Tag Archives: Texas Instruments

How the IBM PC became the de facto standard for desktop computers

I saw a question on a vintage computing forum this week: How did the IBM PC become the de facto standard for PCs, and the only desktop computer architecture from the 1980s to survive until today?

It’s a very good question, and I think there were several reasons for it. I also think without all of the reasons, the IBM PC wouldn’t have necessarily won. In some regards, of course, it was a hollow victory. IBM has been out of the PC business for a decade now. Its partners Intel and Microsoft, however, reaped the benefits time and again.

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Commodore was more than a stock scam

From time to time, I see the phrase “Commodore stock scam” or something similar come up in my search engine logs. Commodore, in case you don’t know, was a high-flying computer company in the 1980s that was literally making computers as quickly as they could sell them while Apple struggled for its survival, and was in the enviable position of being the main supplier of chips for its competitors. Imagine if Intel sold computers at retail next to HP and Dell, while still selling chips to Dell. That was Commodore in 1984. I don’t have 1984 figures, but in 1985, Commodore had 38% of the computer market all to itself. IBM and its clones, combined, had 49%. Apple had 13%.

But a decade later, Commodore had squandered all of that away and was out of business. That’s why Robert X. Cringely sums up Commodore as Irving Gould‘s stock scam, then goes back to writing about Apple.

The real story is more complicated than that. More interesting, too.

Continue reading Commodore was more than a stock scam

RIP, Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel, the orchestrator of the first line of affordable personal computers, died this weekend at the age of 83.

I don’t know exactly what to think about it, and I’m probably not alone, though it didn’t take long for tributes to pour in. Continue reading RIP, Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore

Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

There’s a nasty rumor floating around that in Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, Steve Jobs, Jobs alleges that Commodore copied the Apple II when making its first computer, 1977’s PET.

The book doesn’t come right out and say it, but it insinuates it. I know how the PET came to be, and the PET would have happened whether the Apple II ever existed or not.
Continue reading Steve Jobs and the Commodore PET

Google drops a bombshell, buys Motorola

I was shocked to read today that Google went out and plunked down $12.5 billion for Motorola. I’m sure that other Android phone makers aren’t exactly happy about it–it means Google is going to be competing with them, unless Google just bought Motorola for patents–but I don’t really see how Google had much choice.

Google risks alienating its partners, but…. More on that in a minute.
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Apple’s first CEO speaks

Business Insider has an interview with Apple’s first CEO, Michael Scott. (Not the guy from the TV sitcom.) It’s interesting reading from a historical standpoint.
Continue reading Apple’s first CEO speaks

The kind of guy who could save America

I went to several estate sales today (it’s what I do on Saturdays, after all), but one was memorable. Some sales just jump out at you, and this one had evil genius/mad scientist written all over it.The estate belonged to a man named Carl. From what I could gather, Carl was Catholic, diabetic, and from my wife’s comments, must not have been married at the time he died. She mostly stayed upstairs while I rollicked around in the basement, which was tinkerer’s heaven.

“This guy was just like you!” my wife marveled when I resurfaced once. Well, she’s half right. I very much would have liked Carl. And yes, Carl liked computers and models and trains and didn’t see any point in buying anything he could make himself. But Carl’s knowledge of physics and other sciences went far, far beyond mine, as did his knowledge of electronics. I pulled out box after box after box of electronic components. Some of the stuff was pretty new, and some of it obviously dated to the early 1970s, if not earlier. It pains me to think most of that stuff is going to get thrown away, but there’s no sense in me buying it, even for pennies on the dollar, when I don’t know what it is, let alone what to do with it.

It’s entirely possible that Carl and I did cross paths, sort of. In the 1980s and early 1990s, BBSing was a common hobby among people who enjoyed electronics, amateur radio, and computers. People exactly like Carl. For that matter, it’s possible he might not have just dialed into BBSs, he fit the stereotype of a BBS operator like a hand in a glove. Who knows, maybe Carl ran a BBS I used to call.

Digging around Carl’s work area, I found lots of different things. I bought some moldmaking supplies and casting resin, Bondo body filler, and some tools. Carl took care of his tools. But on his workbench, I found a single file laying there that still had metal shavings on it. Perhaps Carl died before he was finished with it and cleaned it. I found a brush, cleaned off the file, and could picture Carl looking down, nodding approval. I bought the file and the brush. Both were better than the ones I owned previously.

