Category Archives: Tech History

The Greatest PCs of All Time

apple macintosh 1984

On Sundays I enjoy blogging about the history of technology. As my 9th entry, here is a brief discussion of the greatest PCs of all time.


While doing some research I stumbled upon this interesting article titled The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time. I thought it would be fun to go through the list from that and give my thoughts on each choice. At the bottom I will list my own personal top 5.

  1. 1977 Apple II – The Apple II was a genius product of engineering created almost exclusively by Steve Wozniak. The software development community generally likes to talk about 10x’ers – software developers that are as productive as 10 average developers. I think Wozniak an incredible 100x’er in this case, developing both the hardware and the software that was not only years ahead of the competition but also fairly inexpensive thanks to smart design which lead to less components and thus a lower price. I remember briefly using some later version of the Apple II at my elementary school and local library in the 1980s.
  2. 1986 Compaq Deskpro 386 – Compaq was the first company to legally backwards engineer and then clone the IBM PC standard
  3. 1981 Xerox 8010 Information System – The first PC with a bitmapped display, windows style GUI, ethernet and other amazing innovations. This was Xerox’s attempt to capitalize on these amazing innovations but because of its high price and intended use to be part of a network of computers it never gained significant market share. Apple and then in turn Microsoft famously incorporated these ideas for their own hardware and software products.
  4. 1986 Apple Macintosh Plus – The original Macintosh famously launched in 1984 but this is the third versions launched two years later. Because of the original’s hardware limitations, high price and limited software this model was probably chosen for this list because it finally hit the right value proposition and had a more mature software lineup. My first computer was one of the mid 80s Apple Macintosh computers with the 9″ black and white built in monitor so I have fond memories. I remember writing papers and making simple bitmap images back in first grade on my Macintosh.
  5. 1992 IBM ThinkPad 700C – The IBM ThinkPad was the professional business laptop of the 1990s
  6. 1981 IBM Personal Computer, Model 5150 – The original line of IBM PCs was famously designed in about a year based on off-the-shelf parts, a modified version of CP/M / QDOS soon to be known as MS-DOS. This computer wasn’t very impressive at the time but because of its IBM brand and the soon to be widespread ecosystem of clones, it became the standard for the entire industry (besides Apple of course).
  7. 1985 Commodore Amiga 1000 – Commodore computers were huge sellers throughout Europe in the 1980s. The Amiga line was known as a very powerful gaming platform.
  8. Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 - The Tandy brand in the US is known as the Radio Shack brand of computers that were popular in the 1980s. They were not exactly known for their quality but this model was particularly popular, having sold more than 6 million units.
  9. 1982 Columbia Data Products MPC 1600-1 – One of the early IBM clones
  10. 1991 Apple PowerBook 100 – A successful early 90s laptop from Apple. Perhaps the last truly successful Apple product before Steve Jobs’s return and the launch of the iMac much later in the decade?
  11. 1998 Sony VAIO 505GX – A popular ultraportable laptop
  12. 1975 MITS Altair 8800 – The true first PC. It had no keyboard, no mouse and no monitor but it kicked off the entire PC industry so it deserves its place in history.
  13. 1984 IBM Personal Computer/AT Model 5170 – The second generation of IBM branded PCs
  14. 1979 Atari 800 – Atari, primarily known for its arcade games and home video game consoles, also produced a line of PCs. This was one of the original models.
  15. 2001 Shuttle SV24 Barebone System – Chinese manufactured small form factor PC
  16. 1977 Tandy TRS-80 Model I – See #8 above
  17. 1987 Toshiba T1000 – Semi-portable computer that had a laptop style form factor and battery powered option
  18. 1993 Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 300 – “Superportable” laptop
  19. 2002 Apple iMac, second generation – Even though my first computer was an Apple Macintosh, once I received my first PC in 1995 I never considered Apple a serious computing platform for a long time.  I remember the writing department of my University had a line of iMacs in the early 2000′s and I thought they looked stupid and plain sucked. Looking back, I still think the early iMacs sucked but they saved the company so there’s that.
  20. 1996 Gateway 2000 Destination – Gateway was a popular discount PC manufacturer that came in tacky cow print boxes. My first PC was a Packard Bell so I can’t trash Gateway too much.
  21. 1998 Alienware Area-51 – Alienware (now owned by Dell) is a gaming centered line of PCs. The mid to late 90s was an amazing time of growth for 3D accelerator cards and awesome PC games.
  22. 1993 Hewlett-Packard 100LX – Tiny black and white computer. I’m sure it had it’s fans at the time but it hardly seems useful even by 1993 standards.
  23. 1997 Apple eMate 300 – Low cost laptop that ran the Newton operating system. It was thankfully discontinued a year later.
  24. 2006 Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV650 – Large high end laptop
  25. 1982 Non-Linear Systems Kaypro II – CP/M based computer that got swept away when the IBM PC standard was introduced

