Longtime BYTE commentator Paul Somerson's take on the history of computing, from BASIC to the Kindle
BYTE -- Okay, I've been doing this for awhile but I sure don't feel old. Maybe it's our Peter Pan culture where youth is everything and nobody wants to grow up. Short of living forever, we dread falling apart bit-by-bit.
We all want to be like Oliver Wendell Holmes' "One Hoss Shay," which stays tip-top for 100 years and then crumbles to dust in an instant.
I do love technology. I watched the fetal PC head start to crown. I was a BYTE reader right after Wayne and Virginia Green had their initial tiff. I ordered one of the first pre-production PCs from a bored IBM rep working in the back office of a New York City bank. It came with 16K of RAM and single-sided floppy drives. And DOS 1, which I sometimes haul out for a giggle.
The first PC was a challenge. You had to learn BASIC or ASM to get anything done. I hated the word processor that Captain Crunch (aka 1970s phone phreak John Draper) built. That buggy Easywriter was IBM's only word processor. A steaming pile of dreck, Draper wrote it from jail for the Apple II. It WORKED IN ALL CAPS ONLY and it didn't work at all on the very first PCs.
So I wrote my own--in BASIC. BYTE was a huge help. It was the tipping point from big iron to personal computing.
There are a lot of tipping points these days. For the first time, this year people bought more smartphones than PCs. More eBooks than paperbacks. The Kindle has been Amazon's No. 1 seller for two years in a row.
Image Credit: Peter Kaminski
Talking Kindle, there's a lot about it to like, mostly in terms of convenience and ease. Now those are two words you will never hear in the halls of Microsoft, which has been confounding users with non-intuitive products since day one.
Like most early users, I've had a raging love-hate relationship with its software. After hearing that Microsoft found 3,000 bugs in one early version, I once noted:
"Windows is an utter kludge, the ultimate tar baby, sucking you in, making things harder and harder, until you are hopelessly snagged and stuck, exhausted from fighting with it, resigned to despair. It is an inscrutable, god-awful mess, a disaster waiting to happen, a bonehead botch-job jammed with you-can't-get-there-from-here idiocy. They could train soldiers to kill by forcing them to struggle with this."
Still true today. What kind of 21st century OS won't let you save your own files in your own root directory without a hassle? Now, I do sort of enjoy wrestling with Microsoft Word, which has a ton of power. It even slaps together basic HTML files, although they're bloated (surprise!) and static. In fact, I used Word to create a simple website on antiques that's been paying the bills.
But here's the kind of moronic stupidity Microsoft still foists upon you. Used to be, if you wanted to create alt-text descriptions for photos in older versions of Word, you intuitively right-clicked on the images and typed in the text. Now, in the new and improved version, this feature is absurdly hidden. Microsoft advises you get there by "clicking the arrow in the lower-right corner of the Size group."
The Size group? Are you kidding me? What Redmond brainiac decided to bury it there? At least Microsoft lets you create shortcuts to sidestep this lunacy. Someone is sane in that asylum, though we don't know who it is, exactly.
The Kindle may be Amazon's best-seller, but there's a disturbing trend out there. Kids aren't reading. We used to joke that USA Today justified a new Pulitzer category for Best Investigative Paragraph. Today, even a paragraph seems huge to these kids. Precious snowflakes. Is that paragraph a little daunting? They pack a lot of babble into a brief l33t bursts. And their generational attention spans plummet after 140 characters.
But don't blame the teachers! And on a related note, how are teachers increasing, ahem, performance in Milwaukee? By suing to get their precious free Viagra back, that's how. News is, the school district cut them off when one in 10 employees, on average, gulped down the free "enhancement" pills.
It turns out, by the way, that the average annual compensation for these Milwaukee mentors is over six figures. Shoveling boatloads of money at them hasn't even inched scores up. Not to pick on Milwaukee, but check this link to see the stellar results $100K+ buys. And just ignore all those pesky zeros at the bottom.
The only place a lot of kids do read is behind the wheel. In our small rural area, one kid just fatally splattered his Buick Regal into a tree. Another drove off a bridge into a river. Both were texting. It may be time for Google to accelerate its hands-off autonomous driving program.
