Short cuts 63

by Paul Stephens

Paul Stephens takes a sideways look at the world of IT.

HardCopy Issue: 63 | Published: May 20, 2014

All our yesterdays

Misty-eyed nostalgia all round in the Short Cuts office this month as we read HardCopy Editor Matt Nicholson’s excellent book When Computing Got Personal: A history of the desktop computer.

The story begins in 1972, with Xerox scientist Alan Kay describing a hand-held, wirelessly connected device (the ‘Dynabook’) which was pure science fiction at the time but which bore a remarkable resemblance to the kind of large-screen smartphone that gets thrown in free with a £30 a month contract today. Clearly the period since then has been one of transition, but even if you were there at the time it’s easy to underestimate just how big an influence the hobbyist/garage sector had on first-generation microcomputer architectures, the staggeringly low power and capacity (by today’s standards) of those early devices, and the extent to which pure chance played a part in shaping the way things developed. Reading this book will put you straight, albeit at the cost of some sleepless nights worrying about how it might so easily have turned out.


IBM’s PC XT – a tough machine for tough times (picture: Ruben de Rijcke, CC licence).

Something that’s worth the cover price on its own is a definitive account (at last) of how Apple had the nerve to sue Microsoft for nicking the idea of the GUI from them when everyone knew that Apple had nicked it from Xerox in the first place. Opinion here at Short Cuts has tended to vary from ‘barefaced cheek’ to ‘cheek of a barefaced nature’, but deep down we knew there had to be more to it than that. The book explains exactly what it was, and whose cheeks were really being bared. (You’ll have to read it to find out!)

Another great mystery laid to rest is how the late Gary Kildall became the official Unluckiest Bloke of the Past 40 Years. In the late 1970s Killdall’s CP/M operating system had created the single OS, multiple hardware vendor market that IBM and Microsoft so successfully commandeered in the 1980s. It could have been CP/M running on that Big Blue hardware, but Gary passed on the option, leaving him in a situation similar to those who passed on the Beatles and JK Rowling, only a good few billions dollars worse off.

As the book explains, Gary did have his reasons, not least that the IBM guys turned up with a non-disclosure agreement which said that they couldn’t disclose who they were representing, while any product secrets he might disclose to them instantly became their mystery employer’s property. This didn’t, however, bother quick-witted young Harvard dropout Bill Gates, who didn’t actually have a product to disclose at that point, but knew where he could get one. The rest, as they say, is history.


Rule Britannia

Then, of course, there were the Brits. Sadly we stayed true to form, building brilliantly elegant designs that weren’t compatible with anything and were eventually swamped by cruder but strangely more effective products from our American cousins. Our most successful machine, in unit sales at least, was specified by the organisation that also brought us Play School (the BBC), while our highest-profile digital entrepreneur was, not to put too fine a point on it, Sir Clive Sinclair.

Sir Clive doesn’t come out of it all that well (although better than he did in the BBC docu-drama Micro Men, when comedian Alexander Armstrong played him as a half-crazed loon with a stick-on ginger beard). Builder of numerous home computing devices featuring Z80 processors and rubber keyboards (this was before he moved on to battery-powered trikes), he seems to have been obsessed with small size and low prices, but less so with whether the devices actually worked.


Once as popular as an iPad: the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

In the end his exasperated design chief, Chris Curry, left to form Acorn, the firm which built the BBC Micro and eventually, via a few twists and turns, became ARM, which today designs the processors which Intel would dearly (OK, desperately) love to replace in most people’s smartphones and tablets. The lesson for us Brits, it seems, is “do brilliantly elegant stuff, but leave the packaging, manufacturing and marketing to someone else.”

When Computing Got Personal covers a lot else besides, including the emergence (from a shadowy background) of the Internet, how Steve Jobs was sacked from Apple then came back and saved it, the rise of the open source movement and the modern day shift to mobile. Here at Short Cuts, however, we like it most because it reminds us of just how tough we had it back then. Next time we hear someone complaining that their phone only has 16GB of storage, we’ll be able to tell them that in 1983 an IBM PC XT cost $5,000 and came with a 10 MB (yes, ten megabytes) hard disk. Kids today don’t know how lucky they are. (OK, your job’s safe – Ed)