Three Decades of Personal Computing

After looking through old MacUser and MacWorld magazines, I started to think about all of the systems I’ve used over the years. I’ve never worked with 9-track tape, but I have used 8” floppy disks and a standard 1/4” audio cassette deck as a tape drive. The world has come a long way in 30 years.

My first personal computer was a Timex/Sinclair 1000, a tiny (not much larger than an unfolded airline drink napkin) highly portable computer. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the physical size of the hardware had a profound impact on my views of computing. That tiny device demonstrated that computation did not have to be bound to a specific location: computers could be small and mobile.

I was an avid role gamer and developed some rather complex software during this period. Probably the most interesting piece was an application to randomly create worlds for GDW’s “Traveler.” I would generate screens of data that I would adapt for my friends’ entertainment. After only a year of use, I had outgrown the 16KB of RAM, the membrane keypad, and cassette drive — it was time to move on.

The next machine was a classic of personal computing and by all accounts, the most popular computer of all time: the Commodore 64. Purchased from Montgomery Ward and equipped with both an external 5.25” floppy drive and dot matrix printer, this machine got me through much of high school. For me, the computer was a tool and as such, I adapted the “Traveler Sector Generator” from the Timex/Sinclair, and wrote a host of small utility applications for my personal use. Being a software author did have its downsides, however. Mom thought I could write all of my own code, so when I finally gave up on writing my own word processor, she wouldn’t hear of it because she wasn’t going to let me “waste my money on video games.” A heated debate ensued in an aisle at Target and shortly thereafter, I left the store with a word processor with a spell checker. Later that year, a couple of other pieces of software arrived on my desk including Electronic Art’s “Music Construction Kit” and yes, a couple of games. Interestingly enough, I didn’t play the games, my dad did — he used to sneak into my bedroom while I was sleeping to catch a few rounds of “Cohen’s Towers.”

High school presented me with a host of different challenges that the C64 couldn’t cover. I became more involved in science fair as an engineering-track student, I needed software beyond what the C64 could handle. I thought seriously about an Amiga, but the applications I needed just weren’t there. At that point, the family picked up a PC clone, a “Leading Edge Model D” with an Okidata dot-matrix printer. It shipped with a great word processor (always a priority), a good spreadsheet, and an equally good database. On top of that we added a basic CAD package for science fair design work and I ported the role gaming software once again, adding the now mythical “Incredible Tables of Extreme Randomness” to the collection. It even had a cool amber CRT and two 5.25” floppy drives (the hard drive came later).

When I went to college, I changed platforms because my campus was an Apple school. As such, I challenged the idea of the desktop with my Macintosh Plus and later, SE/30, by taking full advantage of the integrated handle at the top of the machine. I took them to work and to campus; I took them to airports and to friends’ homes; I took those machines everywhere I could. Those two computers were truly portable machines. Whenever I had either machine with me and I was near a power outlet, I’d crack open my MacSack, pull out the machine, plug in the keyboard and mouse, and compute. I used to regularly attract crowds in airports as I sat on the floor playing “Lode Runner” or developing software in HyperCard (and when I wasn’t doing that, I used the machine as a stool if the departure gate area was overcrowded — do that with a notebook!).

In 1991, Apple released its first Powerbook and I never looked back; a notebook has been my primary machine ever since.

Notebooks, to me, are personal productivity devices that are woven into the day-to-day activities of individuals. Workstations, on the other hand, are tools tailored to tasks and activities. Some workstations tackle computational problems, others deal with digital media projects, whereas others are optimized for entertainment. These fixed-location devices have always served fixed-position activities. Notebooks are quite different as they adapt to changing surroundings and situations. In fact, they are the chameleons of computing — workstations one moment, communicators another, and TV tray the next.

Thirty years ago (and beyond), people adapted to computing. Today, computing is starting to adapt to us. It finally is “personal computing.”