OK so here’s my personal top 5 PCs list:

  1. Apple II (1977) – the first mass market PC
  2. MITS Altair (1975) – the beginning of the PC market
  3. Apple Macintosh (1984) – the first mass market GUI based PC
  4. Compaq Portable (1983) – first 100% compatible IBM PC clone and was also somewhat portable to boot
  5. Macbook Pro (2006) – an odd choice considering the others, but for the last decade these have been the development platform of choice for software developers. This dominance should not be overlooked as one of the primary drivers that have helped Apple become the most profitable company in the world.

Console Wars Book Review

console-wars-book

On Sundays I enjoy blogging about the history of technology. As my 8th entry, here is my review of the book Console Wars by Blake J. Harris.


I grew up a Sega kid. Not only did I have a Sega Genesis but I also had a Master System, Sega CD, Saturn and well… pretty much everything besides the infamous 32x. Heck, I even won a free vacation for winning a Sonic 3 competition. Most of my friends growing up had Nintendo and Super Nintendo so I got a chance to play the best stuff from both companies. I liked both Sega and Nintendo but when it came down to it I stuck with Sega.

For people who grew up gamers in the 80s and 90s, and especially fans of Sega, then Console Wars (2014, Blake J. Harris) is for you. Console Wars covers the epic battle between Sega of America and Nintendo of America during the 16-bit console era. This book doesn’t cover the details of game development but rather provides an inside look at the American operations of both firms.

Console Wars starts off on the wrong foot with the laziest, stupidest foreword of all time by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The duo is working on a movie adaptation of the book which hopefully involves a bit more effort. Thankfully, following the foreword the rest of the book is fantastic.

tom-kalinske

Tom Kalinske - Alan Levenson/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images

Right away we are introduced to the main protagonist, Tom Kalinske. Kalinske is one of the most interesting figures in American business history, having been responsible for defending Flintstones chewable vitamins in front of Congress, the revival of Barbie and Hot Wheels at Mattel, launching the He-Man series and more recently CEO of children’s educational company Leapfrog. If you are a marketing professional then Kalinske should be on your list of heroes. The book mostly chronicles Kalinske’s perspective as a video game industry outsider asked to come in as CEO of Sega of America from 1990 through 1996.

Back in college I remember reading boring business case studies and I always thought the Sega Genesis marketing strategy should be a required reading. If nothing else, this book goes into amazing detail on every facet of Sega of America’s incredible marketing job spearheaded by Kalinske, Al Nilsen and other Sega executives from 1991-1994. In a few short years, Sega’s American home console market share went from 5% to 50%, even slightly edging out Nintendo for a brief period of time. Considering Sega had about 10% of the marketing budget of Nintendo and little name recognition it was an incredible accomplishment. Many of us remember “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t”, the Sega Scream and “blast processing” but the more in depth details covered in this book are particularly fascinating. For example, I had no idea that Sonic 2uesday (the release date of Sonic 2) was the first global launch of a game in history. I particularly liked the details covering the national Sega Genesis promotional mall tour since I remember playing Sonic for the first time at Raceway Mall tour stop. I ended up getting a Genesis soon after so it worked for me.

