They don't make computer mags like they used to. (Reminiscence - software, stores and magazines) Tom Dwyer.
Ah, for the good old days--tomatoes grown from real seeds, cigars rolled from real tobacco, beer made by real brewers. And of course real computer magazines, magazines good enough to read and small enough to lift.
Nostalgia notwithstanding, there actually was a time when all the computer magazines had personality. Having them show up in your living room was like having the editors themselves drop in to express their sometimes controversial, but always fascinating, points of view.
There was, for example, the thin version of Byte with its genius for forging new frontiers as master-minded by Carl Helmers. Across town there was a rival mag called Kilobaud run by Wayne Green, a fellow who delighted his readers by taking on IBM, Tandy, and AT&T (or any other corporate gaint) each and every month. And of course, there was Dave Ahl's Creative Computing, never afraid to engage in a little leg pulling. In fact it was sometimes difficult to tell its infamous April 1 extravaganza from the "normal" issue.
Where are they now? How did (in the words of Minnie Floppy) "the frontal lobotomy crowd" get to take over? What brought on the avalanche of nothingness now found nestled in the folds of the dozen of slick newcomers that look as though they were all produced by a conglomerate called Puerile Press? And where the devil is Minnie?
One answer is that times have changed, and there's a new publishing need today, one "attuned" to a new readership. Another answer is that computer magazines are now big business, and the rash of instant imitators flooding the newstands is to be expected, especially when the dollar stakes involved are considered. Preserving Our Integrity
So much for the bad news. The good new is that in more than one case the style and flair of the early days of computer magazine publishing are alive and well. There is still plenty of distinctive "we'll do it our way" personality in oldies like Dr. Dobb's Journal and Creative Computing. There are also several middle-aged magazines (Microsystems and Compute!) that have preserved their integrity. The proof is in the continued value of their back issues. This has held up consistently over the years and is just as high for recent volumes.
As an example, the March 1984 issue of Creative contained 12 articles that gave "inside looks" at computer companies. These articles will undoubtedly make valuable source material when the history of this decade of computing is written. The articles were done with a professionalism and candor that is refreshing--especially when you consider the pressure on computer magazines to not risk offending their advertisers.
The ultimate test of a computer magazine, however, is in its technical content. And with all due respect to professional writers, the real gems in computer magazines have come from amateur contributors.
Such material can be particularly valuable to teachers and students (which, of course, includes all of us). For example, there was an article in the February 1984 issue of Creative by Kimball Rudeen called "Curve Design." I told my class in Computer Graphics about it, and we implemented versions of Kimball's Blended Parabola program for both the IBM PC and the Zenith Z100. (Incidentally, the Z100 is really a super color graphics system). For our purpose, this article was the nicest thing to come along since malted barley. Do Something Creative
But there's more. I then gave the following assignment: "Do something creative." "What does that mean?" they asked. "Well," I replied, "how about designing an interactive version of Kimball's program that integrates his blended parabola algorithm with the color-keyboard-mouse utility I gave you last week."
This utility (KBMouse) is basically a computerized etch-a-sketch program that allows use of different colors and paint brushes (including a spray can a la Lisa and Macintosh). The students' results with this assignment have been quite impressive. Creative Computing lived up to its name once again, helping a few dozen undergraduates at one university understand a little bit more about creative-versus-textbook learning.
For those of you who would like to try your hand at this same assignment and in the spirit of never ending a computer magazine article without contributing at least one useful idea, a listing of KBMouse for an IBM PC with the color graphics adapter appears on page 140. The program can be used as is or modified to become an interactive input module in another program (like Blended Parabola). Incidentally, the version we used on the Z100 is both simpler and better. Neither the SCREEN command nor the NUM LOCK hassle are needed; screen resolution is higher; and all eight colors are available. Even better results are possible on the Tandy 2000.