Unfortunately, Carl is the type of person our society has been trained to fear, rather than respect, especially during this decade. I found plenty of literature that Homeland Security wouldn’t approve of. Instructions for making Tesla coils, and lots of instructions for making things that go boom in the back yard. I also found literature that dealt with alternative car fuels, converting cars to electric power, and generating your own electricity.

He was also obviously very interested in robotics and using computers to control things. In a spare bedroom, I found a pile of old Timex Sinclair 1000 computers and peripherals. He added I/O ports to most of them, and hacked another one to use a Texas Instruments keyboard instead of the cheap membrane keyboard that came with it. He must have used that Sinclair for programming. Another spare bedroom had a couple of barely started robotics projects.

Unfortunately, many people look at people like Carl, and are too quick to label him a deviant, or worse yet, a terrorist. The label is unfair. In fact, during natural disasters, amateur radio operators often are the people with the best information early, giving invaluable information to relief workers.

But the most important thing is the tendency not to think within the boundaries that “normal” people usually confine themselves to. Among his things, I found a book titled How to Patent Your Ideas.

Now I don’t know what kind of ideas he had floating in his head. As far as I can tell, he never published any of them (I have his last name, and I searched out of curiosity).

But with all this talk today about energy independence, I think it’s great that some guy in Crestwood, Missouri was thinking along those lines. I don’t know if any of those thoughts turned into anything tangible or not. But frankly, that kind of work is important–much more so than the tinkering I’m doing in my basement, which so far has resulted only in some wooden toys for my son to play with, and metal toys for me.

We need some new ideas, rather than just buying everything from abroad. I know there are still people like Carl out there, but I hope they aren’t a dying breed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden desire to go see what I can do with some of the tools I bought from Carl’s workbench.

Why I generally buy AMD

I was talking to a new coworker today and of course the topic of our first PCs came up. It was Cyrix-based. I didn’t mention my first PC (it seems I’m about four years older–it was an Am486SX2/66).

With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve always bought non-Intel PCs. Most of the Intel PCs I have bought have been used. One boss once went so far as to call me anti-corporate.

I’m not so much anti-corporate as I am pro-competition.I was a second-generation AMD fanboy, not first. When the Am386DX/40 hit town, I was aware it was the best value in the industry, giving better performance than an Intel 486SX/25 for the price of an Intel 386DX/33, but I didn’t really care because I was still an Amiga guy at that point in time.

But that’s the reason I’m an AMD guy today. One of the reasons the computer market is so stagnant today is because it’s dominated by Microsoft. There’s nothing exciting going on there. There hasn’t been anything exciting coming out of Microsoft since the mid 1990s when they had to compete with OS/2. OS/2 never captured a huge amount of market share, but OS/2 promised to be a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows, and to a large extent it delivered. Say what you want about OS/2, but I could load Tony La Russa Baseball 2 up in a DOS Window under OS/2 and it would run faster than it ran under DOS, even though the game didn’t have the machine’s full attention. OS/2 2.1 (and later 3.0) had Microsoft running scared, because it ran all of the software that was available in the early 1990s and it ran it quickly, in a fully pre-emptive multitasking environment. Microsoft responded with Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 because it had to–Windows 3.1 just couldn’t compete with OS/2’s stability, and booting into DOS using a custom boot disk for every game they wanted to run wasn’t something the public was going to put up with forever.

And what’s happened since then? Windows 98 was basically a service pack, improving the stability of Windows 95 but not offering anything revolutionary. Windows 2000 was a lot better than NT 4.0 but not the kind of jump that Windows 95 was over 3.1. Windows XP did a lot to improve backward compatibility with old DOS and Windows 9x games, and while it was a big leap from Windows 98 or ME, it wasn’t a tremendous improvement over Windows 2000. I haven’t heard anyone say anything good about Vista. At least the Windows 95 box was pretty, but Vista doesn’t really even have that going for it.

Microsoft’s primary competition today is illegal copies of its own operating system, so its main concern with Vista is keeping people from making copies of it. And it shows.

Apple is trying to compete, but its market share is around 10 percent. We don’t exactly have a duopoly.