Here’s a look at how Sega’s commercials evolved throughout the 16-bit era, featuring ads from 1989, 1991 and 1993:

As you would expect, Nintendo is covered in detail as well. Nintendo is portrayed as the rich, arrogant but wholesome antagonist to the scrappy, crass Sega. One of the more interesting angles that the book dives into is Nintendo’s successful but albeit questionable business practices. It’s been known that Nintendo had underhanded business practices in the NES era (such as the exclusivity contract that prevented third party publishers from also releasing games on rival platforms) but the book really drives home the point of how poorly Nintendo treated all of its business partners and the rest of the industry. From retailers to third parties to gaming magazines to parts suppliers, Nintendo’s business practices opened the door for Sega to come in and gain support from everyone that was tired of Nintendo’s antics. When Sega stumbled in the 32-bit era, Sony came in to take their place as the favored console maker partner.

It took Nintendo a few years but they finally responded to Sega’s aggressive advertising techniques. Here is an example from 1993 promoting the game Donkey Kong Country:

As we now know, Sega’s rise was short lived and they soon fell from grace and eventually out of the home console business entirely. Console Wars covers that in detail as well and displays how quickly jealously and egos can destroy even the most talent rich and successful organizations. Between the fall of their console business and the decline of the arcade industry in general Sega never really had a chance to recover and was acquired by Japanese Pachinko maker Sammy years later. A further reminder of how times have changed happened this week as Sega Sammy announced that they are laying off 300 workers and closing their San Francisco office. Nintendo has faired much better, having had great success with their Wii home console and Nintendo DS portable. More recently though, Nintendo has started to struggle in both their home and portable console markets and seems to be at their own personal crossroads as a business. It will be interesting to see how they respond in the coming years.

Here are some additional tidbits of the book that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Sega turned down both Sony and Silicon Graphics as part of their 32-bit console partner development process. Sega of America attempted to set up both relationships and was turned down both times by Sega of Japan in favor of Japanese chipmaker Hitachi. The Sega Saturn was crippled by a confusing architecture and high price thanks to it’s Hitachi architecture and allowed Sony to come in and take over the industry with their Playstation. I always thought the 32x was the biggest mistake Sega ever made but now I think they could have recovered if either their Sony or Silicon Graphics partnership were allowed to go through.
  • Yuji Naka (lead programmer and later producer of the Sonic series) actually quit Sega after Sonic 1 and was only brought over to the US to work on Sonic 2 after the fact. According to the book he was being paid a paltry $30,000. I could possibly understand if Sonic was his first game but he had already proven himself as an incredible talent having worked on Phantasy Star and several other successful games. Sega executives also complained that it took the Sonic 2 development team fourteen months instead of the usual ten to create the game. It’s amazing how much times have changed as some games now take up to five years to complete!
  • The story of how Donkey Kong Country was funded is truly amazing. I won’t spoil the details so read the book.
  • In general I love the insider stories detailing the hatred between Sega and Nintendo executives. Whether it’s in-person confrontations, confrontational phone calls or nasty letters I get the warm and fuzzies inside just thinking about it. In the end though it was nice to read that Nintendo of America’s Howard Lincoln wrote Tom Kalinske a nice send off letter when Kalinske left Sega.

Console Wars is a great read and I highly recommend it.

Steve Jobs 1985 Playboy Interview

Steve Jobs 1985 Playboy Interview Photo

After taking a two month break, Teach History Sunday is back. On Sundays I enjoy blogging about the history of technology. As my seventh entry, here are some excerpts from the 1985 Playboy interview of Steve Jobs.


The year was 1985. Steve Jobs was not yet 30, was reporting to new Apple CEO John Sculley and just came off of launching the Macintosh. The trajectory of both Apple and Jobs would change course soon as Steve Jobs would find himself fired by the company he founded. Because of this critical period of time it is particularly insightful to  read the 1985 Playboy interview of Steve Jobs. My favorite quote is the following:

You know, Dr. Edwin Land was a troublemaker. He dropped out of Harvard and founded Polaroid. Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that. Polaroid did that for some years, but eventually Dr. Land, one of those brilliant troublemakers, was asked to leave his own company—which is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of. So Land, at 75, went off to spend the remainder of his life doing pure science, trying to crack the code of color vision. The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be—not an astronaut, not a football player—but this.

