posted by killermike on Wed 18th Apr 2007 10:07 UTC

"What Was Good About It?; The Modern Microcomputer"

Low entry cost

During their first wave, the 8 bit home computers were, for many, representative of the only game in town; it was the only piece of general purpose computer hardware that the average individual could afford. However, following this era, there was a period in which the 8 bit micro continued to thrive alongside the flashier new wave of 16 bit computers. This was largely due to the cost. A class of person who just couldn't afford to spend a lot on a new computer might still have been able to buy and feed an old 8 bit computer.

The model that most manufacturers of 8 bit machines adhered to was one of creating a baseline, standard machine and to stick to that specification throughout the life of the product. Add-ons were available for the 8 bit micro but there was no real upgrade cycle as such. A few years after the purchase of the machine, one would still expect have access to the latest piece of software. Occasionally, a software company would attempt to impose a requirement of some extra memory beyond that of a baseline, entry level machine, but in general, the users themselves would be resistive to such attempts.

Reliability of the software and hardware

Updates to the operating system itself would be a rarity. The operating system in most micros was incorruptible as it resided in the ROM of the machine.

The hardware itself would typically possess a robustness through merit of its simplicity. Upon opening the case of a typical 8 bit machine, expect to find a single motherboard with chips and other components soldered to it, a few connectors for various expansion ports and a ribbon cable connecting the keyboard. In addition, in order to keep the machine simple, many machines of this class featured an internal power supply. No fans. No moving parts.

Such a machine would typically be cheap yet not as fragile as a PC. Drop such a machine down the stairs and there is a good chance that it will still work. The designers of these machines knew that they might be stored under a teenager's bed until pressed into action. It had to be as hardy as a teenager's other possessions.

The expectation of the user from such a machine would be that the machine could be ready for use about five seconds after it was powered up. No drivers. No updates. No conflicts.

Other features

Other admirable qualities of 8 bit machines include:

  • The 'one box' form factor.
  • VDU connectivity: It's appropriate for a home computer to connect to a TV set or a monitor.

A proposal: The modern microcomputer - the Neomicro

The design goals

At this stage, I hope that I have established two points:

  1. The microcomputer had features of merit that are not present in modern workstations.
  2. The microcomputers of the past would not be compatible with modern home computing demands.

This begs the question: how can we gain access to merits of the microcomputer without suffering its shortcomings?

I propose that some of the conceptual goals of the microcomputer could be re-approached with the application of modern technology. A new machine could be created that embodied some of the admirable qualities of the classic microcomputer while, at the same time sidestepping some of its shortcomings. We'll call this design, the Neomicro.

At this point, it should be apparent that the conceptual 'neo-microcomputer' cannot fully embody the advantages of both the classic microcomputer and the contemporary workstation because the intention behind both classes of machine conflict with one another. The modern workstation is designed to be a general purpose machine that can be adapted to just about any type of computing task and it is impossible to support this level of adaptability without an accompanying increase in the level of complexity.

The Neomicro is to be a casual use computer with low barriers to access. The barriers to access are lowered in this case through a combination of low total cost of ownership and simplicity of operation. In a way this limitation - of singular design ethos - is a blessing because it frees the design from a need to compete with the workstation class machine. This is a relief as it would be impossible to create a machine that was both cheaper, less complex in operation and yet as powerful as a modern workstation.

Here are the design goals of the project:

Reliability of software and hardware

This could be achieved with a fixed operating system and a fixed application suite. Hardware reliability could be increased through simplification and design decisions that avoid use of moving parts.

Ease of use for non-experts

What features do people need for a 'simple computer'? What features aren't necessary?

Low entry and maintenance cost

Again, this can be achieved through stripping the hardware down the basics.

Fast boot up and shutdown

It's difficult to see how a general purpose computer could have the kind of almost instantaneous boot up that was the norm for an 8 bit microcomputer. PDAs manage this but that is because they never really shut down. In typical use, they just go to sleep when not in use. Making our modern micro project work in such a way imposes a number of complicated restrictions on both the expected usage patterns and the hardware design of the machine. Making the boot-up simply 'fast' in comparison to a typical workstation is a necessary compromise.

Table of contents
  1. "Introduction; What Was Good About It?"
  2. "What Was Good About It?; The Modern Microcomputer"
  3. "The Machine Itself: Hardware"
  4. "The Machine Itself: Software"
  5. "The Operating System; Conclusion"
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