When I got interested in computers in the 1980s, there was all sorts of interesting stuff going on. IBM and DOS were things you used at work to do accounting. At home we used all these weird and wonderful 8-bit computers that were technically obsolete, but engineers kept figuring out how to squeeze more capability out of them. Revisionist historians talk about Apple dominating the 8-bit era, but that wasn’t true. At its peak, Commodore sold as many C-64s in a single year as Apple sold Apple IIs in that line’s entire lifetime. Although Commodore was the king of sales, Atari arguably had the best 8-bit computer (the 800/XE/XL family). Tandy had its Color Computer line, and while it couldn’t match the graphics and sound capability that Commodore and Atari had, it had a far more powerful CPU. Coleco’s Adam is little more than the butt of a joke today, but on paper it should have done well. Coleco took several chips that Texas Instruments had used in its failed TI-99/4A, paired them up with a more conventional CPU (the popular Zilog Z-80), and made a competitive computer with it. Its biggest problem was that it was late to market and plagued with reliability problems at first. Kind of like Windows Vista.

And that’s the beauty of competition. In the 1980s, if you delivered a product like the Coleco Adam, you went out of business. But if your name is Microsoft and you have 85% of the marketplace, you can deliver something like the Coleco Adam and keep on chugging.

The really exciting stuff in the 1980s wasn’t in the 8-bit arena though. The Motorola 68000-based computers were where the action was. The most famous of these, of course, was the first-generation Macintosh. But the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga used the 68000 too, and unlike the first Macs, they paired the powerful CPU with color and powerful sound. The three companies threw bricks at each other a lot, but they kept each other honest. Apple ended up having to add color and sound and expansion slots to its Macs in order to compete. Commodore designed a low-cost Amiga to compete with Atari, and a higher-priced model with lots of drive bays and expansion slots to compete with Apple.

These three companies, ironically, built the kind of machine Bill Gates tried to get IBM to build in 1981. Gates wanted IBM to use a Motorola 68000, and then they would have used Xenix, Microsoft’s version of Unix, for an operating system.

The result was Microsoft trying to play catch-up. Windows was in development before these machines hit the market, but Microsoft knew the Mac was coming long before it happened. Microsoft had a prototype and was one of the first Mac developers. In typical Microsoft fashion, Microsoft was talking about Windows in 1983, but didn’t deliver anything until 1985, and what they delivered wasn’t useful for very much. It wasn’t until Windows 3.0 came out in 1990 that it hit prime time. By then the code was stable enough that you could use it for a few hours at a time, and PC CPUs were powerful enough that Windows could keep up with an Amiga or ST or Mac without embarrassing itself.

And that was the beginning of the end. It was one thing for Commodore and Atari to compete with 286 clones that could barely run Windows. But within a year or two, they were competing with Tandy 386s that sold for $1,200 at every Radio Shack in the country. Whether you lived in New York City or Buffalo, Missouri, you could walk into Radio Shack and see a computer running Windows and buy it on the spot. Neither Commodore nor Atari had a dealer network anything like that. And if you lived in a big enough city, you could walk into a "superstore" like Best Buy or Circuit City or Silo that were sweeping the nation at the time and buy a Packard Bell for even less.

By 1993, Commodore and Atari were non-factors in the marketplace. It was down to Apple and the PC clones running Windows.

So what does any of this have to do with AMD and Intel?

AMD and Intel keep each other honest. When Intel released the Itanium, AMD countered with its AMD64 architecture. While the Itanium gives better 64-bit performance, AMD64 does a much better job of running the 32-bit applications we all run today. Itanium has a better long-term approach, but it’s designed for a future that will never come on its own because people still want to play their old copy of The Sims and have it run well on their new computer. AMD’s answer for 64-bit computing was AMD64, and its success forced Intel to clone it.

The CPU isn’t as important today because Intel and AMD are making CPUs that have more power than today’s software knows what to do with. But that’s not Intel’s fault, and it’s not AMD’s fault. Microsoft can’t think of a good use for all the power or a way to harness it, and the industry doesn’t have the scrappy underdog companies like Commodore or Atari anymore to figure out a use for them and drive the industry.

But if one company had a total monopoly on CPUs, I’m afraid of what I’d see. Probably Intel would become more like Microsoft, delivering products that ran slower and at a higher price than each previous generation. It’s unnatural, but it’s the norm for a monopoly.

I’ve heard myself saying several times over the last three or four years that I don’t like computers anymore. But that’s not exactly true. Either I don’t like modern computers, or what HP and Dell sell today aren’t computers.

