My history in computing – Part 1 – The 1980s

I was very fortunate to experience the history of home computing almost from the very beginning – something I’m very thankful for and realize it’s magnitude until today. Thanks, Dad!

In the 1970s and before a computer just wasn’t something for everyone – too big, too expensive and way too complicated. This has been disrupted in the early 1980s – and despite what others might say, in my view one company had the leading role:

Wikimedia Commons Commdore Logo

Wikimedia Commons Commdore Logo

Even though there were many great manufacturers during this period of time, Commodore made history with the C64 – the #1 selling home computer worldwide (ever!) and its successor the Amiga – one of the best computer systems ever made! Period.

So bow down to Jack Tramiel – even though, like many great IT-Minds, he was thrown out of his own company in ’84 and went on to make the Atari ST a legend. This system had a MIDI Interface and was so reliable that some of my musician-friends used it with Cubase in their production studio until around 2000 – talking about sustainability.

To be clear: I love all the machines of this era – but this is my blog and my personal story, so it might be a little skewed. Same goes for today’s systems. Although it is only my personal opinion, it does have some foundation to it.

Also, I’m a primarily a user and no engineer or programmer (yet). /end thread

Platforms not only computers

Today many people dislike Apple’s approach of making hard- and software. To me, it’s nothing new – back then almost every computer was a platform, and its for a reason:

People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware. Alan Kay, 1982

There you have it, over 35 years ago. Because system performance does not depend on single specs, but on the integration of hard- and software. I remember the endless discussions about CPU clockrates – but a benchmark isn’t just a single number, e.g. MHz (my Cyberstorm PPC 060 with 50 MHz was blazing fast), it has to include the overall system performance. And that’s where hard- and software go hand in hand.

This was basically my first insight into marketing – an easily comparable “more” seems to equal “better” for most people.

So, lets lay out my story.

The 1980s

Look at the wood!

Technically the Atari 2600 was the first console in our household around 1979. Sure enough I was too young to understand, so basically I just punched the Joystick (just like I did with the needle of our DUAL Belt Turntable, ouch!).

The VIC-20, I still have mine.

My interest in these things had sparked and then it happened:

Around 1982 my father got us our first home computer – a Commodore VC20 which I own to this day. This thing came with a datasette – basically a tape recorder (!) to safe your software on.

Of course we also extended it’s 5 kB of RAM to a staggering 20 kB or so through slot-in cartridges – compare that to a blank Word Document today.

The Commodore C64

I was blown away, yet still too young to start something and around 1983 we got our first “Brotkasten” – Bread Box as the C64 is called in Germany, because, well, just look at it!

Doesn’t this look like a neat storage for you bread?

This machine changed everything. And yes, that meant mostly video games to me, playing until my arms fell off – Summer Games comes to mind. I will never forget how we sat in the completely darkened living room, playing Castles of Doctor Creep – take a good look at my favourite game of all time:

Ed Hobbs – if you ever read this – THANK YOU, SIR!

Moar! Games, among them was the unforgettable Choplifter and of course another all time favourite: Impossible Mission. No, not like the movie Mission: Impossible, but more that we need to stop the evil genius Professor Elvin Atombender, who is “believed to be tampering with national security computers”, OMG! He makes his position pretty clear by welcoming us with: “Another visitor. Stay a while… Staaaay Forever!”.

Besides the games I was also fascinated by the Intros (you know what I’m talking about) of these games – the effects, the sound and the creativity of everything was simply epic. Here’s one from 2014 – what? Yes, no typo, they still do it. On the C64. Because Razor 1911 are legends.

If you understand German, I recommend a Youtube search for the legendary interview with the Dynamic Duo. And don’t forget to check out this account.

The Commodore Amiga

1988 marked my next personal milestone – my Dad got the Amiga 2000. While the Amiga 500 was the most popular model, my first one was a desktop computer with all the possibilities for expansion.

To get things in perspective, here is a commercial from 1987:

Things we learn from the video:

  • Back then “undo” was a brilliant new feature (at 3:51)
  • The Amiga OS already had preemptive multitasking in 1987 (at 4:16)
  • DigiView could scan in colour and “16 shades of grey” – who could’ve forseen that prequel (at 5:05)
  • Desktop Publishing was a regular thing on the Amiga in 1987 (at 6:28)
  • Hayes Modem (at 7:37) – talking about DFÜ and what became the internet today

Recently, after all the years, I had someone tell me that these platforms were just gaming consoles – this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the games were an integral part and everybody – especially me – was playing Shadow of the Beast (which was really tough to play and the parallax scolling backdrops blew our mind) and Menace (it’s legendary publisher Psygnosys was elite).

The games were a good way to spark interest and market the machines – because of course you could do actual work and way more with the Amiga. Especially in the graphics department – think about Deluxe Paint, basically what you call Photoshop today (remember their iconic King-Tut?). Deluxe Paint was used by LucasArts to make graphics for their adventure game Monkey Island – another blockbuster classic you probably have heard of. Or think about video production with Video Toaster which won an Emmy Award (!) for technical achievement! And Scala, which was used by TV studios and remember the Babylon 5 or seaQuest DSV series on TV? The special effects were created on the Amiga with Lightwave 3D. Also think Cinema 4D! Heck, even Andy Warhol used the Amiga! And remember HAM? I do have to quote Wikipedia here:

At the time of the Amiga’s launch in 1985, this near-photorealistic display was unprecedented for a home computer and it was widely used to demonstrate the Amiga’s graphical capability

But what about the “real” work? Like Word Processing and Spreadsheets and stuff?

You could do all this and more on the Amiga, there was Word Perfect and TurboCalc and all that. But yes, the Amiga was intended for creation. It’s the same principle that Apple followed on its path to growth – a strong focus on creators. At the time, Microsoft was known for office use and it was the only company that made an exception to the platform approach. In the corporate world it had a very different audience and price point. But if you ask me, as a private user, this company had no game in the 1980s and early 1990s when it comes to computer aided creation.

Dave Haynie – a true IT legend.

I will forever be thankful to the people that created and supported the Amiga, to name a few: Jay Miner (the father of the Amiga), Petro Tyschtschenko (for Commodore Germany) and of course Dave Haynie. Yes these are the people you do not hear everyday, yet they revolutionized computing.

Only Amiga makes it possible™.

I mean these guys signed the inside of the first Amiga, they invented the Guru Mediatation and put so much love into these platforms – no one can deny.

Relax, its just a software failure.

Unfortunately, Dave later got stiffed out of his work by the notorious Metabox (shame on them!) – a company I would also get to know very well around millennium through the new economy stock market crash and the “Neuer Markt” on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange (whoops, the ad-hoc for 500k set top boxes was just a Loi and no real order, anyone?). This time will probably be topic of my career in trading.

So there you have it, the Amiga was a dream machine. And this was just the beginning, as we go to part 2 of my history in computing.