Commodore 64 vs VIC-20

Commodore 64 vs VIC-20

How do you compare the Commodore 64 vs VIC-20?

The Commodore 64 and its predecessor, the VIC-20, look a lot alike, and the VIC-20’s design certainly influenced the 64. The 64 is the best selling computer model of all time, and I argue the VIC-20 was the first really successful home computer. The success of the two machines allowed Commodore to surpass Radio Shack as the sales leader in the computer industry. Yes, both Commodore and Radio Shack outsold Apple.

But even though the two machines are closely related, there are significant differences between them. It’s important to remember that in the 1980s, two years was a comparatively long time because the market was moving so fast. Plus, the VIC-20 was always supposed to be an entry-level machine. In 1982, the 64 was supposed to be fairly high-end. Let’s compare and contrast the two venerable machines.

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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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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

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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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

How DOS came to be IBM’s choice of operating system

The urban legend says Gary Kildall snubbed the IBM suits by making them wait in his living room for hours while he flew around in his airplane, and the suits, not taking it well, decided to cut him out of the deal and opted to do business with Bill Gates and Microsoft, thus ending Digital Research’s short reign as the biggest manufacturer of software for small computers.

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Why I dislike Microsoft

“Windows 2000,” I muttered as one of my computers fired up so my girlfriend could use it. “Must mean something about the number of bugs that’ll be discovered tomorrow.”
She told me she liked Windows and asked me why I hated Microsoft so much.

It’s been a while since I thought about that. She speculated that I was annoyed that Bill Gates is smarter than me. (Which he probably is, but aside from a couple more books in print, it hasn’t gotten him anything I don’t have that I want.) There’s more to it than that.

I’m still annoyed about the foundation Microsoft built its evil empire upon. In the ’70s, Microsoft was a languages company, and they specialized in the language Basic. Microsoft Basic wasn’t the best Basic on the market, but it was the standard. And when IBM decided it wanted to enter the personal computer market, IBM wanted Microsoft Basic because nobody would take them seriously if they didn’t. So they started talking to Microsoft.

IBM also wanted the CP/M operating system. CP/M wasn’t the best operating system either, but it was the standard. IBM was getting ready to negotiate with Gary Kildall, owner of Digital Research and primary author of the OS, and ran into snags. Gates’ account was that Kildall went flying and kept the IBM suits waiting and then refused to work with them. More likely, the free-spirited and rebellious Kildall didn’t want to sign all the NDAs IBM wanted him to sign.

Microsoft was, at the time, a CP/M subcontractor. Microsoft sold a plug-in board for Apple II computers that made them CP/M-compatible. So IBM approached Microsoft about re-selling CP/M. Microsoft couldn’t do it. And that bothered Gates.

But another Microsoft employee had a friend named Tim Patterson. Tim Patterson was an employee of Seattle Computer Products, a company that sold an 8086-based personal computer similar to the computer IBM was developing. CP/M was designed for computers based on the earlier 8080 and 8085 CPUs. Patterson, tired of waiting for a version of CP/M for the 8086, cloned it.

So Seattle Computer Products had something IBM wanted, and Microsoft was the only one who knew it. So Microsoft worked out a secret deal. For $50,000, they got Patterson and his operating system, which they then licensed to IBM. Patterson’s operating system became PC DOS 1.0.

Back in the mid-1990s, PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak wrote something curious about this operating system. He said he knew of an easter egg present in CP/M in the late 1970s that caused Kildall’s name and a copyright notice to be printed. Very early versions (presumably before the 1.0 release) of DOS had this same easter egg. This of course screams copyright violation.

Copyright violation or none, Kildall was enraged the first time he saw DOS 1.0 because it was little more than a second-rate copy of his life’s work. And while Digital Research easily could have taken on Microsoft (it was the bigger company at the time), the company didn’t stand a prayer in court against the mighty IBM. So the three companies made some secret deals. The big winner was Microsoft, who got to keep its (possibly illegal) operating system.

