Women in tech: The forgotten story of Vector Graphic

I frequently hear lamentations about the number of women in the technology field–or the lack of them. Although there have been a number of successful women in the field, such as Meg Whitman, CEO of HP and formerly Ebay; Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo; and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, men outnumber women in the field and often by a large margin.

That perhaps makes it even more sad that Vector Graphic is largely forgotten today. Last week Fast Company profiled this pioneering computer company that time forgot.

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The Altair 837016 LED outdoor fixture from Costco

My front porch lights sustained damage in a recent storm, so I looked to replace them. Costco offers the Altair 837016 for about $38, and it has two energy-saving features: It turns itself off if it’s light outside, and it uses LEDs that deliver 950 lumens while consuming 10.5 watts.

And they do it while looking like $40 lights. You can also buy them from Amazon if there isn’t a Costco near you.

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A snapshot in history of Gates and Microsoft, 1992

Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire is a 1992 autobiography of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. It’s old. But it’s a compelling snapshot of what the industry thought of Gates and Microsoft before Windows 95, before Microsoft Office, and before Internet Explorer. Indeed, it gives an early glimpse into the struggle to bring Windows to market, some of the bad bets Microsoft cast on its early productivity software, and just how close Microsoft came to betting the company on the success of the Apple Macintosh.

If Microsoft’s history were written today, many of these stories would probably be forgotten.

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Reactions to Allen’s memoir. And my reactions to them.

I hate April Fool’s Day. So nobody thinks this is an April Fool’s joke, I’ll just write more about what I wrote about yesterday, concentrating on media reactions to Paul Allen’s memoir. Then, tomorrow, I’ll revisit a very serious, important topic. Read more

Paul Allen’s tearing into Gates seems familiar

You’ve probably heard by now about Vanity Fair publishing an excerpt from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s autobiography,  which doesn’t give the most flattering portrayal of Bill Gates, his former business partner.

I’ve heard most of these stories before, though I’m trying to figure out where. What surprises me is the people who are acting like this stuff came out of the blue. If I’ve heard most of this stuff before, then so have a lot of people.
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Commodore’s founder comes out of hiding

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.

Jack Tramiel in 2007. Photo credit: Alex Handy/Flickr

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.

News.com 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.)

Craig Mundie’s infamous speech

I haven’t said anything about Microsoft Executive Craig Mundie’s speech yet. Everyone’s heard of it, of course, and the typical response has been something along the lines of “Now we know Microsoft’s stance on Open Source.”

No, we’ve always known Microsoft’s stance on that. They’re scared of it. Remember the stereotype of open-source programmers: college students and college dropouts writing software in their basements that a lot of people are using, with the goal of toppling an industry giant. Seem far-fetched? Friends, that’s the story of Microsoft itself. Microsoft became an underground sensation in the late 1970s with Microsoft Basic, a programming language for the Altair and other kit computers and later for CP/M. And while we’ll probably never know the entire story of how and why this happened, when IBM decided to outsource the operating system for the IBM PC, they went to Microsoft and got both an OS and the must-have Microsoft Basic. Ten years later, IBM was just another hardware maker–really big, but getting squeezed. Today, 20 years later, IBM’s still a huge force in the computing industry, but in the PC industry, aside from selling ThinkPads, IBM’s a nobody. There may be hardware enthusiasts out there who’d be surprised to hear IBM makes and sells more than just hard drives.

Ironically, Microsoft’s response to this new threat is to act more and more like the giant it toppled. Shared Source isn’t a new idea. IBM was doing that in the 1960s. If you were big enough, you could see the source code. DEC did it too. At work, we have the source code to most of the big VMS applications we depend on day-to-day. Most big operations insist on having that kind of access, so their programmers can add features and fix bugs quickly. If Windows 2000 is ever going to get beyond the small server space, they really have no choice. But they do it with strings attached and without going far enough. An operation the size of the one I work for can’t get the source and fix bugs or optimize the code for a particular application. You’re only permitted to use the source code to help you develop drivers or applications. Meet the new Microsoft: same as the old Microsoft.

Some people have read this speech and concluded that Microsoft believes open-source software killed the dot-com boom. That’s ludicrous, and I don’t see that in the text. OSS was very good for the dot-com boom. OSS lowered the cost of entry: Operating systems such as FreeBSD and Linux ran on cheap PCs, rather than proprietary hardware. The OSs themselves were free, and there was lots of great free software available, such as the Apache Web server, and scripting languages like Python and Perl. You could do all this cool stuff, the same cool stuff you could do with a Sun or SGI server, for the price of a PC. And not only was it cheaper than everybody else, it was also really reliable.

The way I read it, Microsoft didn’t blame OSS for the dot-com bust. Microsoft blamed the advertising model, valuing market share over revenue, and giving stuff away now and then trying to get people to pay later.