Steve Jobs was very prescient of recognizing the coming Internet revolution even back in 1985 as expressed in this quote:

The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people—as remarkable as the telephone.

Jobs wasn’t right about everything though. His view that IBM would crush the clone makers had it backwards – it was actually IBM that would get beat:

A lot of people thought we were nuts for not being IBM-compatible, for not living under IBM’s umbrella. There were two key reasons we chose to bet our company on not doing that: The first was that we thought—and I think as history is unfolding, we’re being proved correct—that IBM would fold its umbrella on the companies making compatible computers and absolutely crush them.

The whole interview is worth reading. Read the interview in it’s entirety here.

Gary Kildall

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As my sixth entry, here is brief video about Gary Kildall.


Gary Kildall was a computer scientist, creator of the early PC operating system CP/M and founder of the company Digital Research. The embedded video by YouTuber Lazy Game Reviews has a nice (but sad) history of Kildall. Enjoy.

Micro Men

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As my fifth entry, here is my overview of the 2009 movie Micro Men.


Micro Men is a 2009 BBC Four movie about the British home computer industry of the 70s and 80s. The movie is focused on the two English companies Sinclair Research and Acorn Computers and their respective leaders, Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry. I have very little knowledge of these two companies or the British computer industry as a whole besides a slight familiarity with the ZX Spectrum so I can’t speak upon the accuracy of the film. The portrayal of Clive Sinclair, while very entertaining, is so outrageous and over the top that it’s no surprise to find out the role was played by a comedian. A large focus of the movie is both companies trying to court favor with the BBC, which strikes me as somewhat akin to how IBM was viewed in the US at the time. In the end, both companies were pushed out of the industry by bigger players and thus are mostly footnotes of history but it’s nice to get a view of the history of the home computers outside of United States. Give it a watch.

Accidental Empires

accidental empires

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As our fourth entry, here is my overview of the 1992 / 1996 book Accidental Empires.


Accidental Empires is a 1992 (republished in 1996) book by Robert X. Cringely. This book covers the history of the personal computer industry and is the basis for the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds that I wrote about last week. If you enjoyed that documentary and you want to get more in depth information on the subject then I highly recommend Accidental Empires. Last year Robert Cringely published the book in its entirety on his blog with a new introduction so now there’s no excuse not to give this a good read. Read the book in its entirety via Robert Cringely’s blog here:

2013 Intro
Chapter 1A
Chapter 1B
Chapter 1C
Chapter 1D
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17

Triumph of the Nerds

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As our third entry, here is my overview of the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds.


Triumph of the Nerds is a 1996 documentary written and hosted by Robert X. Cringely (born Mark Stephens). The basis for the documentary is Cringely’s book Accidental Empires, which covers the history of the personal computer industry. Triumph of the Nerds was produced in a three part series and aired in December of 1996 on PBS in the US (Channel 4 in the UK).

Back in 1996 I was in eighth grade enjoying my Packard Bell PC running Windows 95, a hefty upgrade from my old 1980s Macintosh. I was just learning to program in Pascal and I even had my own AOL homepage, a braggable feat at the time. I remember watching Triumph of the Nerds at the time of release and being quite fascinated. I had grown up with computers but Triumph of the Nerds was my first introduction to the history of the industry. In the end it was one of many things that ended up pushing me into further Computer Science education and eventually a career in technology.

Triumph of the Nerds covers it all: Intel, the Altair, Microsoft, The Homebrew Computer Club, Apple, VisiCalc – and that’s just part one! Like Startup.com, I find myself revisiting Triumph of the Nerds every few years. In some ways it is very dated (Excite@Home anyone?) but overall it is still quite entertaining. Check it out.

Robert X. Cringely still actively covers the technology industry – you can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Internet Startup Documentary Startup.com

Every Sunday morning I plan to blog about the history of technology. As our second entry, here is my overview of the 2001 documentary Startup.com.


Want to know what it was like to ride the wave of Internet startup life in the late 90s from the inside? Look no further than the 2001 documentary Startup.com. The movie documents the rise and fall of one of the era’s biggest busts, New York City based govWorks.com.

