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Topic #26
Where did we want to go today?

My first computer was a Macintosh.

Actually, that isn’t quite true. My first computer was a TI-99/4A which was connected to the only color television in the house which, if memory serves, was picked up for $20 at a tag sale or something. It was all of the rage… 4K of ram, a BASIC interpreter built into the chipset, a cassette drive for saving programs and a cartridge slot for video games and to load new programming languages. I loved that little bugger… and spent hours programming on it. However it was extremely limited… the machine only understood BASIC and the tape drive was less than reliable. Add to that the fact that it didn’t have a printer, and nobody else that I knew had one.

My next machine was a Trash-80 Model 3 (That’s the old Tandy Radio Shack 80, also known as the TRS-80&#41, which I got from (of all places&#41 my summer camp. You see, they were upgrading their registration system, and someone knew that I was a computer geek… and they were just planning on trashing the old model 3s… so they gave it to me.

The TRS-80 was technically my first grown-up computer. It had dual 5.25” floppy drives and a built-in glowing green-on-black monitor. The TRS-80 also had the CPM Operating System built in, and you could load any interpreter via floppy, meaning that you could use it to program in all of the cool languages of the day: LOGO, Fortran and Pascal. The TRS-80 was great, because the town library had all of the good games for it (like the predecessor to ZORK&#41, and you could check them out for a week (just like a book&#41.

We had a brand new computer lab in my Middle School, which had about twenty Atari 8-bit computers installed for our use. Essentially, they were worthless, as the school decided that the only programming language they would teach is BASIC, and since I knew as much as the teacher at that point, the class time was spent by me playing video games and helping out the other students.

When I was in 9th grade, my mother helped soften the blow of having to move to West Hartford by buying me a Macintosh Classic. In my mind, this was my first real computer.

The Mac Classic was everything this little proto-geek could want. 2 Megs of ram, a 800kb (internal&#41 and a 1.44mb (external&#41 floppy drive, an Imagewriter II color printer with a Thunderscanner (this little device that you plugged into the Imagewriter which turned it from a printer into a scanner&#41 and the best thing in the world… a 1200 baud Practical Peripherals modem.

The modem threw me into the online world. I would spend every night holed up in my room dialing out to BBSes and Compuserve. Then I was given the Holy Grail… the one thing that set me apart from all of the other squabbling proto-geeks in West Hartford: an internet account. You see, a friend of mine went to the University of Hartford, and he was able to arrange for me a dial-in account on the University of Hartford’s VAX system. I now had the ability to send email around the world, participate in MUDs ad MUCKs, chat with people on IRC and my favorite… read the USENET News Groups.

I remember the early days of reading comp.sys.macintosh (I think that was the name of the group&#41… back when the Newsgroups were the real source for information exchange on the net… before the http protocol or the web even existed. We would talk about everything… but our favorite thing to do was dis on Bill Gates and Microsoft.

You see, in the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I came across a second-hand IBM Clone. It sucked. It was big and clunky and was horrible to use. However, it did have a 300 MB Hard-Drive, which was considered massive at the time. That, and it had an EGA Color adapter and monitor. Hmm… a hard drive, a color monitor and a modem… now what would an enterprising kid do with all of that…

So, for the next year or so, this computer would become the focal point of all of my friends, because I had a massive collection of nudie pictures on the system. Now, don’t get me wrong… it’s not like what’s out there on the net now… it was mostly scanned pictures of topless models from European magazines stored in 16 color low-resolution .gif files. Still, these topless photos became the new baseball cards to trade for me and my 14 year old friends. We would spend hours calling into the BBSes around the Greater Hartford area trying to find the latest and greatest pictures. It was something to bond over.

Still, other than the color monitor, this pieces-parts PC sucked. I would post about my trials and tribulations of using the ol’ PC on the Mac Newsgroups. We would mock the fact that it didn’t have a Graphical User Interface and that all of the filenames needed to be 8 letters long (or less&#41. We mocked how often it crashed. It was then that I decided that I would never be sucked into the cult of Microsoft.