Digital Research eventually released CP/M-86, but since IBM sold CP/M-86 for $240 and DOS for $60, it’s easy to see which one gained marketshare, especially since the two systems weren’t completely compatible. Digital Research even added multiuser and multitasking abilities to it, but they were ignored. In 1988, DR-DOS was released. It was nearly 100% compatible with MS-DOS, faster, less expensive, and had more features. Microsoft strong-armed computer manufacturers into not using it and even put cryptic error messages in Windows to discourage the end users who had purchased DR-DOS as an upgrade from using it. During 1992, DR-DOS lost nearly 90% of its marketshare, declining from $15.5 million in sales in the first quarter to just $1.4 million in the fourth quarter.

Digital Research atrophied away and was eventually bought out by Novell in 1991. Novell, although the larger company, fared no better in the DOS battle. They released Novell DOS 7, based on DR-DOS, in 1993, but it was mostly ignored. Novell pulled it from the market within months. Novell eventually sold the remnants of Digital Research to Caldera Inc., who created a spinoff company with the primary purpose of suing Microsoft for predatory behavior that locked a potential competitor out of the marketplace.

Caldera and Microsoft settled out of court in January 2000. The exact terms were never disclosed.

Interestingly, even though it was its partnership with IBM that protected Microsoft from the wrath of Gary Kildall in 1981, Microsoft didn’t hesitate to backstab IBM when it got the chance. By 1982, clones of IBM’s PC were beginning to appear on the market. Microsoft sold the companies MS-DOS, and even developed a custom version of Basic for them that worked around a ROM compatibility issue. While there was nothing illegal about turning around and selling DOS to its partner’s competitors, it’s certainly nobody’s idea of a thank-you.

Microsoft’s predatory behavior in the 1980s and early ’90s wasn’t limited to DOS. History is littered with other operating systems that tried to take on DOS and Windows and lost: GeoWorks. BeOS. OS/2. GeoWorks was an early GUI programmed in assembly language by a bunch of former videogame programmers. It was lightning fast and multitasked, even on 10 MHz XTs and 286s. It was the most successful of the bunch in getting OEM deals, but you’ve probably never heard of it. OS/2 was a superfast and stable 32-bit operating system that ran DOS and Windows software as well as its own, a lot like Windows NT. By Gates’ own admission it was better than anything Microsoft had in the 1990s. But it never really took off, partly because of IBM’s terrible marketing, but partly because Microsoft’s strong-arm tactics kept even IBM’s PC division from shipping PCs with it much of the time. BeOS was a completely new operating system, written from scratch, that was highly regarded for its speed. It never got off the ground because Microsoft completely locked it out of new computer bundles.

Microsoft used its leverage in operating systems to help it gain ground in applications as well. In the 1980s, the market-leading spreadsheet was Lotus 1-2-3. There was an alleged saying inside Microsoft’s DOS development group: DOS ain’t done ’til Lotus won’t run. Each new DOS revision, from version 3 onward, broke third-party applications. Lotus 1-2-3, although once highly regarded, is a noncontender in today’s marketplace.

Once Windows came into being, things only got worse. Microsoft’s treatment of Netscape was deplorable. For all intents and purposes, Microsoft had a monopoly on operating systems by 1996, and Netscape had a monopoly on Web browsers. Netscape was a commercial product, sold in retail stores for about $40, but most of its distribution came through ISPs, who bought it at a reduced rate and provided it to their subscribers. Students could use it for free. Since the Web was becoming a killer app, Netscape had a booming business. Microsoft saw this as a threat to its Windows franchise, since Netscape ran well not only on Windows, but also on the Mac, OS/2 and on a number of flavors of Unix. So Microsoft started bunding Internet Explorer with Windows and offering it as a free download for those who already had Windows, or had an operating system other than Windows, such as Mac OS. In other industries, this is called tying or dumping, and it’s illegal. Netscape, once the darling of Wall Street, was bought for pennies on the dollar by AOL, and AOL-Time Warner is still trying to figure out what to do with it. Once Microsoft attained a monopoly on Web browsers, innovation in that space stopped. Internet Explorer has gotten a little bit faster and more standards compliant since IE4, but Microsoft hasn’t put any innovation in the browser for five years. Want popup blocking or tabs? You won’t find either in IE. All of the innovation in that space has come in browsers with a tiny piece of the market.

