Commodore Plus 4 and Commodore 16

Commodore Plus 4 and Commodore 16

Dan Bowman kindly pointed me to former Commodore engineer Bil Herd’s discussion of the ill-fated Commodore TED machines on Hackaday. Here in the States, few remember the TED specifically, but some people may remember that oddball Commodore Plus 4 that closeout companies sold for $79 in 1985 and 1986. The Commodore Plus 4 was one of those TED machines. So was the Commodore 16.

What went wrong with those machines? Commodore miscalculated what the home computer market was doing. The TED was a solution to too many problems, and ended up not solving any of them all that well. Arguably it’s more popular with vintage computer enthusiasts today than it was in the 1980s. Read more

Commodore computer models

Commodore computer models

The Commodore 64 is by far the most famous and successful computer Commodore ever made. But there were numerous Commodore computer models over the years. Some were also successful. Some were complete flops. Overall Commodore had a good 18-year run, but it could have been so much longer and better.

Let’s take a walk through the Commodore computer models from the beginning in 1976 to the bitter end in 1994.

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‘PC Does What?’ seems doomed to fail

A coalition of Dell, HP, Intel, Lenovo, and Microsoft are trying to figure out how to reverse the downward trend of PC sales, and what they came up with was a marketing campaign called “PC Does What?”

The problem is it’s not 1995 anymore, and it’s going to take more than a marketing campaign to change that.

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How the Amiga could have lived to age 30 and beyond

It was 30 years ago this week that Commodore released its landmark, long-time-coming Amiga 1000 computer–the first 1990s computer in a field full of 1970s retreads.

Yes, it was a 1990s computer in 1985. It had color and sound built in, not as expensive, clunky, hard-to-configure add-ons. It could address up to 8 megabytes of memory, though it ran admirably on a mere 512 kilobytes. Most importantly, it had fully pre-emptive multitasking, something that previously only existed in commercial workstations that cost five figures.

It was so revolutionary that even NBC is acknowledging the anniversary.

Being a decade or so ahead of its time was only the beginning of its problems, unfortunately.

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Data compression, 1980s-style–and why PKZIP won

My employer has me doing some very gray-hat work that I don’t want to describe in detail, because the information has a tremendous potential for misuse. But suffice it to say I’ve been trying to send data places the data shouldn’t go, and I tried to do it by going all 1987 on it by compressing the data with obsolete compression programs. Ever heard of security by obscurity? I was trying to bypass security by using obscurity. In the process, I learned why PKZIP won the compression wars.

This is a very good reason to deploy 64-bit Windows 7 in your enterprise, because these obsolete 16-bit compression programs won’t run under Windows 7. I found that out the hard way once I got the data through to the other side and tried to decompress it. Oops. But tell me, what’s the legitimate business need to run 16-bit DOS applications in 2014? Maybe in a sizable company, one or two people have that need. Find some other way to accommodate them, and make life difficult for attackers, OK?

I say this because I was able to get the data where I wanted it to go. What I found was that once I got the data where I wanted it, and moved to a machine that could run my 16-bit decompression program (back then the compressor and decompressor were often different programs), the data was corrupted more often than not.

Of course, in my BBSing days, it sure seemed like a lot of my downloads wouldn’t decompress correctly, or they’d decompress but the program wouldn’t run. I always blamed my modem and line noise, the bane of BBSing in days of yore. But, for some reason, after PKZIP came along and became popular, downloads worked a lot better. Then along came some other programs like LHARC and its cousins, and they were perfectly reliable too, and tended to compress better than PKZIP did. Naturally, I became a fan. If it’s better and doomed to fail, I always like it. PKZIP of course was the first one to be really reliable, so it quickly became entrenched, and its format won. You don’t see .LZH or .LHA files in the English-speaking world anymore.

So I guess I owe my modems an apology. In an environment free of line noise, those early, finicky, boy band-loving compression programs still failed too often for me to do what I wanted to do.

On a semi-related note, the algorithm could sometimes compress better than the original program could. Here’s some info on alternative ZIP utilities that compress better.

The trade off of fidelity and convenience in marketing, and how it doomed my favorite company

I’m reading a book called Trade-Off, by former USA Today technology columnist Kevin Maney. It’s primarily a marketing book.

Maney argues that all products are a balance of fidelity and convenience, and highly favor one or the other. He additionally argues that failed products fail because they attempted to achieve both, or failed to focus on either one.

An example of a convenient product is an economy car. They’re inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to keep fueled up, but don’t have much glitz and you probably won’t fall in love with it. A high-end sports car or luxury car is a lot less practical, but you’re a lot more likely to fall in love with it, and gain prestige by driving around town in it. Read more

Windows 8 won’t fail just because nobody likes Windows upgrades

John C Dvorak wrote today about the great upgrade upheaval, and argued that Windows 8 is doomed to fail because it’s just going to be too hard to upgrade, and nobody likes Windows upgrades anyway.