I agree. The dot-com boom died because companies couldn’t find ways to make money. But I’m not convinced the dot-com boom was a big mistake. It put the Internet on the map. Before 1995, when the first banner ad ran, there wasn’t much to the Internet. I remember those early days. As a college student in 1993, the Internet was a bonanza to me, even though I wasn’t using it to the extent a lot of my peers were. For me, the Internet was FTP and Gopher and e-mail. I mostly ignored Usenet and IRC. That was pretty much the extent of the Internet. You had to be really determined or really bored or really geeky to get much of anything out of it. The World Wide Web existed, but that was a great mystery to most of us. The SGI workstations on campus had Web browsers. We knew that Mosaic had been ported to Windows, but no one in the crowd I ran in knew how to get it working. When we finally got it running on some of our PCs in 1994, what we found was mostly personal homepages. “Hi, my name is Darren and this is my homepage. Here are some pictures of my cat. Here’s a listing of all the CDs I own. Here are links to all my friends who have homepages.” The running joke then was that there were only 12 pages on the Web, and the main attraction of the 12 was links to the other 11.

By 1995, we had the first signs of business. Banner ads appeared, and graduating students (or dropouts) started trying to build companies around their ideas. The big attraction of the Web was that there was all this information out there, and it was mostly free. Online newspapers and magazines sprung up. Then vendors sprung up, offering huge selections and low prices. You could go to Amazon.com and find any book in print, and you’d pay less for it than you would at Barnes & Noble. CDNow.com did the same thing for music. And their ads supported places that were giving information away. So people started buying computers so they could be part of the show. People flocked from closed services like CompuServe and Prodigy to plain-old Internet, which offered so much more and was cheaper.

Now the party’s ending as dot-coms close up shop, often with their content gone forever. To me, that’s a loss only slightly greater than the loss of the Great Library. There’s some comfort for me: Five years from now, most of that information would be obsolete anyway. But its historical value would remain. But setting sentiment aside, that bonanza of freebies was absolutely necessary. When I was selling computers in 1994, people frequently asked me what a computer was good for. In 1995, it was an easier sell. Some still asked that question, but a lot of people came in wanting “whatever I need to get to be able to get on the Internet.” Our best-selling software package, besides Myst, was Internet In A Box, which bundled dialup software, a Web browser, and access to some nationwide provider. I imagine sales were easier still in 1996 and beyond, but I was out of retail by then. Suddenly, you could buy this $2,000 computer and get all this stuff for free. A lot of companies made a lot of money off that business model. Microsoft made a killing. Dell and Gateway became behemoths. Compaq made enough to buy DEC. AOL made enough to buy Time Warner. Companies like Oracle and Cisco, who sold infrastructure, had licenses to print money. Now the party’s mostly over and these companies have massive hangovers, but what’s the answer to the Ronald Reagan question? Hangover or no hangover, yes, they’re a whole heck of a lot better off than they were four years ago.

I’m shocked that Microsoft thinks the dot-com phenomenon was a bad thing.

If, in 1995, the Web came into its own but every site had been subscription-based, this stuff wouldn’t have happened. It was hard enough to swallow $2,000 for a new PC, plus 20 bucks a month for Internet. Now I have to pay $9.95 a month to read a magazine? I could just subscribe to the paper edition and save $2,500!

The new Internet would have been the same as the old Internet, only you’d have to be more than just bored, determined, and geeky to make it happen. You’d also have to have a pretty big pile of cash.

The dot-com boom put the Internet on the map, made it the hot ticket. The dot-com bust hurt. Now that sites are dropping out of the sky or at least scaling operations way back, more than half of the Web sites I read regularly are Weblogs–today’s new and improved personal home page. People just like me. The biggest difference between 1994 and 2001? The personal home pages are better. Yeah, the pictures of the cat are still there sometimes, but at least there’s wit and wisdom and insight added. When I click on those links to the left, I usually learn something.

But there is another difference. Now we know why it would make sense to pay for a magazine on the Internet instead of paper. Information that takes a month to make it into print goes online in minutes. It’s much easier and faster to type a word into a search engine than to leaf through a magazine. We can hear any baseball game we want, whether a local radio station carries our favorite team or not. The world’s a lot smaller and faster now, and we’ve found we like it.

The pump is primed. Now we have to figure out how to make this profitable. The free ride is pretty much over. But now that we’ve seen what’s possible, we’re willing to start thinking about whipping out the credit cards again and signing up, provided the cost isn’t outrageous.

The only thing in Mundie’s speech that I can see that Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox and Dan Gillmor should take offense to is Microsoft’s suspicion of anyone giving something away for free. Sure, Microsoft gives lots of stuff away, but always with ulterior motives. Internet Explorer is free because Microsoft was afraid of Netscape. Outlook 98 was free for a while to hurt Lotus Notes. Microsoft Money was free for a while so Microsoft could get some share from Quicken. It stopped being free when Microsoft signed a deal with Intuit to bundle Internet Explorer with Quicken instead of Netscape. And there are other examples.