If either Intel or AMD were to succeed in squeezing the other company out of business, the modern computer would become even more underachieving and uninteresting than it is now.

Time for a core dump

I’ve been keeping a low profile lately. That’s for a lot of reasons. I’ve been doing mostly routine sysadmin work lately, which is mind-numbingly boring to write about, and possibly just a little bit less mind-numbingly boring to read about. While a numb mind might not necessarily be a bad thing, there are other reasons not to write about it.
During my college career, I felt like I had less of a private life than most of my classmates because of my weekly newspaper column. I wrote some pretty intensely personal stuff in there, and frankly, it seemed like a lot of the people I hung out with learned more about me from those columns than they did from hanging out with me. Plus, with my picture being attached, I’d get recognized when I went places. I remember many a Friday night, going to Rally’s for a hamburger and having people roll down their windows at stoplights and talk to me. That was pretty cool. But it also made me self-conscious. College towns have some seedy places, you know, and I worried sometimes about whether I’d be seen in the vicinity of some of those places and what people might think.

Looking back now, I should have wondered what they would be doing in the vicinity of those places and why it was OK for them to be nearby and not me. But that’s the difference between how I think now and how I thought when I was 20.

Plus, I know now a lot fewer people read that newspaper than its circulation and advertising departments wanted anyone to think. So I could have had a lot more fun in college and no one would have known.

I’m kidding, of course. And I’m going off on tangent after tangent here.

In the fall of 1999, I willingly gave up having a private life. The upside to that is that writing about things helps me to understand them a lot better. And sometimes I get stunningly brilliant advice. The downside? Well, not everyone knows how to handle being involved in a relationship with a writer. Things are going to come up in writing that you wish wouldn’t have. I know now that’s something you have to talk about, fairly early. Writing about past girlfriends didn’t in and of itself cost me those relationships but I can think of one case where it certainly didn’t help anything. The advice I got might have been able to save that relationship; now it’s going to improve some as-yet-to-be-determined relationship.

There’s another downside too. When you meet a girl and then she punches your name into a search engine, if you’re a guy like me who has four years’ worth of introspective revelations out on the Web, it kind of puts you at a disadvantage in the relationship. She knows a whole lot more about you than you do about her. It kind of throws off the getting-to-know-you process. I’d really rather not say how many times that’s happened in the past year. Maybe those relationships/prospective relationships were doomed anyway. I don’t have any way of knowing. One of them really hurt a lot and I really don’t want to go through it again.

So I’ve been trying to figure out for the past few weeks what to do about all this. Closing up shop isn’t an option. Writing strictly about the newest Linux trick I’ve discovered and nothing else isn’t an option. Writing blather about the same things everyone else is blathering about is a waste of time and worthless. Yes, I’ve been saying since March that much, if not all, of the SCO Unix code duplicated in Linux is probably BSD code that both of them ripped off at different points in time. And now it’s pretty much been proven that I was right. So what? How many hundreds of other people speculated the same thing? How could some of us be more right than others?

I’m going to write what I want, but I’m having a hard time deciding what I want to write. I know I have to learn how to hold something back. Dave Farquhar needs a private life again.

For a while, this may just turn into a log of Wikipedia entries I made that day. Yes, I’m back over there again, toiling in obscurity this time. For a while I was specializing in entries about 1980s home computing. For some reason when I get to thinking about that stuff I remember a lot, and I still have a pile of old books and magazines so I can check my facts. Plus a lot of those old texts are showing up online now. So now the Wikipedia has entries on things like the Coleco Adam and the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. Hey, I find it interesting to go back and look at why these products were failures, OK? TI should have owned the market. It didn’t. Coleco should have owned the market, and they didn’t. Atari really should have owned the market and they crashed almost as hard as Worldcom. So how did a Canadian typewriter company end up owning the home computer market? And why is it that probably four people reading this know who on earth I’m talking about now, in 2003? Call me weird, but I think that’s interesting.

And baseball, well, Darrell Porter and Dick Howser didn’t have entries. They were good men who died way too young, long before they’d given everything they had to offer to this world. Roger Maris didn’t have an entry. There was more to Roger Maris than his 61 home runs.

The entries are chronicled here, if you’re interested in what I’ve been writing lately while I’ve been ignoring this place.

