The Byte digital archive

Here’s a treasure trove for retro computing enthusiasts. Archive.org created the Byte digital archive. It’s exactly what it sounds like: A collection of digitized issues of Byte magazine available online, free.

Numerous archives of vintage computer magazines exist, many of which are of questionable legality so I’ll refrain from saying anything specific about that.

I spent a few minutes this weekend flipping through a Byte issue from 1986. The theme of the issue was the Motorola 68000, which was the CPU that powered the original Apple Macintosh, Commodore Amiga, and Atari ST. Among other things, the issue discussed the technical differences between programming the three machines. Though they all used the same CPU, their operating systems had considerable differences.

It’s also fun just looking at the ads and seeing how far we’ve come in a quarter century. In 1986, $800 was a phenomenal deal on a no-name PC/XT clone. That’s $1,681 today, and if I had a budget like that, I’d struggle to spend it all on a single computer. A safer bet would have been the Leading Edge Model D, reviewed in that issue, which sold for $1,395. That’s an even more ridiculous $2,932 in today’s dollars.

And in reading Jerry Pournelle’s summary of the year’s Comdex, it’s easy to see where the Amiga was already going astray, even at that early hour. “[W]hile I kept hearing about all the new software for it, I never got any. Commodore’s people sent catalogs while Atari’s people sent software.” And later, “Two weeks later, Commodore laid off nearly 200 people.”

Commodore’s people told their leadership they needed to release new computers with software. Clearly Jack Tramiel listened better than Irving Gould.

All of this makes for very interesting reading, in retrospect. I’m very glad these magazines are available.

Now, about the legality of those other digitized magazine collections. It’s easy to argue those old magazines aren’t doing anybody much good. In some cases, the publisher is completely out of business, and has been for 20 years. Yet those magazines won’t fall into the public domain until 95 years after their publication date. (That copyright chart from Cornell University may very well be worth bookmarking.)

This is clearly one place where our current, Disney-centric one-size-fits-all copyright law falls short. By the time the magazines fall into the public domain, virtually everyone alive today who cares about the content will have died. And it’s questionable how many of the machines they covered will still exist in a functional state.

I’m glad old Byte content is available. I hope I live long enough for some of the other 1980s technical content to become available again.

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