Microsoft knows that you can give stuff away with strings attached and make money off the residuals. What Microsoft hasn’t learned is that you can give stuff away without the strings attached and still make money off the residuals. The dot-com bust only proves that you can’t necessarily make as much as you may have thought, and that you’d better spend what you do make very wisely.

The Internet needs to be remade, yes, and it needs to find some sustainable business models (one size doesn’t fit all). But if Mundie thinks the world is chomping at the bit to have Microsoft remake the Internet their way, he’s in for a rude awakening.

More Like This: Microsoft Linux Weblogs Internet Commentary

Open source and innovation

Innovation. And of course I can’t let this slip by. Microsoft is trying to say that open source stifles innovation. Steve DeLassus and I have been talking about this (he was the one who originally pointed it out to me), and I think he and I are in agreement that open source by nature isn’t inherently innovative. It may improve on another idea or add features, but most open source projects (and certainly the most successful ones) are clones of proprietary software. Then again, so was a lot of Microsoft software, starting out. Pot, meet Kettle. Kettle, meet Pot.

But although the programs themselves aren’t always innovative, I think the open source atmosphere can stimulate innovation. Huh? Bear with me. Open source gets you in closer contact with computer internals than a Microsoft or Apple OS generally will. That gets you thinking more about what’s possible and what’s not–the idea of what’s possible starts to have more to do with the hardware than it does with what people have tried before. That stimulates creativity, which in turn stimulates innovation.

Need an example? A calculator company called Busicom accidentally invented the personal computer. I’ve heard several versions of the story, but the gist of it was, Busicom wanted to create a programmable calculator. In the process of creating this device, they commissioned the Intel 4004 CPU, the first chip of its kind. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the resulting product even used the Intel 4004, but that’s immaterial–this calculator’s other innovation was its inclusion of a tape drive.

Intel bought back the rights and marketed the 4004 on its own and became a success story, of course. Meanwhile, people started using their Busicom calculators as inexpensive computers–the built-in tape drive worked as well for data storage as it did for program storage. This was in 1970-1971, several years before the Altair and other kit computers.

Four years later, Busicom was out of business but the revolution was under way, all because some people–both engineers at Intel and end-users who bought the calculators–looked beyond the device’s intended use and saw something more.

Open source software frequently forces you to do the same thing, or it at least encourages it. This fuels innovation, and thus should be encouraged, if anything.

Last week’s flood. No, I haven’t answered all the mail about it. I’m going to give it another day before I deal with it, because dealing with a ton of mail is frankly harder than just writing content from scratch. I don’t mind occasionally, but I’d rather wait until a discussion reaches critical mass, you know?

One reader wrote in asking why foreigners care about U.S. gun laws. I don’t really have an answer to that question. I find it very interesting that no American has yet voiced any strong objections to anything I said–I even had a lifelong liberal Democrat write in, and while she stayed to my left, she advocated enforcement of the laws we already have on the books, rather than an outright ban. She’d force more safety classes, but I don’t have any real objections to that notion.

An interesting upgrade approach. The Register reported about a new upgrade board, about to be released by Hypertec, that plugs into any PC with an available ISA slot and upgrades the CPU, video, and sound subsystems. I’m assuming it also replaces the memory subsystem, since pulling system memory through the ISA bus would be pitifully slow.

The solution will be more expensive than a motherboard swap, but for a corporation that has a wide variety of obsolescent PCs, it might be a good solution. First, it’s cheaper than outright replacement. Second, it creates common ground where there was none: two upgraded systems would presumably be able to use the same Ghost/DriveImage/Linux DD image, lowering administrative costs and, consequently, TCO. Third, corporations are frequently more willing to upgrade, rather than replace, existing systems even when it doesn’t make economic sense to do so (that’s corporate management for you).

Depending on the chipset it uses and the expected timeframe, I may be inclined to recommend these for the company I work for. We’ve got anywhere from 30-100 systems that aren’t capable of running Office 2000 for whatever reason. Some of them are just old Micron Client Pros, others are Micron Millenias who were configured by idiots (a local clone shop that we used to contract with way back when–I’ve never seen anyone configure NT in a more nonsensical manner), others are clones built by idiots, and others are well-built clones that just happen to be far too old to upgrade economically.

