Linkdump for February 27th through April 12th

Sometime between February 27th and April 12th, I thought this stuff was interesting. You might think so too!

My first computer: The Osborne 1

This Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of one of the first “portable” computers, which also happens to be the first home computer that my family had. This was the machine that first got me into much of the geekery I’ve been into for years.

From Osborne!:

The Osborne 1 had a Z-80 processor (like Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and many other early systems) and a generous-for-the-time 64KB of RAM. It had two single-density floppy-disk drives, each of which stored a relatively skimpy 102KB of data, plus a handy pocket for extra disks. And it ran Digital Research’s CP/M, the popular operating system that was very much like Microsoft’s later MS-DOS.

Even by 1981 standards, the Osborne 1′s 5″ monochrome CRT was puny; today, there are smartphones with displays as big. It could display only 52 columns of text at a time–less than the eighty you really wanted for word processing, but more than the Apple II’s forty. The screen size was chosen in part because 5″ displays were readily available, having been engineered for a 55-pound behemoth that IBM had optimistically marketed in 1975 as the IBM 5100 Portable Computer….

Osborne 1 (Image via Wikipedia)The sewing machine-sized Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds (slightly more than ten modern-day 11″ MacBook Airs) and sported a handle; it created a class of PC that would forever be known as “luggables.” It was famously touted as fitting under an airplane seat, but you couldn’t actually use it on an airplane–not only because you would have busted your tray table, but also because it had no battery. Just getting it from place to place involved effort. Felsenstein has written that “carrying two of them from my car four blocks to the [West Coast Computer Faire] had nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets.”

The fact that the Osborne 1 was a fully-functioning personal computer in a portable case captured the imagination of techies in 1981. But it was only the second most innovative thing about the system. The most impressive part of the deal was that the computer gave you absolutely you needed to be productive for one remarkably low price: $1795 (about $4370 in current dollars).

I spent hours entranced by the machine. I learned to type (with the help of my mom’s vintage typing class book from when she was in school), I figured out the intricacies of the WordStar word processor (which gave me a leg up in learning HTML a decade and a half later, as the printer control codes used to create bold and italicized text in the not-even-close-to-WYSIWYG interface of WordStar mapped very closely to HTML tags), and I used BASIC to translate entire Choose Your Own Adventure books into simple text-based command line video games.

Not only did our family have one of these, but we eventually ended up with three. A few other families that we were friends with had had Osbornes, and as newer, smaller, more powerful computers from competitors like IBM and Compaq came on the market, they upgraded and gave us their old Osbornes as hand-me-downs. Not only did this let us upgrade ours with some goodies that we hadn’t added — like the state-of-the-art 1200 baud modem — but I was able to keep one working for quite a few years by cannibalizing pieces from the other two.

Eventually, of course, the machines either died out or simply got shoved away into storage as the family upgraded. I saved up and got myself my own computer — a Mac Classic, with 1MB RAM and no hard drive, just a single 1.4MB floppy disk drive — in 1991, and though I’ve occasionally pieced together a Frankenstein PC, Macs have always been where I feel most comfortable. Interestingly, the same article excerpted above points out that the Osborne itself may have influenced why the simplicity and “it just works” attitude of the Mac has always appealed to me.

Price was only part of the appeal of the Osborne 1′s all-in-one approach, Thom Hogan, an InfoWorld editor who became Osborne Computer’s director of software, says that the company’s greatest achievement was:

Something that Steve Jobs eventually learned from us, actually: simplicity of customer decision. At the time the Osborne 1 was launched, your choices at that level of capability were basically CP/M based systems from a number of vendors or an Apple II. In both cases, those other choices required you to make a LOT of decisions as a customer. For an Apple II: memory, drives, monitor, sometimes boards to add those things, plus software. A typical customer had to make five or six, sometimes more, decisions just to get the boxes necessary to build a useful system, and then they had to put it all together themselves…So Osborne not only saved the person money, but time and agony on the decision-making. Note how iPads are sold: two decisions: memory and communications. And they work out of the box, nothing needing to be assembled by the user.

The Osborne 1 was the first personal computer product that really did that (even the Radio Shack TRS-80 forced you into a number of decisions). Basically, plop down US$1795, take the box home, unpack it, plug it in, and start using your computer. One of the things that was integral to that was a stupid little <1K program I wrote. Previous to the Osborne, the user had to CONFIGURE CP/M. Even once configured, you’d boot from CP/M, then have to put in your word processing disc and execute from that. When you got an Osborne, you put the WP disk into the computer and you ended up in WordStar. In other words, we booted through the OS to the task the user wanted to do. Again, simplification of both process and pieces. As a result of that the Osborne was a no-brainer in terms of selling it against any other computer that was available in 1981: any sales person could demonstrate “put in the disc, turn it on, start writing” compared to “assemble the computer, configure the software, start the software program, start writing.”

