to pure cerebration. I also worked in the film industry for about 20 years, producing and directing commercials, industrials, and documentaries as well as TV and theatrical stuff.
The work I do now isn't easy, either. It doesn't have much practical application; it is not very physical; and I like to be as comfortable as possible while I'm doing it. But it is taxing mentally, as is any substantial programming project.
I always prefer to work in assembly language. I like to get right in there, up tight to the machine, and hug it. In the old days, you didn't have much choice.
As much as I like to knock the bad old days, I have to admit there was a level of excitement back then that is gone now. It really gives me a tingle to remember the adventure inherent in simply upgrading your system. On User Groups
Circa 1975, George Tate and I used to run around LA visiting every electronics surplus store we could find, looking for anything that smelled like a computer. Once we bought about 30 dilapidated Burroughs terminals. As you would expect, they were basically keyboards with CRTs.
We managed to scrounge about 20 good terminals out of the 30 junky ones. We figured they were good because they worked in the local mode. But we had no idea how to go about interfacing them with a microcomputer, or even if it was possible.
We brought them all to a meeting of the burgeoning Southern California Computer Society (SCCS), which was then meeting at TRW, and set the terminals out on a table. We informed the group of our ignorance about interfacing the things. Though no one there knew any more about the subject than we did, we still hoped we could sell a few. To our amazement, we sold most of them almost immediately.
The SCCS, by the way, grew by leaps and bounds. It seems to me that at one of the early meetings, there were just a few people, then scores at the next, and hundreds at the one after that. On Imsai
Imsai also had a meteoric rise. I remember looking at one of the first Imsais. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was its crudeness. The next thing I knew, Imsai was a giant.
When Imsai was still just an upstart, most of us had Altairs. Altair was made by MITS which was located in Albuquerque, NM.
Whenever people arrived in town after passing through Albuquerque, we would grill them for hours on what was happening there--was anything new being developed, when could we get more memory, etc. On New Computers
Nowadays, you can (within the constraints of your checkbook) upgrade your system whenever you like. You can buy disk drives, printers, whatever, and just connect them to your computer. We used to have to wait months just for a memory board.
When the Commodore Pet and the TRS-80 first came out, I wasn't very excited. Not many of us "old-timers" were. In fact, I hated the TRS-80; it insulted me. Nonetheless, I bought one of the earliest ones, almost by reflex. At that time, I was buying almost every new computer available.
Today it seems that five new computers are announced every week, but believe me, then it was a rarity. In spite of that, I never bought a Pet. I thought the TRS-80 might succeed by virtue of Radio Shack's jungle of retail outlets, but I didn't think that Commodore had much of a future. Live and learn. At least I was half right.
Another reason I stayed away from the Pet was that it ran a 6502. I have studied 6502 assembly language and have always had an aversion to it. I know people who claim that when similar routines are written in both Z80 and 6502 code, the 6502 versions are faster, more compact, and more readable. Those people remind me of the Forth fanatics who try to persuade me that Forth programs execute faster than their machine language counterparts--and of people who tell me why they buy Saabs.
Before you accuse me of being a Z80 diehard who refuses to get used to a new instruction set, you should know that I have a TRS-80 Model 16B at home, and when I saw what 68000 assembly language was like, it was love at first sight.
I do try to program in C, so that if, God forbid, I accidentally create something practical, I won't have to go through the same contortions I did with Pencil to adapt it to all the popular systems. But it takes iron discipline to keep myself from going back to programming the 68000 directly.
People who have spent their lives working with mainframes might look down their noses at Motorola's instruction set, but to someone with my background, it's heaven.
Which brings me back to the inescapable conclusion that no matter how nostalgic I may feel about the early days of our industry, it would be a misnomer to call them the good old days.
Now I have to transfer this file from my Model 100 to my Model 16B so I can save it to disk. Now let's see, where did I leave my bathrobe. . . .