Monday, 22 February 2021

Computers I Have Known - Part IIe

Next up in my Computers I Have Known "journey" (ugh) is the classic Apple IIe, in this case the final, "Platinum" edition with 128Kb of RAM, numeric keypad, light grey case, matching monitor and 5.25" floppy drive.
By this time, my family and I had migrated from the UK to Australia, and the Electron, although it had come with us, may as well have been made of cheese. Nobody had heard of it, nobody used it, it was a dead end. My Dad, still working off the "buy what they use at school" advice from before, went completely bananas with a full IIe "educational pack" which bundled in a Star NL-10 9-pin dot matrix printer and a ton of "educational software" (most of which was shareware, but had at least been gathered together and well-organised)

Having a printer was Very Exciting, and considerable amounts of ink were consumed with the classic Print Shop banners being the main culprit. I vividly remember the THINKING ... THINKING ... THINKING ... PRINTING screens that Print Shop displayed while you waited 15, 20 or more minutes for a big banner to tractor-feed its way into the world.


The Apple II was already a bit long-in-the-tooth when we got it around 1989 - it had an amazing run for such an "average" 8-bit machine - no doubt helped by Apple's strategy of getting it into schools. It was certainly quite depressing seeing far cheaper Commodore Amigas in department stores running demos of high-resolution bouncing balls, reflective surfaces and relatively high-fidelity music. The 16-bitters were coming and it was impossible not to be impressed by how far the goalposts had moved on. The flipside for me was the popularity of the Apple with my peers (and the ease of copying its disks) made it far easier to expand my software portfolio than I had ever experienced before.

Some more of my favourite software for the Apple: (all screenshots from Moby Games)

Choplifter

A clever example of how great playability can completely offset some pretty ordinary (tiny, horribly-coloured) graphics. You can play it on the Internet Archive here.

California Games

Radical! Tubular! You're wild and crazy! A nice collection of action sports that didn't take itself too seriously. You can play side 1, which includes my favourite, BMX, at the Internet Archive.

Wings of Fury

What an absolute masterpiece of an arcade game. Amazing playability and balance of realism and challenge. You can actually go and play a version of it online and while it's the PC version not the Apple original, I recommend you go and do so immediately. The Internet Archive also holds the true Apple II version but it asks for side 2 of the disk and I can't find a way to feed that in; although the Emularity project that makes this possible are aware of the issue.

As I progressed through high school, the capabilities of the Apple as a word processor became far more important. Many of my peers were still submitting draft essays in longhand, then rewriting the whole thing again after getting the teacher's feedback - a process that seemed incredibly repetitive and wasteful. I took the opportunity (for perhaps the first time in my life) to harness the power of the computer to save me some effort. AppleWorks had been included in our original bundle of shareware, and I used it for a good few years. Being about as non-WYSIWYG as it gets, it was my introduction to marking up text, and thus some of the fundamental ideas of HTML were getting drip-fed to me as I wrapped a sentence in Ctrl-U (or whatever it was) to underline it. The whole printing process was a lot more manual too - choosing a font and its output quality was done with buttons on the printer's front panel, and constant vigilance was required when spanning pages; top- and bottom- margins were highly variable in reality.

A revelation came along when I "obtained" (probably through some disk-copying skulduggery at school) what I think must have been BeagleWrite (although I have no recollection of that name), which was a full WYSIWYG, GUI-and-mouse driven word processor, with white background and black text making it look like a true Mac refugee. I was fairly familiar with the Mac's point-and-click paradigm but actually doing productive work with it (as opposed to just fooling about on someone else's computer) was pretty incredible. I believe we'd call it "discoverability" now, but the ability to just see what commands were available, and of course undo them was mind-blowing. I think it's fair to say that the reason I became "good with computers" was through amazing pieces of software like BeagleWrite where there was no penalty for just trying stuff to see what happens. Apparently this is not that common a trait ...
BeagleWrite screenshot from Vintage Geek - for such an incredibly-good bit of software there is very little evidence of its existence!

And I can't write a post about the Apple II without mentioning my own brush with its legendary creator Woz. Probably the most famous person I will ever have had the pleasure and honour of meeting.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Computers I Have Known - Part One

In the spirit of very entertaining blog posts by Jacques Mattheij and Jim Lawless, I thought I might celebrate having written computer software professionally for 20 years, by recapping all the computers I have known, since the beginning.

And in the beginning, there was, an Acorn Electron. Yes, the "King of the 8-Bits" BBC Micro's little brother, and, well, he wasn't very good. In their efforts to reduce the Beeb's chip count and cut costs to a Sinclair Spectrum-rivalling price-point, Acorn bottlenecked the processor's access to memory so that while for the most part it was compatible with BBC BASIC, programs would run, at best, around half the speed of the Model B.

8-year-old me neither knew nor cared about this however; I had a computer, in my bedroom, and it was amazing. I'm pretty sure my Dad picked the computer up from Curry's or Dixons (UK high street electrical retailers) at a heavily discounted price, just in time for my birthday. As he is a complete luddite I'm fairly sure he was advised by a family friend (a teacher) that the BBC Micro (or indeed, something compatible) would be a fine choice; I don't recall ever outwardly expressing a desire for a home computer but had certainly enjoyed playing the BBC B at our friends' house. That machine was very well specced with a disc drive and dedicated colour monitor; my setup was substantially lower-rent with a domestic-grade cassette recorder and a monochrome television pressed into service for display duties. Sadly I don't have a picture of my first "workstation" but here are some very close approximations:
The cassette recorder here is almost identical to what I had, in the same position to the left of the Electron, because that's where the I/O and motor control connectors were and the cable wouldn't reach anywhere else.
Here's the mighty Binatone 12-inch monochrome TV that was my "monitor". I was very pleased to be able to recall that brand name! It plugged into the Electron's RF port and had to be tuned in for a nice sharp picture. Although pretty crappy by almost every measure, I was at least lucky enough to have this TV dedicated for my computing, and so didn't have to share the family TV.

Together with the hardware came a veritable mountain of boxed software; almost all of it from Acornsoft in their distinctively-80s graph-squares-and-neon-script style:
(from acornelectron.co.uk)

These were a couple of my favourites; Starship Command was a very Star Trek-inspired shoot-em-up with lovely smooth circular scrolling and "high" resolution graphics (in black-and-white, the cost of such a resolution), while Sphinx Adventure was an impenetrable (well, it seemed like it) text adventure in the GO NORTH, TAKE SHOVEL, GO EAST, USE SHOVEL style.

Yep, games. Sorry, I'd love to be able to say I was busting out 6502 assembly and "racing the beam", unlocking hidden hardware capabilities and pushing the limits ... but no, while I did program, it was mostly small BASIC experiments based on these two books (that came in the original bundle):
Although I stayed very much "within the lines" of what those books showed me, I still built up the fundamentals of programming; variables, conditionals, looping. I never got as far as arrays on the Electron as far as I can tell - I remember wanting to make a virtual airport departures board (after being suitably impressed by the board at Gatwick Airport I think) and being stumped at how to make the departures "move up" as the topmost flight disappeared.

The main aspect of BBC BASIC I remember being fascinated with was the graphics "API", principally the LINE command, which would draw a straight line between two X,Y points in the current paint colour. Combined with a pair of nested loops, I'd build spider-web like meshes around the edges of the screen. Very, very slowly. The super-smooth inner curves thus achieved delighted me then, and indeed still do:
(Go chortle at my Codesandbox HTML Canvas version here)