Beware “graded value” baseball cards on Ebay

There are a few hucksters on Ebay, whom I don’t care to give free advertising by mentioning by name, who hawk “graded” cards on Ebay and claim them to be especially valuable. One even puts supposed appraised values in his listings in parenthesis, then invites you to visit his page for an explanation of “graded” value, where he cites an example of a run-of-the-mill 1970s star card, normally worth $60, being worth $2,500 once graded.

The thing is, that’s an edge case, and it’s important to understand those edge cases to avoid getting ripped off.

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Where Microsoft lost its way

John C. Dvorak wrote an analysis of how Microsoft lost its way with Windows 8 this week.

All in all it sounds reasonable to me. His recollection of DOS and some DOS version 8 confused me at first, but that was what the DOS buried in Windows ME was called. But mentioning it is appropriate, because it shows how DOS faded from center stage to being barely visible in the end, to the point where it was difficult to dig it out, and that it took 15 years for it to happen. He’s completely right, that if Microsoft had pulled the plug on DOS in 1985, Windows would have failed. Read more

No, this doesn’t mean Ubuntu and Linux are giving up

This week, Mark Shuttleworth closed the longstanding Ubuntu bug #1, which simply read, “Microsoft has majority market share.” Because Microsoft didn’t lose its market share lead to Ubuntu, or Red Hat, or some other conventional Linux distribution, some people, including John C. Dvorak, are interpreting this as some kind of surrender.

I don’t see it as surrender at all. Microsoft’s dominant position, which seemed invincible in 2004 when Shuttleworth opened that bug, is slipping away. They still dominate PCs, but PCs as we know it are a shrinking part of the overall computing landscape, and the growth is all happening elsewhere.

I have (or at least had) a reputation as a Microsoft hater. That’s a vast oversimplification. I’m not anti-Microsoft. I’m pro-competition. I’m also pro-Amiga, and I’ll go to my grave maintaining that the death of Amiga set the industry back 20 years. I have Windows and Linux boxes at home, my wife has (believe it or not) an Ipad, and at work I’m more comfortable administering Linux than Windows right now, which seems a bit strange, especially considering it’s a Red Hat derivative and I haven’t touched Red Hat in what seems like 400 years.

What Shuttleworth is acknowledging is that we have something other than a duopoly again, for the first time in more than 20 years, and the industry is innovating and interesting again. Read more

How to block annoying posts on Facebook

Lifehacker came through with a gem this morning: How to block annoying political posts on Facebook. Though it’s really about filtering, so you can filter on pretty much anything with it, not just the names of political parties and this year’s candidates. Pretty much anything that people rant about on Facebook would be game for this.

It’s easy enough to just unsubscribe from certain people completely or in extreme cases, un-friend them. But this gives you a less extreme option.

What happened to GEM?

GEM was an early GUI for the IBM PC and compatibles and, later, the Atari ST, developed by Digital Research, the developers of CP/M and, later, DR-DOS. So what was it, and what happened to GEM?

It was very similar to the Apple Lisa, and Apple saw it as a Lisa/Macintosh ripoff and sued. While elements of GEM probably were inspired by the Lisa, Digital Research actually hired several developers from Xerox PARC.

DRI demonstrated the 8086 version of GEM at COMDEX in 1984, and shipped it on 28 February 1985, beating Windows 1.0 to market by nearly 9 months.
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Gary Kildall and what might have been

I didn’t have time to write everything I wanted to write yesterday, so I’m going to revisit Bill Gates and Gary Kildall today. Bill Gates’ side of the DOS story is relatively well documented in his biographies: Gates referred IBM to Gary Kildall, who for whatever reason was less comfortable working with IBM than Gates was. And there was an airplane involved, though what Kildall was doing in the airplane and why varies. By some accounts he was meeting another client, and by other accounts it was a joyride. IBM in turn came back to Gates, who had a friend of a friend who was cloning CP/M for the 8086, so Microsoft bought the clone for $50,000, cleaned it up a little, and delivered it to IBM while turning a huge profit. Bill Gates became Bill Gates, and Kildall and his company, Digital Research, slowly faded away.

The victors usually get to write the history. I’ve tried several times over the years to find Kildall’s side of the story. I first went looking sometime in 1996 or so, for a feature story about Internet misinformation I wrote for the Columbia Missourian‘s Sunday magazine. For some reason, every five years or so I end up chasing the story down again.
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Was CP/M overrated?

Veteran tech journalist Dan Tynan recently published a list of 10 overrated technology products, and CP/M was on his list. But was CP/M overrated? I want to dig into that question a bit.

I think everyone knows the story of how IBM almost used CP/M as the operating system for its PC, but ended up using an upstart product from a small company named Microsoft instead. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened, seeing as the author of CP/M is dead and his business partner is no longer able to recollect those events from the 1980 timeframe, and IBM and Bill Gates have no reason to embarrass themselves by revisiting the story.

But CP/M was the first and most popular operating system for early 8-bit computers, so people who used it remember it fondly, and the way Microsoft steamrolled it made Gary Kildall and his operating system folk heroes to underdog lovers everywhere. Even people who never used it and weren’t even born when Kildall’s company ceased to exist have at least a vague idea of what it was.

