Was CP/M overrated?

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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Commodore 128, top-12 dud? By what measure?

PC Magazine presented a list of 12 computer duds, and while I agree with most of them, my old friend the Commodore 128 makes an appearance. Commodore released several duds over the years, but calling the 128 one of them doesn’t seem fair.
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Writing Tight 6502 Series Machine Code

This article appeared in the final issue of Twin Cities 128/64, published by Parsec, Inc. of Salem, Mass., sometime after April 1994. Parsec never paid for the article, so under the terms of Parsec’s contract, all rights reverted back to me 30 days after Parsec failed to remit payment.

So now I’m re-asserting my rights to the article. You’ll find the editing poor–all my semicolons appear to have been replaced by commas, for instance–and the writing full of cliches. But I would have been 16 or 17 when I wrote it, and I don’t think it’s a bad effort for a 17-year-old. And the article had some pretty clever tricks. I have to admit I’d forgotten 90% of what was in the article, but I recognize my own writing when I see it.

I’d like to thank Mark R. Brown, former managing editor of INFO magazine, for finding the article and bringing it to my attention. And one final word: Although I wrote this with the Commodore 128 in mind, the same tricks apply to any computer or console based on a 6502 or derivative.

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So why didn’t Commodore make the Commodore 128 differently?

I grew up on the Commodore 128. We got one for Christmas 1985 (an upgrade from a Commodore 64). It was a bit of a quirky machine, but I liked it.

On the retro computing forums, it might be the most controversial thing Commodore ever did. Which says something, seeing as some computer historians have summed up Commodore’s history in four words: Irving Gould‘s stock scam. But that’s another story.

The cool thing about Commodore was that its engineers weren’t shy about talking about their projects. Bil Herd, Fred Bowen, and Dave Haynie have all weighed in over the years, talking about what they did and why and what they would have done differently.

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How to connect a Commodore 64 or 128 to a modem

I guess it’s not exactly obvious, to someone looking at a Commodore 64 or 128, how a modem plugs in. Commodore modems plugged into the port on the far right hand side, looking from the back. If the port is labeled at all, it will be labeled “User port.” Although it had other uses, that port was used for modems far more than for any other purpose.

They used the modems to call a BBS, and what they did on the BBS wasn’t always legal. But that’s another story.

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Was California Republican Tony Krvaric Strider of Fairlight?

A story today about the possibility that a prominent California Republican, Tony Krvaric, was once a co-founder of the Commodore 64 warez group Fairlight caused an uproar on Slashdot today. The claim said Krvaric went by the handle of Strider.

Reading it brought back some memories.

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Why I like MS Office better than OpenOffice

I saw a story on Digg talking about why MS Office is so much better than OpenOffice. The argument was pretty shallow–pretty much everything it said was either untrue or could be simplified to "because it is" or "because it costs money."

I’ve used both. I have both installed on a couple of machines. I generally use MS Office. Here’s why.For virtually everything I do, OpenOffice is fine. There’s no feature in Office 2000 that I actually use that isn’t in recent builds of OpenOffice. None. I wrote a book in Office 97, and the only thing that would keep me from writing the same book again in OpenOffice might be the template I used. If OpenOffice could interpret my old publisher’s template and save it in a format my editor’s copy of Word could understand, I’d be OK.

And honestly, I think during the process of writing that book, I pushed my system a lot harder than most people do. Word 97 would crash hard on me once or twice a month, and I don’t think anyone else has ever done that.

I’ve never crashed Word 2000. I don’t know if it’s because Word 2000 is more stable or if it’s because Windows 2000 is a lot more stable than Windows 98 was. I never ran Office 97 on Windows 2000.

My complaint with OpenOffice is speed. Word launches in five seconds or less, even if I don’t have its quick-launch application in memory. Usually less. OpenOffice components load slowly, sometimes taking 30 seconds to load. If I wanted to wait 30 seconds for my word processor to load, I’d use my Commodore 128.

And while I can’t quantify it, once Word is loaded, it’s faster and more responsive. OpenOffice Writer seems to hesitate just a fraction of a second longer when I pull down a menu or hit a hotkey. There’s not a lot of difference, but it drives me nuts.

I’m spoiled, I know. I used to use a word processor called TransWrite on my Amiga. There were a lot of things TransWrite wouldn’t do, but it was lightning fast. Even on a 7 MHz Amiga, it did everything instantly.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I want is something that gives me all the features of, say, Word 95, and runs as fast as TransWrite did. Given that 1 GHz is considered a slow computer nowadays, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Neither OpenOffice nor Microsoft totally deliver, but Microsoft’s product comes a lot closer.

