A bit of PC history (personal computing, that is)

I just finished reading Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. If you’re interested in the personal computer revolution, you should read it. It’s an insightful look at one of the men who definitely helped shape the digital world. I also realised that that as of April 2014, I’ve been running Linux on the desktop for more than 10 years.

Both of these made me think a lot about my computing history. Maybe this isn’t interesting to everyone. Maybe it is. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

I originally wrote a blow-by-blow description of every computer I owned, and how each affected my development as a computer user, person, and proud geek. Then I thought more about the stages of my computing life, and through decoupling the individual items, I think there are more interesting themes. For those that are curious, the original list of primary workstations I’ve used is below.

The first part of my computing life was, like many of my generation, running games and basic word processing. My first computer was an Apple IIc. Complete with an Imagewriter II, it was an efficient platform for word processing and strategy games that ripped off Star Trek. I guess I spent a lot of time on it, but didn’t do much. I got it when I was 10, and immediately started making AD&D character sheets.

My second computer was a DEC Rainbow 100 with an XT attached via a slave interface. It was a hand me down from my mother, and frankly it was a POS. But it had a hard drive, so it was relatively more awesome than my IIc was. I think I had DOS 5 on it. Not that it could do much (even less than my IIc). I don’t recall having much in the way of software.

My third computer was a 286, complete with a new monochrome monitor. I think it even had a modem for the BBSs. 5.25″ floppy, still. One of my friends showed me that MODs were cool, and we soldered a headphone jack onto the speaker cable so I could play music. MODs are still cool, BTW. I had DOS and Windows 3.1, and I probably had MS Works or something like it. It was okay for school work. But not inspiring. But it marked the transition of my computing life from simple user, to tinkerer and someone who pushed beyond the boundaries of what was easy do do with computers.

Two of my friends had 486 boxes back then. I was envious. They also had SVGA and soundcards, which meant they played games, and I didn’t. I still don’t, much.

I started working on the high school newspaper the summer between my sophomore and junior years. They had these funny little microwave oven looking computers that all the students had to use. They were monochrome, with a 3.5″ drive, and could print out to a laser printer. And they were really expensive, so we were told not to screw around with them. There were two more capable computers, which colour screens. Those were for the advisers, of course. This was my first experience with Macintosh.

At first, I was reluctant. How could Macintosh be good, if it looked so little like other computers? But, with Aldus Pagemaker (the Ragemaker), a laser printer, an art waxer, and some backlit layout tables, I began to see what we could make with computers. And I began to love Macintosh. So much that I bought my own Macintosh IIsi, sporting 9 MB of RAM and an 80 Mb hard drive, hooked up to a 12″ colour monitor (my first). I made newspapers with that computer. We installed a network and made one of the older Macs a server. We made money, had fun, and won awards. And we were just high school students. The Mac empowered us to do more. By the time I went to university, I was in fully love with Macintosh.

And thus began the second part of my computing life. I like to call it advanced tinkering. The Mac made things like networking — which was frankly awful on WinTel machines — easy.

One of the first things I did at university was to buy one of the new Powermacs. An 8100/80 — the top of the range. There was a good deal through the university, and I had some money. And I knew that it would be even better than my IIsi. I collected it from the university bookstore, and disassembled it on the hood of my car in the parking lot to ‘see how it worked.’

And it was better, in every way (except for the case). I had been on the Internet before, but only with shell access. I added a 14.4 Kbps modem to my 8100, and with my university SLIP connection, I was on the Internet from home. Ragemaker was running faster than ever, and I discovered the joy of Filemaker Pro. I was doing more things with my Mac. I traded the 8100 for a Powerbook 520, and enjoyed my first Mac laptop, and also the first Mac I didn’t love. I traded it for the second Mac I didn’t love: a 7200/75, one of the first PCI-based Macs.

I call this period of my computing life: when Macs sucked. It lasted a good long time, even though I remained a Mac user, and advocate, for another 10 years or so. The 520 had a crappy passive-matrix monochrome screen and an underpowered processor. The 7200 was totally unstable — bad, rushed hardware combined with an ageing operating system. Even the 8100 probably wasn’t all that good, but I had never owned a new computer before, so it was exciting.

I was hanging out with an interesting crowd in those days, the slo.punks, a group of computer science students, systems administrators, and, well, authentic individuals. I also worked in computing on campus — I didn’t come from money, and computing paid a lot more than other jobs. And through these social and work roles, I began to run into Unix. I didn’t understand how these computers — which often had less resources than my Powermac — could handle multiple users, and operate on the Internet so well. I needed to replace the 7200, which I managed to sell off, but what could I replace it with?

Normal people would have bought a Powermac 7500 or maybe an 8500. They were regarded well. But I knew the Mac backwards and front, and frankly this was not a good time for the Mac hardware or OS. Clones were coming in and muddying the waters. So I thought about it for a while.