(via /.)

The Blue Box

I’ve been buried in musical nostalgia for the past few days, and it’s been wonderful.

My family is a very musical family — all of my immediate family, and the majority of my closer relatives, have at one time or another in our lives played at least one instrument and sung in choirs — and my parents have a huge vinyl collection. While the majority of my mom’s side of the collection focused on classical and choral music, my dad’s albums, and those that they collected together, skewed more towards the pop music of the time, mostly folk, country, blues, and rock and roll. Understandably, this collection had a huge influence on my and my brother’s musical tastes.

When we got old enough, we had free reign over the music collection and dad’s record player on the family stereo, and we were encouraged to discover which albums grabbed our attention. Music was meant to be appreciated, not just as noise in the background that nobody pays attention to, but as a soundtrack to whatever was going on. I can remember many housecleaning days when mom would head off somewhere, leaving the boys to take care of the house, and dad would tell us to pick something to listen to and put it on, telling us to “turn it up to the threshold of pain” as we worked.

The musical education went both ways, as well, as Kevin and I grew older and started exploring and diversifying our own tastes. Sometimes mom and dad would enjoy what we brought home (a few years ago, I got a kick out of introducing dad to the country-blues-acid house fusion of Alabama 3‘s “Welcome to Coldharbour Lane” album), sometimes our choices fell flat. Even when they didn’t “get it,” though — and this is one of those not-so-little things that I will always be grateful for — they never condemned what we listened to or told us we shouldn’t listen to it, but they’d ask us about it, and we occasionally had some interesting discussions investigating why something worked or didn’t work for us.

One winter day, Mom and I were driving out of Anchorage to Eagle River, and I put Pink Floyd‘s “The Wall” cassette into the car stereo. As we drove along, listening to such lyrically cheerful songs as “The Happiest Days of our Lives” and “Young Lust,” Mom expressed her distaste at the content of the songs, and wondered how in the world I could be interested in such depressing music. The rest of the drive turned into a long discussion of the story and themes present in “The Wall,” what Roger Waters was expressing, how the music and lyrics worked together, the imagery in the film, and why I enjoyed the album. While I don’t think Mom is ever going to be a big fan of “The Wall,” I love that her response was a discussion and examination of why I was listening to such a dark work, rather than simply declaring it “off limits.”

But I digress.

When Kevin and I were younger, and too small to work dad’s record player, we had our own: the classic Fisher-Price phonograph. Not the glorified music box, with brightly colored plastic ‘records’ that tripped music-box teeth in the arm, but a real, working record player. To go with this, Dad gave us a small blue box (well, blue, white, and green, but I’ve always thought of it as blue) with a bunch of old 45s that he and his brother Doug had collected when they were younger.

These 45s were some of the earliest pop music education that we got, and it was an eclectic one indeed. The Beatles, Merv Griffin, The Animals, The Partridge Family, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Four Tops, Fats Domino, and quite a few others. As we grew older, Kevin and I occasionally contributed to the box, adding 45s for AC/DC, Cyndi Lauper, Ozzy Osbourne, and a few other more modern artists. I credit a lot of my current all-over-the-place musical tastes to the eclecticism of this little blue box, and the hours spent playing the treasures inside it on that little old Fisher-Price player (which, as of a few years ago, was still in working order and in Kevin’s possession, though I don’t know its current disposition).

I’d worried for the last few years that the box had disappeared, but I really should have known better (I do, after all, come from a family of pack rats). Earlier this week I got a couple boxes of goodies from my parents, and in one of those boxes was the fabled blue box.

This week’s “when I’m taking a break from schoolwork” project has been reacquainting myself with the blue box and the music of my youth. I’ve scanned the labels for all the discs and added them to my vinyl photoset, I’m almost done recording all the music to my computer, and after a bit longer, will have it all edited, cleaned up, and imported into iTunes. Once I have all the audio archived, I’ll be packing this up and passing the blue box on to Kevin to share his boys, my nephews.

For those who are curious here’s a list of everything that the box contains. To the best of my knowledge, anything pre-1980 comes from mom, dad, and my uncle Doug; anything from 1980 on was added by me or Kevin.