I would term the sort of modern desktop computers that people use to run operating systems such as Windows and MacOS as 'workstation' class machines. In common with many of my generation, I cut my computing teeth in earlier era and on an earlier generation of computer.
In the evolutionary chain, the 8 bit microcomputer sits after the house-sized mainframe and the affordable mini-computer that cost more than a car and before the current era of cheap, commodity hardware workstations. To make further use of the evolutionary analogy, as a link, the micro computer is a missing link; like some clever primate precursor of modern human beings, it both enabled the development of and helped to define the nature of its successor. In turn, that successor, having greater fitness within its environment, superseded its progenitor, having rendered it irrelevant.
I mentioned evolution and I think that the comparison between the evolution of living things and trends in the computer market is a reasonable one. When a new idea enters the computer scene, it has to find its niche - it has to pass the test of fitness within its environment - or it quickly dies off. There is a sad aspect to this process, as a creature, or a computer, that was once successful is killed off as soon as something more successful comes along.
The other thing that brings about the death of a species of living thing is the evolution of the environment in which it fights for survival. When all of the trees die or are used up, the creature with specially adapted tree climbing faculty becomes less viable than the similar creature that didn't need to climb trees.
In this article, I'm going to explore the idea that the 8 bit home computer not only had a great deal to offer the prehistoric early-humans of 1985 but that it may also have a place in the modern world; perhaps, there is something that we can learn from it. Having identified the laudable, worthwhile elements of this class of machine, I'm going to make some suggestions towards a scheme that would embody these characteristics in the form of a machine that would have a place within the modern world.
The microcomputer: what was good about it?
Reasons for the decline of the micro
The fact is, as the 8 bit home micro was once a commercially successful class of computer, it must have had some worthy qualities. Yet, beyond a few 'enthusiast' collectors, few still run or own this class of machine. The microcomputer made the transition from being popular to being a collectors rarity in a relatively short length of time and this change of fortune must have had a cause.
I would attribute the decline of the microcomputer to two causes:
Firstly, better machines came along. After the 8 bit era, came the 16 bit era. Sixteen bit home computers such as the Commodore Amiga and early PCs also occupy a now extinct link in the evolutionary chain. A difference between the two eras would become apparent if you were ever to sit down with an 8 bit micro and a box full of tapes; you might find it interesting to toy around with. In contrast, a 16 bit mac or a 16 bit PC just isn't going to be as interesting to play around with and that's because it is merely a cut-down version of the machines which superseded it. To prove this point, I submit that you might be able to sell or give away almost any 8 bit computer, while, in contrast, a typical 16 bit machine is doomed upon its discovery in an attic; once discovered, its next stop is the fate that every high-tech piece of equipment fears most: landfill.
The second cause of its extinction was related to fitness: the world in which a computer has to survive has altered since the heyday of the 8 bit micro. These days, for a computer to have a place within a home, it must provide features like a GUI OS with multi tasking, multimedia capabilities and network connectivity.
In addition to these baseline features, the contemporary computer user expects to work within a uniform user interface. Some attempts were made to retro-implement the GUI features of later OSes back onto the 8 bit machines, but in general, a typical microcomputer offered one program loaded at once, and each program would have its own unique take on how a user interface should work.
What would it be like to try to get through a typical day with an 8 bit machine?
- I want to go on-line to look something up and check my email: just about impossible.
- I'll listen to some MP3 music: not a chance.
- I'll write an article: just about possible. I hope that they accept submissions on 5.25inch floppy disk.
Although the 8 bit micro might have had some meritorious features in it's day, as I sit here now, I don't find myself wanting to swap my Ubuntu box for my old BBC Micro. In the same way, if a person without much money and who wanted a computer, approached me for advice, I'd try to set them up with an PC that was a couple of generations behind the curve. Such machines can often be had for free or very cheaply. I certainly wouldn't set such a person up with an old 8 bit machine.
Ease of use: the 'You shouldn't have clicked on that!' factor
The idea that an 8 bit home computer offered a greater 'ease of use' than a modern GUI equipped desktop workstation might, at first, seem to be a counter-intuitive one. If you have ever instructed a person who doesn't have much experience with computers, it can be a challenge to explain concepts such as drive letters, folders, hardware drivers, managing overlapping windows and installing software. Barriers such as these can be particularly frustrating in the case of a person who just wanted to 'write a letter' or 'send an email' to a relative.
Compare this to the experience of a person using an an 8bit micro computer: On such a machine, launching a program might consist of switching the machine on with the appropriate cartridge inserted, or pressing a key combination with the right software tape in the tape drive.
Saving the current document might be a be a carried out with sequence such as:
- hit [escape] to call up the menu
- press F4
- enter a name for the document
- press return to save to disk.
Such a piece of software would not be as flexible as its modern equivalent and it would not suit most power users, but for the person who isn't particular interested in computers and just wants to complete a task such as 'writing a letter', it might seem simpler.
It's also worth noting that complexity had started to creep into the 16 bit era of home computers. Today's typical ten year old is just as familiar with the operation of a mouse as he or she would be a football, but back in the late 80's, a GUI interface might have seemed a bit daunting compared to 'press F4 to save'.
Modern GUI applications feature keyboard shortcuts but it's difficult to explain to the person who had remembered the right key combination for 'save document' that, unfortunately, they clicked the mouse in the wrong place and the word processor application had lost focus. Further more, as a result, they have unintentionally mucked things up by using those key combinations in the wrong window.
"Oh, and by the way", you add, "that bit that said, 'Click here for important information about your mortgage!', you shouldn't have clicked on that."
It's not just day to day application use that suffers from this insidious inflation of complexity. Maintenance of a computer system presents a constant cycle of small hiccups for the even the expert user too. These hiccups are, unfortunately, baffling and insurmountable to the non computer savvy.
Surely, most people reading this have been in the position of trying to get someone else's old Windows 98 box back up and running for them? In such a situation the person that you are trying to help can't help but look unimpressed when you tell them that 'for some reason a driver seems to be corrupted' and that 'it just doesn't seem to want accept the proper drivers and crashes at start up for no apparent reason'. Who doesn't feel a utter fool when telling such a person that you're going to have to reinstall because it's quicker than trying to track down the minute, obscure inconsistency that is causing the problem? "Oh, by the way", you add, sheepishly, "you'll loose loads of your settings and I'll need about an hour and half to to track down all of the drivers for all of your hardware".
Things like this just didn't happen on an old Spectrum 48k. You switched it on, put the tape in, pressed a key combination and pressed play.
This highlights an important difference between the 8 bit era and the current one. Modern machines have evolved to a level of complexity that has pushed them, beyond being a mostly deterministic system, to a level at which even an expert can be surprised by the outcome of his or her actions.
- "Introduction; What Was Good About It?"
- "What Was Good About It?; The Modern Microcomputer"
- "The Machine Itself: Hardware"
- "The Machine Itself: Software"
- "The Operating System; Conclusion"