Zaron and the art of motorcycle maintenance. (Reminiscence - software, stores and magazines)
Q: You often refer to computer programmers as computer artists. Lots of people would see computer programming as dry and technical. What is artistic about computer programming?
Ed Zaron: Good computer programmers have individual styles as all artists do. A programmer has as many choices in programming a word processor or game as a painter has in painting a still life or a writer has in writing a love story. It is in making those choices that the programmer develops his own style and rhythm and becomes an artist.
Q: Before you got into computers, did you have any forms of creative expression?
E.Z.: Sure. It probably started with Lincoln Logs, putting them together, taking them apart. Then I graduated to mechanical things like clocks and toys, and then I got into motorcycles. When I started to modify and re-design motorcycles, that's when I became a kind of motorcycle artist. But later I found out that computer programs are like the ultimate motorcycle. The parts don't cost anything. If you need more, you just hit your keyboard; your hands don't get dirty; and if it doesn't work or if you don't like the way you put it together, you just throw the parts away and start all over again. It's pure. Good ideas in . . . Creative programs out.
Q: How did you get from motorcycles to computers?
E.Z.: I went into the Air Force in 1964 and in 1965 I had heard about computers so I got myself into a computer class. And I liked it. I figured if anybody was going to pay me to have fun, I'd be more than happy to do it. So when I got out of the service I applied for a job at Commercial Credit as a programming trainee. I remember it was a Friday and they said well, we have a class starting Monday, but you're too late to get into it. But they said if I wanted I could take the test and if I passed they would call me in six months for the next class. So I took the test and I got the highest score they had ever seen. They put me in that next class Monday morning and I fell in love with the whole thing. I graduated with the highest grade in the class and I knew for sure I was where I belonged.
Q: So at this point you're into computers. How did Muse Software happen?
E.Z.: Well, mostly it was a lot of fun. I guess it all began one day at work back in February of '78. Silas Warner worked there, too. He was just an acquaintance of mine, and I mentioned to him that I was going to buy an Apple computer that night and how excited I was about it. But I really didn't know him that well. After work I went to the computer store. I brought the computer home, and I was taking it out of the box when the doorbell rang.
It was Silas! I barely even knew him, and he just walked right in to see my computer. Well, Silas is the kind of guy who can rub a manual across his chest and understand it completely. It is not uncommon to see him reading three books folded one inside the other. So he sat down in front of my computer and started to write programs. I just sat there and watched.
Well, hours went by and I was just watching. Finally I said, "Umm, Silas, I have to go to a party." He said, "That's okay. I'll lock the door when I leave." Now I couldn't believe this was happening, but I went to the party, and when I got home around 1:00 a.m. Silas was still there. He had a couple little games running on the computer. One of them he called the Apple Tree, and to play it you had to catch apples falling off a tree. A simple game, but he had written it the first night he had touched the computer. He bought a computer the next day, and we began hanging out together.
Q: Sort of the first Apple Users Group, you and Silas?
E.Z.: I guess we were. I just fell in love with the computer. I would think about it all day at work, and when I would get home I would drop my jacket on the chair next to it and sit down and work until I couldn't stay awake any more. Go to sleep, go to work, come home, sit down at my computer again. Some time in February I finished a game called Tank War, and Silas finished a maze game. So we took them to computer stores and were just amazed. People would gather around to see our games and sigh and go "oooh" and "aaah" as they saw their first software. It was a great thrill. Oooh and aaah. Really. It was just like that. It makes you feel so good when people like it.
Q: What was on the market at that time?
Q: Not even Pong?
E.Z.: There was a Pong game and a Breakout game. But people had already seen them in the arcades. And even in the arcades they were very basic compared to what Silas and I were coming up with for home use.
Q: How much did you sell back then?
E.Z.: We sold a couple. We'd sell a couple here and a couple there. At that time there weren't many stores to sell in. By April we had half a dozen programs done, so I went to the Trenton State Computer Fair in New Jersey. I went up there with an old folding card table, a lawn chair, and my computer--and the programs. They had a flea market in the parking lot, and the gymnasium was set up like a trade show. But I couldn't afford to get inside for the trade show. I ran an extension cord through the window and set up my own little booth on the sidewalk and caught people going in and coming out. I remember the excitement at the end of the day. My son was with me, and we had sold $360 worth of cassette tapes. We were amazed.
Q: Cassette tapes? Not on disk?
E.Z.: There were no disks at the time. It was interesting, too, the way we made those tapes. We'd load the program into the computer, and it would take two minutes to dump the program onto tape--these programs were not very long either. Then we'd spend two minutes loading each copy to test it. One night after spending four hours making copies, I went to test them and found out I hadn't even had the cassette machine plugged in. I stayed up all night more than once.
Q: It sounds like you started Muse on a shoe string.
E.Z.: I did. I remember I did the packaging for Tank War for $17. To do all the advertising and promotion you have to do these days costs between $20,000 and $40,000. And those are just the starting costs--just to get the program to the distributors and into the stores for their first order.
Q: How does a programmer--a computer artist--get started today if he doesn't have $20,000-$40,000 to get going?
E.Z.: It's like writing a book. You don't have to be a publisher to write a book. When I started there weren't any software publishers, so I had to build the whole thing myself. But now you can write a good program and take it to a software publishing company to see if they'll put it on the market. If they like it they arrange to publish it and pay royalties just like in the book or record business. If they don't like it, they give you a critique and help you figure out how to make it better--at least I know Muse will.
Q: What kind of computer school should an aspiring young computer artist go to?
E.Z.: I don't think it's absolutely necessary to go to computer school. Maybe the best training is to get into that computer and learn it for yourself just as the best way to learn to ride a motorcycle is to jump on. You will find ways to do things that nobody has ever seen before. That's how John Kutcher did it. He just bought a Commodore 64 and went to it. He learned the whole thing himself.
Q: Who is John Kutcher?
E.Z.: He is a 17-year-old prodigy. He wrote two dynamite games we published. One is called Rescue Squad, and the other is Space Taxi. They are brilliant pieces of work, and perhaps by the time this article is published, they will be best-sellers.
Q: What makes him so exceptional?
E.Z.: John has a very rare combination of talents. He can relate to what the consumer wants, he is disciplined and he is creative. There are many ways those characteristics can interfere with each other, but John has them all in the proper balance.
Q: One final question. Why do you like motorcycles so much?
E.Z.: For the same reasons I like computer programs even more. They are streamlined. Generally speaking, the simpler the better. The trick is to build a lot of power into a small and maneuverable space. And they represent a sort of freedom. A kind of zest and excitement. That's the kind of motorcycle I like. And that's the kind of software I design and publish.