How we trapped the dinosaurs. (Philosophy - how it ought to be) Lee Felsenstein.
Remember the wrist computer on the astronaut's arm in 2001 A Space Odyssey? With it its prominent IBM logo (in solar-wind resistant titanium oxide, obviously) it was the corporate Establishment's subliminal promise of the great future that was to come--as long as we let them have a free hand. Just imagine, wrist computers! Pretty heady stuff it was for 1967.
Many of us were then starting to shed our adolescent views of technical development as we moved from the educational system into the lowest levels of the production system. Many of us quickly noticed that our noble managers knew less about the technologies with which we were working then we knew. We also started to see that the business of Business was making money, not products, and that if they could make money with turkey products then we would be put to making turkey products and nothing else.
And we discovered that the Big Boys of the computer industry were not after all engaged in a race to get the best computers to the most users at the lowest cost but were instead playing marketing muscle games to lock in the biggest proportion of users to the highest cost computers possible. It began to remind us of another big movie of 1967, The President's Analyst, in which a new superpower is discovered to be the Phone Company, with evil designs for exceeding the plots of any mere nation.
So we did the only thing we could under the circumstances. We learned as much as we could about our technologies and kept alive our sci-fi dreams of a future when everyone could have a computer, and no one be locked out of all the fun and fascinating things we knew could be done with computers.
Never mind that those things were not very well thought out or that most people didn't consider them fun. We hadn't spent all that time learning all that stuff because someone had asked us to. It had a beauty all its own which we could understand and which we wanted to share with everyone. This was a basic artistic impulse which is expressed wherever people live. Sharing the News
There were a few means of newsletters like People's Computer Company and small magazines like Creative Computing. Through these we discussed game software, hardware like Don Lancaster's TV Typewriter, Carl Helmers' Experimenter's Computer System ESC-8, and the Mark 8 8008 computer kit. We read, or at least pored over Ted Nelson's Computer Lib/Dream Machines, extracting as many nuggets of computer science as we could handle.
I was fortunate enough to participate in a public access computer project which demonstrated graphically, to me at least, the absolute need for and effectiveness of personal computers. In my view a public access computer system would not be feasible until every piece of computer hardware in it had a computer club about it. Then, or so I theorized, the problem of a centralized maintenance and support structure would be solved. I began to do my duty as an engineer in 1974 by defining preliminary specifications for the kind of hardware I thought would qualify as honey for that kind of bee. I called the concept the Tom Swift Terminal and distributed a mimeographed description.
Then, with the sudden ferocity of events overtaking the dreamer, we were in the midst of the explosion. Advent of the Altair
When Altair 8080 Computer Kit appeared in January 1975 we scrutinized the diagrams in the article, discovering that it was a simple design that had obviously not been finalized. In March the first sample arrived in the San Francisco area, and the Homebrew Computer Club galvanized around that unit (serial number 8). A bus structure, no I/O available, more money needed, software of all sorts essential--this was raw, standardized opportunity. And nobody was looking! We could do anything we wanted to.
What happened in those "unforgettable next two years" (as Ted Nelson presciently called them in a 1976 address) was that thousands of people sank their own money into learning about computers in the hardest and best way--by trying to build or program them from elements which were barely adequately at best. Hundreds of people became sufficiently involved in attempting to produce new hardware and software that they became participants in a kind of group sport. Like athletes, they strove to do what had never been done, to exceed their known limits and to share their success and efforts with each other in the hopes that all would gain. The reward was triumph, not money.
It is this atmosphere of design as sport that I consider to the most important aspect of the early microcomputer days. The parallels are not exact, but I compare it with what I know of the early days of aviation. The people who created this atmosphere capitalized it themselves, so they were not subordinate to money men. They made many blunders, companies started and folded on a shoestring, but the people involved kept coming back for more, and in this way they formed the infrastructure of the microcomputer industry.
We ran ahead of the lumbering giants of the computer industry and frantically staked out our territory. We learned as pioneers must to rely on each other for support. When the dust cloud neared and the dinosaurs hove into sight we were prepared--and we prevailed.
In 1978 IBM put its foot over the line and said "that's mine" with the 5100, a breadbox-size wonder of incompatibility that epitomized The IBM Way. They don't like to talk about what happened to them. In 1981 they returned with the 5150 (the PC) and with it they followed the rules we had laid out. Anyone can play, these rules read, but you must make your architecture and executive code as public as possible, and you must encourage individuals to write programs and create add-ons. You can play games, but you must help others to play as well.
We didn't give the corporate Establishment free rein in the hopes that they would bless us with innovations. We trampled all over their organized ways of doing things. It was a lot of fun, and I think it can be done again, where technology can be implemented on a small or intermediate scale by people who treat it as an art and a sport.
As an early Mad magazine quipped; "fools rush in--and get the best seats!"