Desktops then and now

If you look at today’s boring beige boxes, or the sleek design of the Mac, it’s hard to believe that personal computers once had personality.

Where homogeneity is now the norm, 20 years ago everyone marched to his own drummer, producing machines that looked, felt and worked differently,

and whose data and software was totally incompatible.

Digital Retro: The Evolution and Design of the Personal Computer, by Gordon Laing, celebrates those pioneering days in words and pictures, telling the tales of 44 early machines ranging from the MITS Altair to the NeXT Cube.

The author starts with a brief history of computing, beginning with Charles Babbage’s 1822 idea for the Difference Engine, and traces its path to the development of the 6502 microprocessor. Then he marches, computer by computer, through many of the byways of microcomputer history, finishing up with a “”post History”” of developments since 1989.

The first machine featured is the MITS Altair, released in January 1975 (not, as it happens, the first personal computer — a Canadian named Mers Kutt launched the MCM-70 in 1973. But that’s another story.). Laing’s layout for each system is readable and attractive: a four-page spread with photos, basic specs (the Altair, for example, ran at 2 MHz and had 256 bytes of memory), and a history of the company that produced it.

Laing has dug up all sorts of interesting tidbits of trivia about the computers, their developers, and the changes they precipitated. He’s even found sales figures and original prices for many models. For example, remember the Commodore VIC-20? It cost US$299, ran at 1 MHz, had 3.5KB of RAM, and sold over two and a half million units over its four-year lifespan!

Because Laing is a veteran British technology writer, Digital Retro contains machines whose names and histories never made it across the Atlantic. The Grundy NewBrain, for example, was the size of a hardcover book, had a built-in sixteen character display and the option to run off a battery. Unfortunately, when it launched there was little software available for it and many of its listed options were unavailable, so it lasted barely a year before the company pulled the plug. The Jupiter ACE, whose big selling point was a bundled copy of the FORTH programming language, lasted two years.

You see a lot of stories like these in the book: companies that came up with an interesting idea, built their machine, and faded away. Some died of poor technology (the Mattel Aquarius was a disaster — it lasted six months), others of poor business practices, and many of a combination of both.

Then there were the successes such as the Nintendo Famicom (branded in North America as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES), which enjoyed a 10-year life before being replaced by the Super NES, and the Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984 and still alive today.

Laing doesn’t cover every significant machine from his target period; for example, the Mindset computer, a graphics workstation of such impressive design that it ended up in the Museum of Modern Art, isn’t mentioned. And readers may look askance at the number of gaming systems included — though, to be fair, they really are microcomputers, albeit extremely specialized ones.

For those of us who’ve been around for awhile, Digital Retro is a walk down memory lane. For those who’ve only known the world of PC and Mac, it’s a real eye-opener; who’d have thought that there once was so much diversity in our now mundane computing world.

Digital Retro: The Evolution and Design of the Personal Computer, by Gordon Laing. Sybex, 2004. $41.95.

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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