During that while, I cobbled together a 386 and installed Slackware Linux. My hard drive was too small to install X Windows, so I made do with a text console. It got me by for a few weeks, and reminded me how much I hated PC hardware. Remember IRQ conflicts, Himem, and all that other crap we put ourselves through to make computers work? Well, I had seen MicroSoft Plug and Play in operation at the university, and I was not impressed. So PC clones, Windows, and by extension Linux, were out of the running. If the Mac was out, and PC clones were out, then I was looking at Unix workstations. I was not rich enough to buy new, and neither Sun nor SGI impressed me. But something black, cubic, and monochrome did. So I set off to Mill Valley to pick up my NeXT (040) Cube.

I call this part of my computing life, Unix, and the rebirth of Steve Jobs.

It should have been obvious that the combination of a GUI with a fanatical eye for detail and Unix would lead me to NeXT. And, while I was stepping down significantly in processing power — the NeXT was discontinued when I was in high school — the integration of GUI and Unix was the most exciting computing experience of my life. I also began to inherently understand the Unix Way — small, elegant solutions could be linked together to solve larger problems. On the Mac, I had dozens of very complicated programmes. On NeXT, most of my computing revolved around the command line, Textedit.app, and Mail.app.

That Spring, I applied to study for a year in Sweden. Taking a NeXT Cube to Europe in economy class didn’t seem a wise idea. I managed to buy an ex-demo Apple Powerbook Duo 280C for the trip. Leaving my beloved NeXT in California, I began to install applications to make the Mac as NeXT-like as possible. Greg’s Browser gave me Miller Columns. Dragthing gave me something like a dock. All in all, the Duo 280C was a great portable computer for the time that I needed it. But, when I got back to California I sold it, and went back to my NeXT. Over the following two years, I moved off the Cube onto a Turbo Colour Station (faster, with colour). I also had a desktop Mac (7500/100) for DTP and Filemaker. This was just as MacOS X Server was coming out, and the NeXTies in the city (and there were more than a few of us) were excited that we might get a modern version of NeXTStep/OpenStep for Mach.

I finished university and moved to London for the first time. I knew that I would be between places, and that I needed a portable computer. Thinkpads were very expensive, as were Twinheads (those were the brands that were certified for OpenStep). So, while I was still a student, I purchased a Powerbook G3/266 (Wallstreet II). The G3 was a big upgrade in processor power, and with two batteries loaded, it was a real road warrior. As much as I loved the NeXT, I didn’t intend on coming back to California any time soon, so I sold my Turbo Colour Station (as well as my desktop Mac). MacOS was at version 9 (System 9 to some of us in those days), and I was making some money with Filemaker, BBEdit, and Webstar. As a NeXT fan, when I looked at MacOS X, all I could see were what I thought were UI design mistakes — like a single dock for launching apps, and one for running apps. There were lots of small annoyances, and frankly all the software I used would run in emulation on MacOS X. I didn’t think that was a great idea at the time.

But time marches on. I went back to California, replaced my Powerbook with a newer version, and embraced MacOS X as much as I could. I separated launching and running applications by moving the doc and using Dragthing. It was a good laptop, which was unfortunately stolen when I lived in San Francisco (along with my 5 GB iPod, my favourite ever backpack, and my stainless steel espresso mug). In San Francisco, I acquired another Turbo Colour Slab, as well as a Turbo Cube. I also had a prototype G4 Mac loaned from a friend that served as an in-house Web and Filemaker server. I replaced the lost Powerbook with an iBook, since I needed something portable for travel to the UK — during my years in San Francisco I was chronically under-employed (it was the dotcom bust, after all), and did most of my consulting work for UK contacts.

Eventually, one of those contacts turned into a real job. So I left (my heart) in San Francisco, and moved full-time to London. Not long after, I sold my iBook, and bought a Powerbook G4. The iBook wasn’t a bad computer, but it wasn’t as good as the G4. Or so it said on paper. To be honest, both of those computers, along with my subsequent Powerbook G4 Aluminium, were not great. They all had hardware problems, which necessitated AppleCare.

And let me tell you, if there is one word for the reason I stopped buying Apple computers, it’s AppleCare. If you were lucky enough to have AppleCare in Europe, you could send your computer away for repair in Amsterdam. It probably only would take two weeks or so. I wasn’t rich enough to have a second computer for when my primary one needed repairs, so I looked around for another solution, much as I had years before when I started with NeXT after a string of disappointing Macs.

Also, something was happening to Apple in those days. Apple was fiercely in the camp of small developers, with a huge and active community of freeware, shareware, and commercial companies. But something was turning inside Apple, and they began a long run to eventually control their application marketplace. Even back then, I knew that taking the ideas small developers had used and making system software that did the same thing wasn’t a good idea. Also, the one application which could have kept me on the Mac — OpenOffice — wasn’t ported to MacOS X, and Apple didn’t care to do so.