When I sold my Mac so Janet and I could afford to pay rent when we first moved in together, I used some of the money and bought an Amiga 1000. What an amazing machine that thing was! It was fast and had great graphics… and oh… the games! It was better than what I could find at the arcade! That Amiga was my primary computer for almost two-and-a-half years until Janet and I moved out to West Virginia. At that point, we bought a PC Clone because one of the classes we had required that we had a machine that ran MS-DOS. Plus, we needed something with a printer for our school work. We had to face it: the Amiga just couldn’t cut it for a school computer.

Geez, we hated that PC Clone! The only time we would even turn it on was to write papers (using the GEOS Note Writer, for the GEOS Operating System… 'cause I wouldn’t use Windows 3.1, as I was still anti-Gates at that time&#41 and connect to Prodigy to send emails. As soon as we had enough credit to get an Apple Credit Card, we dumped the clone and bought a Mac Classic II with an HP Ink-jet Printer. We sold the clone and were finally Microsoft Free!

After moving to Boston a few years later, I got a job in a Macintosh Hard Drive OEM (the people who put the drives into the cases and sold them at a terrific markup&#41… and my IBM/Steve Gates hatred continued. When we briefly ventured into the IBM side of the market, we would spend afternoons in tech support complaining about how poorly DOS and Windows handled SCSI CD-Rom Drives. We all hated IBM. The few PCs on our network (used for inventory management&#41 constantly crashed, and we couldn’t figure out why people would spend good money on these systems.

Up until last year, that Mac Classic was the only machine that we owned… but I had crossed over to the dark side at work. They gave me a laptop running Windows 95 and a 28.8kbps modem so I could work from home. More and more, Janet and I would use the laptop instead of the Mac which was now collecting dust on my desk. We tried to counteract it by purchasing a NeXT Slab, one of the finest UNIX machines ever made (which is now the foundation for the new Apple OS&#41… but it was too hard to resist, and we bought the parts to build a PC last year.

1300 words later, you can see that I am not a Mac Cultist or a Microsoft Junkie. I am, however a long term computer user, geek and technologist. So, you might ask (based on the actual topic of this week’s Topic of the Week&#41, what does Avery think about Microsoft / Bill Gates?

Ok… here goes. Gates is a Marketing and Legal genius. Back when IBM was evaluating a whole slew of different Operating Systems, he sold them on MS-DOS. Now, did Bill create MS-DOS? No. He licensed it from DR Systems. Does it matter? No.

Gates used his Sales and Marketing savvy to attach his technology to the industry giants: Intel and IBM. IBM would only use Intel Chips for its PCs, and MS-DOS would only support Intel Processors. He essentially created the PC industry.

Where were the Steves at this time (Wozniak and Jobs&#41? They were in their garages making the better computer with the better operating system. Unfortunately, while they were scraping together the capital to do the hardware development… Gates was using IBM to sell his technology to the masses.

Gates was never the innovator. He saw where the wind was blowing, let the “bleeding edge” companies figure out where the technology was going, and if someone came up with something that sold, they’d either buy it or make an analogue.

I admit it: Apple Better. Microsoft Smarter.

If I were king, I’d be running an Intel box with the OpenStep or BeOS Operating System… but I need a system where I can use my work files easily… that means that my primary home system needs to be a PC running MS Windows.

So, once I took that deep breath and accepted Microsoft back into my home, I realized that it isn’t all that bad. Sure it crashes, but no more than my old TRS-80 did.

When I went to evaluate PDA, I wanted to fall in love with the Palm Pilot… but for $350, it was just a black-and white low-resolution machine that reminded me of the blocky 16 color porn that I used to look at on my old EGA monitor. I evaluated the available systems, and eventually decided on the Philips Nino, which runs Windows CE. Now I always have a little piece of Gates on me where ever I go.

It’s sad. My Nino has 1000 times the RAM of the old TI-99/4A that I started off on over 15 years ago. Hell, my watch has 3 times the RAM of the old TRS-80 that I used to program on.

The funny thing is: now that I’ve finished this Topic of the week and am looking back at the last fifteen years of computing and the internet, I think I’d happily give it all up and go back to an old VT100 terminal attached into a UNIX system via a 2400 baud modem. I’d gladly make Scowl, Nu? an Internet accessible BBS system with message boards and text files for the daily entries into the Barfly Chronicles…

…and just for you, maybe I’d even dig up some of those 16 bit .gifs that I know you like so much.