I absolutely, positively do not buy the argument that MS Office is more capable. Microsoft’s eternal struggle has been figuring out how to get people to upgrade their old versions of Office, because frankly when I started working in desktop support in August 1995, the existing Windows 3.1 versions of Word and Excel did everything that the people I supported wanted, even then. When I became a full-time IT worker in March 1997, one of my first jobs was rolling out Office 97. Its draw was that it was 32-bit and crashed less. It had some new features but aside from the real-time spelling and grammar checking, nobody really talked about them. Some people loved the real-time checks, and other people fell all over themselves turning them off.

Two years later, Office 2000 came out. A hotshot in the accounting department told me how much better it was, but when we really talked about the new features, his opinion was mostly due to the excitement of being the first to have the new version. Outlook was considerably better in Office 2000 than it had been in previous versions, but outside of that the only new feature I ever heard anyone mention was that the font menu displayed font names in the actual font. Access was better, but not a lot of people used it.

I’ve used Office XP and 2003. Outlook was incrementally better in both versions. But aside from Word’s booklet printing capabilities, I’ve never found anything in the newer versions of Office that I miss when I come home and use Office 2000 on my now-ancient computers.

And whenever I shift gears from Office 2000 over into OpenOffice, a few obscure features might be in a different place in the menu structure but I’ve always found what I needed.

But if for some reason I had to ditch MS Office tomorrow, I wouldn’t switch to OpenOffice. I’d load the Windows versions of AbiWord and Gnumeric.

In some regards, AbiWord and Gnumeric are closer to the 1992 versions of Word and Excel when it comes to capabilities. But they’re fast. And I’ve always been willing to sacrifice a few capabilities for a program that can operate as quickly as I can think. My only complaint about those two programs is that I never figured out how to make .doc and .xls the default file format for them.

Remember type-ins?

An article on type-in programs just showed up on Wikipedia. Ah, memories. There was a time when the programs listed in the back of a magazine were at least as important as the editorial content.I mentioned to the initial author of the article that type-ins became a bit of a bragging right. Soon after meeting someone else who subscribed to the same magazines as you, you’d ask about the longest program they’d ever typed in. I’m pretty sure in my case the longest would have been SpeedScript 128, which was a word processor published in 1987 or 1988. Another candidate is Crossroads, which was a 2D shoot-’em-up (and a really good one at that) published in 1987, but I may have bribed my sister into helping me type parts of that monstrosity in. You’d get cross-eyed after a while after looking at those pages of hexadecimal code.

The longest type-in I ever saw was a game called Vampyre Hunter, a combination text/graphics adventure game published by Compute!’s Gazette around 1986. I honestly don’t remember how long it was, but I remember it being huge. And I know someone who actually typed the whole thing in, all by himself. Naturally, I copied his rather than type it in myself. As I recall, he hadn’t typed in Crossroads, so it was a fair trade.

I still think Gazette had the best type-ins, even though its editorial content could at times be pretty weak. RUN had better editorial content, and RUN was the one to reveal the previously unknown graphics capabilities of the Commodore 128’s VDC chip, and Ahoy! was the first to show how to eliminate the VIC-II’s side and bottom borders and put graphics there, but Gazette had more type-ins, and certainly more games, which of course was mostly what interested me in the 1980s.

They’re completely impractical today, and even if they were I wouldn’t be willing to dedicate the time to keying in code, but I still fondly remembering the days of looking forward to the next issue and what goodies it would bring, and while typing in the programs wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable thing to do, it did give a sense of accomplishment (and a curiosity about what that code actually meant) and I spent hours playing the games, or modifying them. And I used SpeedScript 128 to write the first thing I ever published for money, so that was a pretty good return on the investment.

Commodore’s back!

Long, long ago, I owned a computer that was so reliable that it only ever crashed on me and caused me to lose work once. I remember it well, and I was livid about it. So much so that I never used that word processor again. And the computer never crashed on me or caused me to lose work again.

That computer was a Commodore 128.It was slow, it didn’t multitask, and I could barely type on its awful keyboard, and it irritated me that MicroLeague Baseball took 15 minutes to load if I wanted to use its General Manager and its Stat Compiler add-ons (of course I did), but from a pure reliability standpoint, that simple machine was the best computer I’ve ever owned.

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