Provincialism as a Factor in the Survival of User Communities:
Necessary But Not Sufficient
Necessary But Not Sufficient
Essay by Alan Sharkis, Contributing Author
I'm an Atari 8-bitter, and I belong to two user groups. One group supports all Atari computers; the other is exclusively 8-bit. These groups represent one extreme and the middle of the range. The other extreme is the club that supports all computers. I feel we need the entire spectrum for the survival of our Classic Ataris. I also feel that individual users must have a little of each philosophy in their makeup if the 8-bits are to survive.
While the Atari 8-bit is my main computer, I also use an MS-DOS machine at home and an Apple IIc on the job. The Atari 8-bit wasn't the first computer I ever used. My first experience with computers was learning a little COBOL on a Burroughs 6800 mainframe running an IBM 360 emulator and virtual memory. When the time came for our family to have a computer, we researched the available ones very thoroughly and chose the Atari 800. Our budget and needs were such that disk storage took a back seat to an 850 interface and a very capable Okidata 92 printer. Cassette storage proved to be frustrating, so after a couple years we shelled out for a 1050 disk drive.
Atari 8-bits were the leaders in those days; Commodore had not yet made its challenge strong, and Apple II's weren't "your average home computer" because of their high prices. My sources of software and news were magazines and occasional visits to software stores. I hadn't yet joined a user group or bought a modem. I learned about the 800-its endearing qualities and its faults-in virtual isolation. After awhile, when it became very attractive, I opted for a 130XE, which I still use.
Later, I acquired a modem and began to explore what other Atari 8-bitters were doing. A friend took me to a user group meeting, and I joined soon after. (I've since left that club, but only because of geography.) I was exposed to the Apple IIc when my office gave me one to use with the homebound youngsters I teach. Here, too, there was a strong emphasis on telecommunications. Soon I became aware of the fact that all computers can share text files. I also became aware of the fact that many local BBSs and commercial information services had file areas for computers other than their own platform. Different types of computers began to occupy different niches in the market. I began to see some advantages in being familiar with more than one type of computer. I learned the mechanics of translating text files prepared on one computer for use on another.
Many users didn't want their machines to be special-purpose machines. They put pressure on software houses to "port" applications that would run on a different machine than their own. Graphical user interfaces, provided by software, were running on machines that didn't have native graphical user interfaces. Machine emulation also seemed to become a worthy goal. Perhaps its greatest successful expression to date has been seen in the Macintosh, Atari 8-bit and MS-DOS emulators that run on the ST. Emulation fascinated users. It also provided man-hours of work and dollars of profit for their creators. The success of the ST XFormer (the 8-bit emulator that runs on the Atari ST) shows that ST users still find some value in 8-bit software.
New Hardware for Old 8-Bits
Let's turn that around. Several companies are now making interfaces for the 8-bit, allowing it to use "standard" IBM-type storage devices. This shows that 8-bitters are interested in using existing and widely-available equipment to enhance and insure.the longevity of their machines. Hard drive users in the 8-bit community have known that for a long time. Concerning floppies, Atari Corp., wittingly or not, contributed to that trend by putting an industry-standard floppy drive mechanism in their XF-551 disk drive!
I purchased my IBM clone when I began to write materials for the Board of Education. These had to be presented as disk files that could be read by their machines. Very soon, I had converted virtually everything I had ever written on any machine to MS-DOS, Atari 8-bit, and Apple IIc formats. My null-modem cables (which I made up) and A/B switchboxes were doing yeoman service. I admit that writing and telecommunicating seems more convenient for me on the MS-DOS machine. But I still do those things on the Atari, and I still use the Atari for every other computer task.
What about using one computer to serve another? I use Nick Kennedy's SIO2PC to make my MS-DOS machine a multiple RAMdisk and disk drive emulator for my 8-bit. The RAMdisk images can be stored as MS-DOS files on 1.44Mb floppies, or even on the MS-DOS machine's hard drive. Somewhere, gathering dust in my archives, I have a Commodore BASIC software emulator that runs on my 8-bit and someone's unfinished software Apple II emulator for my IBM clone. I'm not interested in emulation for its own sake.
Sampling Other Environments
There are individuals and user groups in the Atari 8-bit community for whom their machine is the only one that exists. My friends with C-64's and other machines tell me that's also true in their communities. That kind of fanatical devotion is necessary if any computer will survive beyond the end of its manufacturer's support. But, is that kind of fanaticism sufficient for the machine's survival? I think not. Atari 8-bitters (and Coleco Adam, Apple II, Timex-Sinclair, TI-99, C-64 and a host of others) would do well to expose themselves to the capabilities of other computers. In the process, they could expose users of other computers to the unique qualities of their preferred machines. Mutual respect of each other's computer, not "Machine Wars", would be the goal.