My video editing ephiphany

Something I learned yesterday. And it was entirely a happy accident. But many things that appear to have artistic quality are nothing but happy accidents.
My copy of Adobe Premiere 6.0 had a second disc in the jewel. I had assumed it was just tryout versions of other Adobe software, or a tutorial disc, so I never really paid much attention to it. It turned out to be a disc titled SmartSound QuickTracks for Adobe Premiere. It’s awfully cool, in reality. Install it, and then you can go into File, New in Premiere and select QuickTrack. Click Launch Maestro, and up pops a wizard-style interface. Pick a few options that describe the nature of your piece (style, mood, etc.) and tell it how long you want your audio clip to be, and it’ll loop musical bits in its library to give you one or more sound clips as close to your specifications as possible. Play them, and if any are satisfactory, it’ll generate a file and drop it into one of Premiere’s bins for you.

Very slick. And professional films almost always have a soundtrack to them. The reason is pretty simple. Music can heighten mood, and changes in the soundtrack can delineate segments of the film.

But I learned another reason. The video, with Luke speaking, had a lot of room noise in it, and I found it distracting. I tried filtering out the noise, but that’s hard to do if you don’t have any experience doing it. By the time I was done, his voice was crystal clear, but he sounded like a speech synthesizer. Imagine an old Texas Instruments Speak ‘n Spell with intonation and mood, and you’ll have a pretty good idea how Luke sounded. So I left the noise in there. (With pro equipment, you record room noise with one mic and the subject with another mic, so you can turn down the room noise at will. But I didn’t use pro equipment.)

What I found, after inserting a loop of Mozart being played softly on piano, was that Luke sounded clearer. The music covered up the distracting elements of the room noise, leaving just enough that you could still tell Luke was recorded in a living room, not a sound room. But the distracting element was camouflaged. And Mozart made me concentrate on what Luke was saying.

Steve DeLassus tells me this discovery qualifies me as a scientist.

I tried a couple of other pieces and found they didn’t work so well, so some experimentation is usually necessary. But it made the video look a whole lot more professional and a whole lot more polished. I won’t impress people in the audience who have Premiere and have loaded the same disc (I recognized a few of the more contemporary pieces as very commonly used stock music footage, mostly from low-budget commercials) but impressing people isn’t the goal anyway.

Of course once you get sick of the freebie tunes or if you can’t find an appropriate one, you can buy bigger libraries at $295 a pop. And that’s something I’ll probably do at some point.

If you happen to have Premiere (and if you don’t, I recommend you pick up a Pinnacle DV200 card, which sells for under $300 and includes Premiere, SmartSound QuickTracks, Photoshop LE, Pinnacle’s very nice DVTools for automatically scanning and cataloging your tapes, and plug-ins for titling and transitions–you get more functionality than Apple Final Cut Pro delivers, and Final Cut Pro costs $995), adding a musical score is a good way to spice up your home movies. I’m sure that someday the RIAA will determine that the use of commercial music in people’s home videos is the cause of declining record sales–since it can’t be the economy or the declining quality of new releases–but until that happens, private use of the music in your record collection will be covered under fair use. So I’m sure I’ll have to license rights to use U2’s “Kite” in the video I want shown at my funeral service in 2101, but for the time being, if you want to integrate Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” into your vacation video, no one’s going to stop you.

Speaking of which, not to sound morbid, but give “Kite” a listen if you happen to have All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I can’t think of a cooler song to play at a funeral. “Who’s to know when the time has come around / Don’t want to see you cry / I know that this is not goodbye.” Although, admittedly, I misunderstood the line “I’m a man / I’m not a child” as “I’m a man / I’m out of time,” which has considerably more finality. But, as is often the case, I digress.

Elementary video. This guide is very basic. But if you follow its rules to the letter, you’ll always look competent. If you’re wanting to make your home movies look better or learn the basics of video editing, it’s a good start, and considerably less expensive than the route I took. Someone else paid for my initial training, but it sure wasn’t cheap.

The other thing to remember about rules: Eventually you’ll develop a sense for when to break them. And eventually you’ll give in to that sense, and you’ll discover that some shots look great even though they stomp all over the rule of thirds. Don’t worry about it. That’s the difference between breaking rules intelligently and non-intelligently. I’m sure there are sentence fragments somewhere on this page too. Most of them are there for some reason, albeit probably sick and twisted.