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Windows, ARM, emulation, misconceptions and misremembered history

I keep reading stuff about Windows and ARM and, well, I think people just aren’t remembering history.

I’m not saying that Windows 8 on ARM will save the world, or even change it substantially. It probably won’t, since Microsoft tends not to get things right the first time. But will I automatically write off the project? No. It could prove useful for something other than what it was originally intended. That happens a lot.

But I’m more interested in clearing up the misinformation than in trying to predict the future.
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Commodore’s founder comes out of hiding

It’s been said that Ed Roberts of Altair fame was the last person to get the better of Bill Gates in a business deal.

But I’ll say it was Jack Tramiel.

Tramiel was the founder of Commodore, and in the late 1970s, Commodore negotiated a one-time flat fee to use Microsoft Basic on an unlimited number of machines. That was fine in the days of the PET, which didn’t ship all that many units, but it didn’t look so good once Commodore sold a million VIC-20s. The story of the flat fee has been repeated before, but to my knowledge, nobody ever stated the price.

Jack Tramiel stated a dollar figure on Monday at a party celebrating the 25th anniversary of the C-64’s release: $25,000. Somehow, Apple got the same deal, but the overall value of the deal was less in Apple’s case. Let me explain.

Considering the number of C-64s sold–I’ve heard as few as 17 million, which seems low, but I hear numbers like 22-25 million a lot–I think Commodore did really well on that deal. Bill Gates’ initial offer was $3 per machine.

Commodore probably sold a total of 30 million machines with Microsoft’s 6502 Basic on board–besides the C-64, they used it in the VIC-20 and C-128, which both sold somewhere in the neighborhood of three million units apiece, and they also used it in a number of other less popular machines. So under Gates’ initial offer, Commodore would have been on the hook for $90 million.

I wonder if that had anything to do with why Microsoft wouldn’t produce any software other than a crippled version of Basic for the Amiga come 1985? I can understand not producing anything for the 64–Gates didn’t like the 64’s 6502 processor, and Microsoft didn’t make much of anything for the other 6502 machines either–but Microsoft of course produced lots of Mac software, and negotiated hard to get Atari to use an early version of Windows on the Atari ST. Supposedly Atari’s choice of Digital Research’s GEM was the reason Microsoft never made anything for the ST.

I imagine the world would have been very different if people could have run early versions of Word or Excel on an Amiga or ST in 1987 or so. But that didn’t happen, and it doesn’t have much to do with the 64.

Commodore’s investors forced Tramiel to leave Commodore in 1984, while the company was still in its prime. Up until this year, Tramiel has always declined comment when asked anything about Commodore. I saw a couple of news stories this year where Tramiel said a few words but nothing major–primarily acknowledging the machine’s place in history, and being happy to have been a part of it.

To me, it’s fascinating that Tramiel has finally broken his 23-year silence. I really couldn’t care less what Steve Wozniak thinks about the C-64. It bothered me that none of the news stories I’ve found gave much mention to Commodore engineers like Bil Herd and Bob Yannes–Herd at least got mentioned; Yannes didn’t get a mention at all, and considering he designed the sound chip that was a big part of the machine’s success, that’s a glaring omission. But Herd and Yannes and the other engineers all got their say in the book On the Edge, while Jack Tramiel declined comment. The only hint of his perspective in that book came from his sons.

Of course, I’m more interested in Tramiel’s side of the Irving Gould story–Gould was the financier who drove Tramiel out, and ultimately appointed his henchman, Mehdi Ali, who drove the company completely into the ground. But that story was the whole reason Tramiel didn’t want to talk about Commodore at all for 23 years. The C-64 is a much safer topic. interviewed Tramiel, and it gives a few small surprising insights into the man–he still spends a few minutes a day playing the old games on a C-64, and he owns a Dell–but the most interesting thing to me is the financial aspect. He talks about how Commodore’s products made some of his employees rich, and he delighted in the cottage industry that sprung up around the C-64, allowing some of its users to make a lot of money selling products to go with it.

Tramiel’s wrong about one thing though. He says there was very little difference between a C-64 and an Apple or an Atari computer. They all used the same CPU and some of the same I/O chips, but the graphics and sound capabilities were different. Commodore and Atari had far better sound and graphics capabilities, and creative programmers were discovering new tricks even into the 1990s.

Woz is wrong too. He said Apple was the sales leader until the C-64 came around, but Atari immediately outsold the Apple II when the 400 and 800 hit the market in 1979, and Tandy outsold them 10-20:1 from the onset in 1977. Apple didn’t sell a million units in a single year until 1984. And for the record, there were 6 million Apple IIs sold between 1977 and 1993. Commodore sold 7.5 million C-64s just in its prime years, 1984-86.

When it comes to writing the history of the computer, Commodore always gets ignored. The news reports from this week don’t tell the whole story, but at least now Commodore is getting recognition for being something more than a stock scam (which was Cringely’s assessment of the company.)