One could argue that consumers now get Web browsers for free, where they didn’t before. Except every new computer came with a Web browser, and most ISPs provided a browser when you signed up. So there were lots of ways to get a Web browser for free in the mid-’90s.

And when it came to the excesses of the dotcom era, Netscape was among the worst. But whether Netscape could have kept up its perks given its business model is irrelevant when a predator comes in and overnight renders unsalable the product that accounts for 90% of your revenue.

Allegations popped up again after Windows 95’s release that Win95 sabotoged competitors’ office software, such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Within a couple of years, Microsoft Office was a virtual monopoly, with Lotus SmartSuite existing almost exclusively as a budget throw-in with new PCs and WordPerfect Office being slightly more common on new PCs and an also-ran in the marketplace. It’s been five years since any compelling new feature has appeared in Microsoft Office. The most glaring example of this is spam filtering. Innovative e-mail clients today have some form of automatic spam filtering, either present or in development. Outlook doesn’t. “Microsoft Innovation” today means cartoon characters telling you how to indent paragraphs.

And the pricing hasn’t really come down either. When office suites first appeared in 1994, they cost around $500. A complete, non-upgrade retail copy of Microsoft Office XP still costs about $500.

Pricing hasn’t come down on Windows either. In the early 90s, the DOS/Windows bundle cost PC manufacturers about $75. Today, Windows XP Home costs PC manufacturers about $100. The justification is that Windows XP Home is more stable and has more features than Windows 3.1. Of course, the Pentium 4 is faster and less buggy than the original Pentium of 1994, but it costs a lot less. Neither chip can touch Windows’ 85% profit margin.

And when Microsoft wasn’t busy sabotaging competitors’ apps, it was raiding its personnel. Microsoft’s only really big rival in the languages business in the ’80s and early ’90s was Borland, a company founded by the flambouyant Phillippe Kahn. Gates had a nasty habit of raiding Borland’s staff and picking off their stars. It didn’t go both ways. If a Microsoft employee defected, the employee could expect a lawsuit.

Well, Kahn decided to play the game once. He warmed up to a Microsoft staffer whose talents he believed weren’t being fully utilized. The employee didn’t want to jump ship because Microsoft would sue him. Kahn said fine, let Microsoft sue, and Borland would pay whatever was necessary. So he defected. As expected, Gates was enraged and Microsoft sued.

Soon afterward, Kahn and his new hire were in an airport when a Hare Krishna solicited a donation. Kahn handed him $100 on the spot and told him there was a whole lot more in it for him if he’d deliver a message to Bill Gates: “Phillippe just gave us $100 for hot food because he suspects after this lawsuit, your employees are going to need it.”

He delivered the message. Gates wasn’t amused.

It was a bold, brash move. And I think it was pretty darn funny too. But smart? Not really. Borland’s glory days were pretty much over 10 years ago. For every star Borland could lure away, Microsoft could lure away three. Borland’s still in business today, which makes it fairly unique among companies that have taken on Microsoft head-on, but only after several reorganizations and major asset selloffs.

The only notable company that’s taken on Microsoft in the marketplace directly and won has been Intuit, the makers of Quicken. Microsoft even gave away its Quicken competitor, Microsoft Money, for a time, a la Internet Explorer, in an effort to gain market share. When that failed, Microsoft bought Intuit outright. The FTC stepped in and axed the deal.

The thanks Microsoft has given the world for making it the world’s largest software company has been to sell buggy software and do everything it could to force companies and individuals to buy upgrades every couple of years, even when existing software is adequate for the task. While hardware manufacturers scrape for tiny margins, Microsoft enjoys 85% profit margins on its product. But Microsoft mostly sits on its cash, or uses it to buy companies or products since it has a terrible track record of coming up with ideas on its own. The company has never paid dividends, so it’s not even all that much of a friend to its own investors.

For me, the question isn’t why I dislike Microsoft. The question for me is why Microsoft has any friends left.

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.

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