Started by Stanford AI guru Sebastian Thrun, Google's robotic cyberdrivers have logged over 100,000 trouble-free miles on crowded roads. Meanwhile, Massachusetts passed a law banning anyone under 18 from texting while driving. But the real law--the law of unintended consequences--means they'll still do it. They'll just hold their phones lower to avoid detection, driving their eyes even further from the road.
Maybe if they're caught they should lose their cars and have to hitchhike. That'll teach 'em what a thumb's for.
Back to the Kindle, though. Some people sneer at it. Why buy a dedicated monochrome machine when you can fork over a couple hundred dollars more and get an Apple iPad? Especially the new one, with (as one reviewer put it) "twice the shininess!"
But the iPad 2 has no USB port or Flash. The Xoom does. Or barometer. The Xoom does. Or stereo speakers. The Xoom does. Or a microSD or LTE slot. The Xoom sorta does.
The Motorola Xoom also has two HDMI ports, Android Honeycomb 3-D rendering technology for superfast gaming, a sharper wide-format screen, 4G support, widgets, a proximity sensor, and double the iPad's RAM. And the iPad's low-res cameras are Tinker Toys compared to the Xoom's rear 5-MP and front 2-MP sensors. So what does Apple have? Ninety-three percent market share. Or more! Stuff that up your xoomhole, Motorola.
Yeah, yeah, the iPad is way cool, thin is in, the 65,000 apps at the App Store beckon with slobbery concupiscence, and it's halfway cheap. Did you ever think you'd hear that about something from Cupertino?
Yes, it's drop-dead gorgeous. Those Apple industrial designers sure earn their pay.
Earth to Motorola! And to all the other iPad cloners: Slash the price. Bring on the tablet wars. Contrary to what some fools and knaves think, capitalism still is great.
Speaking of money, there's a rumor that the Kindle will soon be free. Amazon has achieved efficiency of manufacturing scale, paid off the development costs, and makes money selling razor blades.
Wired cofounder and ex-pat Kevin Kelly recently reported on The Technium that j-walkblog's John Walkenbach graphed the Kindle price over time and came up with a straight line headed for zero dollars on 11/11.
Kelly then quoted TechCrunch's Michael Arrington--try to stay with me, here--as saying the real plan is to give them away to Amazon Prime customers, who pony up $79 for free shipping and free streaming movies. I've been a Prime customer since the beginning and, along with one-click buying, it makes life worth living. Or something close.
Other retailers like Williams-Sonoma are now trying to horn in on the freight-free purchase spree with their own Prime-like plans, but the breadth of Amazon gives it a huge edge, since they sell practically everything.
It's almost too easy to make purchases. We low on bandaids? Click and buy. Soda straws? No need to gas up the car, just click and buy. Gee, that toaster oven got a lot of 5-star raves. Click and buy. Honey, do we need a new lawnmower? More golf balls? Some Ovaltine? No irritating taxes, shipping fees, stock problems, traffic jams, or biddies at the checkout line digging for pennies at the bottom of a purse or pocket.
The brown boxes appear a day or two later at your door. The one thing I'm grateful for is that there's no big boxing-round bell clanging every time I make a purchase. I'd be playing Amazon like a pinball machine ... click, click, DING, click, click DING, click, DING, click DING, in a mad syncopated orgy of spending.
If Amazon really wanted to jump-start the economy, it should give everybody a Prime account and let 'er rip.
SPARE ME: Video is great. If I have the time, or the instructions are confusing, or the narrator is funny or clever I'll watch. But when I need an answer right away, the last thing I want is to plod through endless video blather. I'm a much faster reader than viewer. If you're posting an informational video, please just include a transcript.
Paul Somerson is a BYTE technologist. With more than 35 years' experience launching magazines--including PC/Computing, the only computer magazine in history to win tech magazine ever to win (two) National Magazine Awards--Paul writes our Third Eye column. He's always on the lookout for trends ... or snickering at DOS 1.0. You blame him? Email him at Paul@BYTE.com.
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 14, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program.