So, a lot of people said that Dell support was exceptional. And if your hardware isn’t exceptional, but your support is, well, does it really matter? I bought a Dell Latitude D600 and started trying to get a decent desktop Linux running on it — I still didn’t like the Windows UI very much. I went through Debian, Mepis, and eventually landed Ubuntu Warty Warthog. Ubuntu took the software library of Debian, packaged a good-enough UI (KDE3), and made everything work.

I call this part of my computing life Linux. It was an evolutionary change from what came before, but what a change.

Now, the UI and software were not as complete as MacOS, or NeXT, but Linux is all about options, both in application and user interface. Most of the options were, and are, somehow better than Windows, and somehow worse than the Mac. But they were free, both as in beer, and as in speech. All the time I spent on the Mac, people were passing back and forth pirated and cracked applications, and on Windows it has always been worse — just go to any ‘developing market’ computer store and you can buy every application you need for $2, complete with malware which will steal your passwords, if not your bank accounts and identity. I honestly don’t know why people bother.

And so began my time with Linux — mostly (K)Ubuntu and Mint — through four Dells, two Asus Eee PCs, a Lenovo Thinkpad (service not nearly as good as Dell), and now back to Dell with an XPS 13 Linux Edition (Sputnik). I also had a Macbook Air for a month or so, but not having the flexibility of Linux was too confining — my wife has that computer, now. I also have a Samsung Chromebook that I bought to run Ubuntu on — Arm is awesome — but hardware support is sketchy, so I went back to ChromeOS (itself a build of Gentoo Linux).

I was incredibly fortunate to begin my computing life as the personal computer came to maturity, and even more so to see the mainstreaming — at least amongst technical people — of the opensource and free software movements. The change from mainframe and minicomputer days to the personal computer was a liberation of computer users. The opportunity to participate in the FOSS revolution was likewise a revolutionary moment. Today’s resurgence of the mainframe model as cloud computing is perhaps a step back, but at least there is a healthy market for competition on where and when individuals can store their data — if they choose to do so at all.

With the recent confirmation of mass data collection — which isn’t surprising to most technical people, even if it is disappointing — we sit at the cusp of another groundshift in computing. Whether it means that users will be empowered and own their own data, or whether they will give up all rights to the people who run cloud services, is anyone’s guess. But at least today we have an option.

For me, I have slowed my changes over the years. I’ve never twiddled every setting, and there are times that I miss the combination of elegance and convenience that the Next had. It could be that I don’t have to miss it though — FOSS gives freedom and choice that we never thought about before. The citizen-programmer is not far off, and as long as we remember that we are making a purchase every time we trade privacy for convenience, there should be a way to move forward that is both convenient, elegant, and useful.

Or we could all just go buy a Next. But there are precious few of them left.

A somewhat incomplete list of my workstations over time:

Apple IIc
DEC Rainbow 100 w/ XT slave
286/12 (upgraded MB to 286/25)
Mac IIsi (12″ monitor)
Powermac 8100/80 (16″ monitor, 14.4K modem)
Powerbook 520 20/500
Powermac 7200/75
386 (Slackware)
Next 040 Cube
Powerbook Duo 280c
Color Turbo Slab
Powermac 7500/100
Color Turbo Slab (Polycon)
Powerbook G3/266 (Wallstreet II)
Powerbook G3/333 (Pismo)
Turbo Cube (SF)
iBook G3/500 (Icebook) (SF)
Prototype Powermac G4 (SF)
Powerbook G4 (Titanium) (London)
Powerbook G4 (Aluminium)
Dell Latitude D600 (Ubuntu Hoary)
Dell Vostro 1400
Asus Eee PC 900
Asus Eee PC 1000HE
Dell Vostro V13
Apple Macbook Air 11
Lenovo Thinkpad X220
Samsung Chromebook Series 3
Dell XPS 13

Palmtops, Mobile Phones, and the like:

Newton 2000
Palm Pilot IIIxe
Newton 2100
Nokia Brickphone (maybe a 5110?)
SE T20e Tomb Raider Edition
SE T68i
SE Z600
Nokia E61
Nokia E71
Nokia N810
Nokia N900
Nokia N9
Nexus One
Nexus S
Samsung Galaxy S Duos
Nexus Galaxy
Nexus 4
Nexus XT1033 Dual-SIM
Moto G XT
Nexus 7
Nexus 7 2013
Blackberry Z10
T2Mobile Flame FirefoxOS Reference Phone

Servers and Museum Pieces:

Mac SE/30 (w/ Ethernet)
Raspberry Pi (the cluster grows at home)
HP Microserver
HP Tower Server
Apple TV (2)
Pivos Xios Android Set Top Box


Cobalt Qube
Next Turbo Dimension
Quadra 700
Sparc and HP Nextstep Workstations
SGI Indy