Many of these machines can be upgraded–the Microns are all ATX, so an Intel motherboard and a low-end CPU would be acceptable. Most of the others are ATs and Socket 7-based. An upgrade CPU would likely work, but will be pricey and compatibility is always a dicey issue, and most businesses are still stuck in the Intel-only mindset. (Better not tell them Macintoshes don’t use Intel CPUs–wait… Someone PLEASE tell them Macs don’t use Intel CPUs! Yeah, I’ll be an Intel lackey in exchange for never having to troubleshoot an extension conflict on a Mac again. But that’s another story.) They all need memory upgrades, and buying SIMMs in this day and age is a sucker bet. Average price of the upgrades would be $550, but we’d have a hodgepodge of systems. If we can get common ground and two years of useful life for $700 from Hypertec, upper management would probably approve it.



Keyboards; Optimizing Windows

Sweet! In Optimizing Windows, I lamented that no one had made a hardware RAM disk. Leave it to the Aussies, someone did it. I found a reference to Platypus Technologies ( www.platypus.net ) on Storage Review’s forum. It’s pricey–a half-gig disk will run $1,500, while an 8-gig job runs into five figures–but you’ll never find anything faster. It’s a plug-in PCI card that uses SDRAM DIMMs. Whether it’ll take off-the-shelf DIMMs or just Platypus-manufactured DIMMs, I’m not sure.

I’d love to see this catch on and drive the price down. The size seems a bit small, but keep in mind that for, say, a Web server, speed is much more important than size, and a half gig will hold an awful lot of HTML. And there was a time when operating systems and a reasonable number of apps easily fit in half a gig, if you’re thinking workstations.

I’d say I think I’m in love, but that’s not true. This device is 100% Grade-A lust. Now the question becomes how do I convince Computer Shopper UK that they’ve really got to do an in-depth look at this killer device, and that I’m absolutely, positively the guy they have to have do it…?

One-button Linux shutdowns. Here’s a great idea.  A lot of people run headless Linux boxes for firewalls or routers or Web servers or other things. But that once or twice a year you need to shut the machine down–due to power failures, for instance–becomes a real pain without a keyboard or mouse. You have to telnet or ssh in, issue the command… Or keep a monitor and keyboard handy, which just wastes space most of the time.

Here’s a solution: a case-mounted pushbutton with a pair of LEDs. Push the button, the PC shuts down. It plugs into a serial port and needs a small daemon to monitor the serial line.

And it occurs to me that nothing stops you from using the PC’s reset switch and its power and HDD LEDs–or turbo LED if it has one–and with that slight modification, it would require no modification to the case. Just put connectors on the PCB for the switch and LEDs and mount it somewhere inside.

Also, I looked at the source code for the daemon, and it would be extremely easy to mofify this project to do any other task–just go to the runshutdown() function and change the system(“/sbin/shutdown -t2 -h now”); command to execute any other Unix command. The C source code is so simple, even a journalist like me can modify it.

If I were building another Linux-based Cable/DSL gateway, I’d probably pull that line and replace it with these two:

   system(“kill -9 $(pidof -x pumpd)”);
   system(“/etc/rc.d/init.d/network restart”);
That way, with the push of a button, the gateway could go grab a new IP address.

And if you have multiple serial ports, nothing stops you from building one of these switches for each port and modifying this daemon to run additional commands. A throwback to the Imsai and Altair days, to be sure.

Too bad you don’t see much of this kind of stuff anymore.

Samba. Speaking of Linux, that was one of the weekend’s projects. My church ran out of IP addresses, so I took an old P166, threw a pair of NICs in it, and set up IP masquerading on it (Mandrake 7.2 makes this so nice–just run DrakConf, run Internet Connection Sharing, answer its questions, and you’re in business), then I started assigning 192-net numbers to the PCs that didn’t have addresses. It worked great. Since I had a Linux box with an 8-gig drive just sitting there, I decided I also wanted to set it up as a server. So I tried to configure Samba as an NT domain controller and fell flat on my face. It showed up in Network Neighborhood, but I couldn’t authenticate against it no matter what I tried.

I decided yesterday I was being too ambitious. I reformatted my P120, installed Mandrake 7.2 on it, and configured Samba to just look like a plain old Win95 box. It worked great. They’re not used to having a big network at church, and they’re all on Win98 boxes anyway, so I think I’ll just configure Samba to do user-level authentication, create a few shares, and let it go at that. The primary convenience of the server is the AV booth; one of the staff puts together PowerPoint presentations for the service, which are then loaded on a pair of PCs up in the AV booth for projection on Sundays and Wednesdays. The server will allow them to edit in their office, then go to the AV booth without shuttling around Zip disks. Chances are the DCE, who also serves as the resident PC expert, will also use a share there to store device drivers and other downloaded stuff he finds himself using often. Other than that, the server probably won’t get a lot of work, so trying to create an NT domain with hardcore security probably isn’t a good investment of my time.

So I’ll probably just create an AV share, create a public share that’s read/write accessible to anyone, then I’ll share out home directories and show him how to create user accounts. That way if anyone else wants to use a network drive, it’s there, but not mandatory.


Keyboards; Optimizing Windows

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