If you use a computer to retrieve or distribute information, the platform you use shouldn't be a barrier to that process. The fact that the industry never standardized ASCII codes above decimal 127 allowed computer manufacturers to develop their own graphics and other alternate character sets. It also made translation necessary among the different machines. But clever programmers, working in all machine environments, have gotten around that. Suppose you found a text file on a nutritional topic on some BBS. It might save the life of a family member. Would you refuse to download it if you discovered the author had prepared it on a Macintosh?
Provincialism in Clubs
Let's return to the idea that provincialism is sufficient to save our 8-bit Ataris. I maintain that provincialism alone is not only insufficient for the survival of our machines, but it might work against that survival. For example, I know people who've decided they'll never so much as look at an MS-DOS machine-or a Mac, ST, or Amiga. My 8-bit club has some members who've expressed similar attitudes. The upside is that this devotion fuels the energy of club members who constantly work to attract new members from among the isolated Classic Atari users out there. The group is the greatest single source of information about my 8-bits I've ever encountered. This is due to the contributions of all the members, some of whom telecommunicate as I do.
Yet, the very nature of group activities in a club can also help dissipate provincialism by expanding the horizons of the isolated user. Our club maintains an active newsletter exchange. We accept corresponding members, and we grant honorary memberships to great contributors in the 8-bit world. We lend monetary support to a sister club's BBS, since we can't support our own. And, for the most part, we're open-minded about our members trying other machines.
We're confident most of them will still respect the 8-bit above the others. Individuals and clubs that stay narrowly focused in their own little world and don't explore the broader environment wind up bemoaning a diminished software supply and a shrinking user base. We might not lose them to another machine, but we'll lose them to their own pessimism about the 8-bit.
Some of those pessimists display their xenophobia toward other computers because they've heard that newer machines have capabilities exceeding those of their beloved Atari 8-bits. They steadfastly advise other 8-bitters to act as they do, perhaps out of fear their fellow 8-bitters will "desert the cause", further depleting our user base. But if the pessimists expanded their horizons through contacts with others, they would know we still have dreamers and creators like Chuck Steinman, Bob Puff, Wes Newell, and Bob Woolley. Their contributions to our market have vastly expanded the capabilities of our machines, allowing them to keep pace and take advantage of today's rapidly evolving technology. No one said the capabilities of the Atari 8-bit have been, or will ever be, exhausted. I still marvel at the graphics screens done by our 8-bit friends in Germany and Holland. They rival anything that "more capable" computers can do.
Exploring New Machines
Can you get to like a new machine that you're trying out? You might not like it. Your familiarity with the 8-bit might stand in the way of operating the new machine. You might discover that it lacks conveniences and features you've grown to like in the Atari. Have you wasted your time? Not at all. You've simply reaffirmed the rationale for staying with your 8-bit.
What if you do like the new machine? You might find it endearing for one or more specific tasks it performs extremely well, or because of the demands of your work. What if you decide that you actually want and need it? If your overriding needs say that you must buy one, your 8-bit will still be useful for many tasks. Consider leaving it set up, particularly if it has served you as well as mine continues to serve me. But it would be a balanced judgement based on experience with other environments rather than the blind provincialism of an isolated devotee.
[Editor's Comment: The arguments presented byAlan Sharkis in this essay lay a significant cornerstone of the philosophical foundation of this magazine. Alan is the Newsletter Librarian of the Ol' Hackers Atari User Group.
Atari Classics exemplifies the spirit of Alan's essay. The idea for this magazine was born from an on-line telecommunications exchange and wouldn't have gotten very far without the support of usergroups all over the world. Primary storage media for this magazine presently consists of a cluster of four IBM-style 1.44meg 3.5" floppies driven by the Computer Software Services Black Box/ Floppy Board attached to a 256K 800XL and augmented by a CSS dual upgraded XF-551 that reads/writes 360K 5.25" floppies and 720K 3.5" floppies. Our Managing Editor learned FORTRAN and BASIC on an IBM 360/370 timeshared mainframe and uses a Mac-SE and DEC VAX mainframe at work. I also own an Atari STe with Mac emulator. But I still prefer the 800XL. -BP]