Hallelujah! Someone — someone who is not one of our friends or family — actually suggested a topic for the Topic of the Week. This person wanted to know what we thought of Bill Gates. When I read that question I thought, "Bill Gates, Bill Gates…what do I think of Bill Gates anyway?" Turns out that I haven't really thought of Bill Gates very much at all, I guess.  He seems more like a myth than an actual person; a collective of minds, an untouchable. But is he an untouchable because he's brilliant…or because he's rich?

The man is intelligent, there's no doubting that. He's the CEO of one of the biggest household names in the world, largely because of his thinking, his problem solving, his business savvy and, to a smaller extent, his good luck charms. The reward for this, in America anyway, is money. So much money, in fact, that he and his wife and his little daughter could go on shopping sprees until the cows came home and they still couldn't spend it all.

But he earned it, right? In the past, everyone mocked him because he was a geek with mismatched clothes and a bad haircut; now he's a billionaire and everyone mocks him because he's a cocky success story with a bad haircut AND because that's really all we can do in 1999. But he didn't just stumble upon his fortunes when taking a walk through the pines while contemplating DOS one day. Sure, there are too many zeros on his bank statement. Sure, he can do whatever his heart desires whenever it desires it. But what are we going to do, make him give it away?

It's funny how society thinks that Bill Gates, someone who has changed technology and therefore the world (for the better or for the worse, it doesn't matter&#41 has too much money, but no one would even dare utter those words about our more-than-a-little-wealthy sports "heroes" who do little else than run around a squared-off piece of land.

Personally, I don't really mind Bill Gates. I haven't really followed any Microsoft news to any great extent, and to tell you the truth, when I found out that he was this week's topic, I tried to bone up on my Gates Trivia by doing a search for "Bill Gates" via Yahoo (which was a mistake, as there are about seventeen gazillion websites that have some type of Bill Gates information on them.&#41 See, while Avery has a great deal of interest in computers and technology (and always has&#41, I was a relatively "late bloomer" computer-wise. Years ago, I remember Avery introducing me to the joys of BBSing well into the wee hours of the night. I consider this the primitive precursor to the web, when the coolness factor had more to do with how many phone lines that the SysOp had installed in his basement (50 lines! Never busy!&#41 and how many cool games were available for downloading and nothing at all to do with thought-provoking journalistic content.

I then took some Quark and dBase III classes in college while I was going through my "computers are the anti-Christ" phase. Quark. dBase III. Lotus. Does anyone use these programs anymore? Do any help-wanted ads list these as a pre-requisite for an entry-level administrative job? No! Why? Windows! MS Office! Bill!

I cut my technological teeth on Microsoft Windows. I got my first job and started using Word and Excel, and five years later — still using 'em –I consider myself somewhat of a Windows Whiz. A while ago, Avery bought a NeXT machine for us to use, a machine which runs on a Unix-based (the anti-Windows&#41 operating system. I have tried to use it, I have. The little picture of the house for "Home" and all the lines of commands you have to enter, the cluncky toolbar in the wrong place, the whole nine yards. But I get frustrated with it too easily…it's slow-going for me because I'm too used to Windows; my mouse just knows instinctively where to go. Windows is for the lowest common denominator. After Windows, everything else is "too hard."

I did have my Windows-based gripes, though. That whole "you are only allowed eight letters to name your file" thing was damn annoying, and I'm glad I can now call my Word document "Business Plan – July 1998" instead of the former "zxslplzc" which, unfortunately did not come with the Janet.doc Secret Decoder ring which was so badly needed by anyone who should happen to need a file off of my hard drive.

Then there was that slow day at work when I thought it would be so new and exciting and fun to abandon my clunky Netscape Navigator and go with smooth Microsoft Internet Explorer like all the other cool kids. After 4+ hours of downloading on my slow work computer, I installed it only to find out that, like some weird, crawly bacteria, IE had managed to infiltrate every part of my computer with it's happy primary colors. What's the deal with my desktop? What are all these Microsoft icons? Why do I need Outlook Express? Enough with all the navy and orange already! Shut it off, shut it off!

The wiley Internet Explorer took over my computer that day. Kinda like Bill himself, eh? More power to him, I say. If we didn't like it, we wouldn't be using it…there is life after point-n-click, y'know. As for me, I've found a happy medium. Netscape at work, Explorer at home, Windows everywhere.

It all balances out.

Posted in Topics of the Week (1990s).

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