I agree on the first point but not the second.

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What happened to GEM?

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. (Digital Equipment Corporation was a different company.) 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 did indeed resemble 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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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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I was on vacation

I went on vacation and I guess my DSL connection got jealous. As far as I can tell it died two days into the trip. Figures. So that’s why the site’s been dead.

If it interests youm I’ll tell you about my trip.I went with the girlfriend’s family to Orange Beach, Alabama, which is close to Pensacola, Florida. In Alabama the beaches are just about as white and much easier to walk on because it’s softer, but the shell hunting is better across the Florida border.

My St. Louis buddies say I’ve already lost the twang I picked up down there. That’s a good thing. I’m a northern boy.

Train fans will have something to look at near the intersection of highways 59 and 98 in Foley, AL. An old Louisville & Nashville diesel switcher locomotive, L&N caboose and boxcar are there, along with a St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) boxcar. They appear to be in reasonably good condition.

The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is excellent. I could spend days there. Take the 11 AM restoration tour if at all possible. They take you out into the airfield where planes that won’t fit in the museum are displayed, but they also take you inside the hangar where you can see their works in progress. In front of the hanger was what was left of a Brewster Buffalo, an early Navy fighter from World War II. It’s something of a holy grail today, because its ineffectiveness against the Japanese Zero doomed it early in the war. We sold a bunch of them to Finland and palmed a few more off on the British while the Navy did its best with the Grumman Wildcat, which was slightly less ineffective, while waiting for the Hellcat and Corsair fighters.

But anyway, they had the *censored*pit section of a Buffalo in front of the hangar and another Buffalo inside, which was waiting for its wings to be installed and a trip to the paint shop. They were also working on a replica of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. She wasn’t in the Navy, but her role in aviation and women’s acceptance in it means the museum was interested in the plane. The widespread belief that the Japanese believed her to be a U.S. spy and shot her plane down doesn’t hurt, either.

For great fish and seafood, check out Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, AL. We had an hour and a half wait, which we passed by browsing the adjacent shops. I imagine that’s the source of most of those shops’ business. The shops aren’t earth-shattering but won’t bore you to tears either. The seafood is.

Flounders Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, Florida, is also amazing. Don’t ask me which one’s better. I think Flounders has the better atmosphere but the food in both places is first-rate. While just about every seafood place in the area is going to be better than Red Lobster, it’s easy to find disappointingly mediocre seafood in the area. But these two places knocked my socks off.

I made a new friend outside Papa Rocco’s in Gulf Shores. A sign outside Papa Rocco’s advertises warm beer and lousy pizza. Seriously, that’s what it said. I was walking across the Papa Rocco’s lot on my way to a souvenir shop when a woman started yelling at me. I kept walking but turned a couple of times. When I turned and looked at her, she yelled, "Yeah, I’m talking to you!" She wasn’t anyone I knew and she was obviously drunk. I have no idea why she was upset with me. I picked up my pace and got lost in the souvenir shop as quickly as I could.

I was crossing Papa Rocco’s to get a good look at Tracks To BBQ. Obviously if I’m on the Atlantic coast I’m going to eat seafood, since I can get good BBQ closer to home. But the ad for Tracks To advertised "Antique model train cars on display." So of course I wanted to check it out. Peering into the window, I was able to see that it was a small establishment, with only two or three tables inside. I saw a couple of Lionel posters on the wall and some assorted trinkets in the window. Further back, next to the cash register, I saw a couple of old OO or HO scale train cars that looked pretty old. What appeared to be a locomotive in the original box sat next to them. On a shelf below that I saw a postwar Lionel hopper car. I paid $10 for the same car at a swap meet last month. Nothing earth shattering there, at least not from what I could see inside. That’s not to say there wasn’t something cool running on a shelf under the ceiling, but I couldn’t tell from outside and the establishment was closed.

I’d hoped to see some prewar tinplate. Oh well.

The outlet mall in Foley is large and you can spot the occasional bargain. Some of the shops were handing out 40% off coupons for other shops in the complex. I got a pair of $50 Reebok tennis shoes for $20. I thought about buying a pair of the canvas Reebok Classic shoes as well. They would have been $12 with a coupon. I’ve had a couple of pairs of them in the past and they’re decent shoes. I’ve had shoes that were better looking and lasted longer, but in most cases I also paid $60 for them.

But as with all of these kinds of places, caveat emptor. I tried on plenty of shoes with lumpy soles. Those shoes aren’t worth taking for free because of what they’ll do to your feet. And mixed with the bargains you can find some high-priced items that are trading on reputation. Careful shoppers can save a bundle though.

I also learned that a large sand castle can attract a lot of attention. We built one large enough for a 4-year-old to hide in completely. It drew lots of looks and comments.

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