The narrative focuses on the two co-CEOs co-founders and childhood friends, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman. When we meet Kaleil, he is packing up his belongings as he leaves his desk on his final day at Goldman Sachs. He proudly proclaims “I’m going to start an Internet company” to his cab driver. Tom is more low key in his introduction, sporting a hat and his usual beard and brushing his young daughter’s hair.

The tension starts almost immediately, with conflicts over everything from the company name, sales meeting strategies, funding terms and a problematic third founder. These issues seem like minor speed bumps however, as the company continues to grow by adding hundreds of employees, closing several rounds of enormous funding and getting big time publicity. The preemptive launch of a competing website, govworks.com’s own lackluster launch and becoming the victims of corporate espionage mark the beginning of the fall. The setbacks become fatal when the financial markets turn sour, closing off any potential future financing opportunities for the money sinking venture.

In the end, our two protagonists are left wondering what could have been, with an empty office and seriously damaged friendship. “It’s not the end of the world”, says Tom Herman, and he’s right. There are worse things that could happen in life than having a company fail.

For Tom and Kaleil both personally and professionally, things look like they turned out just fine in the end. According to their LinkedIn profiles, Kaleil is the long standing managing partner of an investment firm while Tom is a partner at that same firm and the CEO of his own firm as well. Still, Startup.com serves as a cold reminder that the good times don’t last forever and that the high flying startups of today could fall from grace overnight in the face of a financial downturn.

I first saw Startup.com back when in first came out in 2001. At the time I was a high school senior looking to study computer science in college and with a decent amount of programming already under my belt. At the time I didn’t have ambitions to start my own company but I was still amazed when I watched it all unfold. Over the years I have revisited Startup.com for repeated viewings and I learn something new each time. For instance, upon my first viewing I did not know what a Venture Capitalist was so the encounters that took place at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Highland Capital now make more sense to me.

Pirates of Silicon Valley

Every Sunday morning I plan to blog about the history of technology. Up first is 1999′s TNT original movie Pirates of Silicon Valley.


 

Now I know what you’re thinking. Made for TV movie? How good can it be? Answer: it’s my favorite made for TV movie of all time and among my favorite movies in general. Read on to find out why.

Pirates of Silicon Valley focuses mainly on the history of Apple and Microsoft starting in the 1970s through the mid 1980s, with a short wrap-up taking place in 1997. We meet Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer while they are students at Harvard and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak while they are sometimes in and sometimes out of school. Most of the film centers around the growth of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as individuals and covers how their careers and companies rise but then go in opposite directions starting in the mid 80s.

What makes this movie so good is that it sticks very close to the actual history while still remaining quite interesting as well as having terrific performances from its lead actors. Noah Wyle in particular in incredible as Steve Jobs while Anthony Michael Hall (yes that Anthony Michael Hall) as Bill Gates is also fantastic.

Steve Wozniak himself says in the following YouTube clip that the movie is basically step for step in line with the actual history:

Steve Jobs liked his portrayal so much that he invited Noah Wyle to imitate him at 1999′s MacWorld event following the release of the film:

If you happened to watch last year’s movie Jobs just know that Pirates of Silicon Valley is better in almost every way. Better acting (sorry Ashton), better script and more historically accurate. On top of it all, Pirates manages to cover not just the life and career of Steve Jobs (up until the mid 90s anyway) but also Bill Gates as well. Rotten Tomatoes happens to agree with me, giving Pirates an 89% rating while Jobs has a rating of 27%. Not bad for a TNT original.

There is yet another Steve Jobs movie coming out next year, this time based on the official Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. While I did enjoy Isaacson’s book, based on what few details I’ve heard about the movie, I’m not holding out much hope that it turns out well. In an ideal world, the cast and crew of Pirates of Silicon Valley would get back together to make a sequel that would start off where the first move left off and finish probably at the death of Steve Jobs.

Now that I’ve convinced you that Pirates of Silicon Valley is a must watch movie you can dive right in and watch it below:

Watch Pirates Of Silicon Valley in Drama  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com