Computers and Stuff

I watched a show yesterday on one of the science/history channels about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and the Apple vs. Microsoft computer wars of the 1980s. The show was made about ten years ago, and it was kind of amusing to look back at the now-obsolete computers that were state-of-the-art at the time, with a price tag to match. At the time, though, they seemed really cool, and they were better than anything that had come before them.

I've been interested in computers since the mid-1970s, when my junior high school had a room with computer terminals that linked to the district's mainframe. I was able to play some very simple computer games after school, involving trying to pilot a lunar lander safely to the ground, and to keep a small kingdom from starving to death in a game called "Sumer." There were no video monitors in 1975; all the output was via dot-matrix printers. And the input? Computer punch cards were used for writing and compiling the programs.

I got my first computer in 1985 in Berlin. It was a Commodore 64C, with 64K of RAM. By comparison, the computer I'm using now has a gigabyte of RAM. The Commodore hooked up to the television and had an optional floppy disc drive, which I had. My favorite games on the Commodore were The Bard's Tale and Earl Weaver Baseball.

My next computer was a Tandy 1000 TX with 640K of RAM and its own monitor. I've gone through two or three other desktop computers and a laptop on the way to my current computer, which I've had for about a year. While the speed and power of computers has gone up geometrically, the prices have actually gone down when you figure inflation into the equation. The first Macintosh was about $2000 in 1980s dollars, which would be about twice that much today, and for much less functionality. Compared to what we have today, they were slow and ugly.

One scene in the show brought on an unexpected feeling of sadness. A colleague of Steve Jobs was on a boat, talking about him, and the Manhattan skyline was in the background. And there they were, the towers of the World Trade Center, dwarfing all of the surrounding buildings. Even almost six years later, when I see them in archival film footage, I just have a sad feeling. We know in hindsight, and the people standing there with those buildings in the background have no idea, how tragically fragile they actually were and how terribly soon they would be gone.