Mavericks, outlaws, dreamers & geniuses of the micro age

For the most part, magazines and newspapers are chartered with the job of reporting history, not making it. But in the early 1970's, two hobbyist magazines, Radio Electronics and Popular Electronics, were not content merely reporting on the changes in their fields. They decided to push things along.

One of the first major events in the history of the microcomputer was the July 1973 issue of Radio Electronics that carried a cover story by Don Lancaster detailing plans for a "TV typewriter." The article, according to micro pioneer Lee Felsenstein, served as a lightning rod for hobbyists throughout the country.

Although it resembled a terminal, the device had few practical uses and a lot of rough edges. To Felsenstein, that article "was the beginning of a mass learning experience." The design's "marginalities forced people to be creative. A lot of people got the article and got the parts and went around learning digital electronics the hard way."

A year later, that same magazine carried an article about the Mark-8, a "personal computer" based on the primitive and rather limited Intel Corp. 8008 microprocessor. When that article hit the stands, Les Solomon, the editor of Popular Electronics, decided to do his competition one better. He scoped out his readers and contributors and found a small company in Albuquerque, N.M., that, in Solomon's judgment, had the right stuff to create the first useful and powerful personal computer.

Solomon flew to Albuquerque to meet with Ed Roberts, the president of Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems MITS). MITS, so it seemed, was down on its luck. It had been in the business of selling $99 calculators when Texas Instruments, Inc. and other semiconductor companies began flooding the market with cheaper and more sophisticated products. Rather than close up shop, Roberts accepted Solomon's invitation to develop a personal computer kit that could be sold for under $500. Roberts would build his computer around Intel's newer and more powerful 8080 microprocessor. Solomon, who helped sketched out the as yet undesigned computer, promised to showcase the MITS kit on the cover of his magazine.

The cover story of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics started a prairie fire. The Altair, proclaimed as the "first minicomputer kit to rival commercial models" was an instant success. Within weeks of the magazine's publication, hundreds of people sent in $397 for a 256-byte machine whose user interface consisted of a panel of switches and lights. Consider that 256 bytes represents 1 1/2560th the memory capacity of today's 640K IBM Personal Computer.

The machine was far from user friendly. Programs were entered by flipping the switches, and data was read via a pattern of red lights. Steve Dompier, an early MITS customer, dazzled his colleagues at a meeting of Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club when he demonstrated how the machine could make "music." Dompier positioned his Altair near a radio and relied on its radio frequency leaks to create audible and programmable sound patterns.

By mid-April of 1975, MITS had received more than 4,000 orders for the machine. Like the Apple Computer Inc.'s Apple II and the IBM PC that were to follow, the Altair's greatest strength was its ability to help sophisticated users overcome the machine's own defects. That the machine was much less than perfect, combined with its expansion potential, made it a prime candidate for third-party engineers to create memory boards, I/O interfaces and other enhancements.

The fact that the machine was a real computer, not a dedicated single-purpose instrument, spawned a whole new industry -- microcomputer software. It did not take long for word of the Altair to reach two young men in the Boston area. Paul Allen was working for Honeywell, Inc., and Bill Gates was a student at Harvard University. They called Roberts and asked if he would be interested in a Basic language for the machine. Roberts said he was, and a few weeks later Allen flew to Albuquerque to show Roberts the first version of what would eventually become Microsoft Basic.

Gates and Allen's fledgling company, Micro-Soft, forged the first of a long string of strategic alliances that were to turn Microsoft Corporation into a long-standing industry leader and Microsoft Basic into a standard.

Felsenstein ingratiated himself with fellow Altair owners by developing some expertise in debugging and repairing the new machine. "Altairs were persnickety," Felsenstein said. "We had noise and a lot of other problems to overcome. Its imperfection led to discovery and development." Felsenstein was among the few hundred San Francisco area innovators who came to meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club.

The energy level at the meetings was high, and the motivation, according to Felsenstein, "was definitely something other than money."

Like many of the early Homebrew members, Felsenstein went on to make his own mark on the industry. He developed the Sol computer and was the principal designer of the Osborne 1. That machine, which was introduced in 1981, was the first fully equipped computer system, with monitor and I/O ports, for under $2,000, the first transportable computer and the first low-cost computer bundled with enough software to satisfy the initial needs of most business users.

George Morrow, who later designed several computers of his own, was one of the first engineers to design and market memory boards for the Altair. He distributed them by mail under the company name, "Morrow's Microstuff."

Morrow likens the early personal computer days to those of the wild west. "It was wide open. There were no restraints on what we did. Now that's not the case. There are traditions, there is momentum and we live in a society that has its rules."

Indirectly, AT&T, then the nation's telephone monopoly, played an important role in the development of the microcomputer. The company's long-distance trunk lines became an unwilling playground for some early hackers, known as "phone phreaks." "Phreaking" is the fine art of breaking into long-distance phone lines for the purpose of making free calls. The ultimate high priest of that movement was John Draper, known throughout the early 1970s counterculture as "Captain Crunch." The nickname grew out of Draper's discovery that a whistle from a box of Captain Crunch cereal could generate tones that would give him access to the phone company's long-distance circuits.

Draper's legendary phone phreaking earned him lots of friends and admirers, including a budding young engineer from Cupertino, Calif. Steve Wozniak (also known as "The Woz") was so inspired by Draper's antics that he designed an electronic version of Captain Crunch's whistle. Dubbed the "blue box," Wozniak's invention allowed users to bypass the phone company's billing system, opening the door to unlimited free long-distance calling.

Like any other "useful" device, the blue boxes needed a marketing plan. To the rescue came Wozniak's good friend Steven Jobs. As legend has it, they made a tidy profit, though the proceeds from this activity were nothing compared to what the two young men earned from their first legitimate enterprise.

Wozniak took a job at Hewlett-Packard Co. and studied microcomputer processing at night. He also started attending Homebrew meetings which, according to the accounts in Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine's colorful book, Fire in the Valley, (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 1984) had an enormous impact on Wozniak's life. During this time he learned he could purchase a 6502 chip for only $20.

The Apple I

His first task was to write a Basic programming language for the 6502. Using the 6502 as its CPU, Wozniak put together a board with a keyboard and a monitor interface. The device, which he showed off at a Homebrew meeting, was called the Apple I. A few months later, with the help and encouragement of Jobs, Wozniak began work on the design of a more complete system that the pair eventually marketed under the name Apple II. The rest, as they say, is microcomputer history.

The Apple II might have been just a footnote to history had it not been for two men in Cambridge, Mass., who, in 1978, decided to use the Apple II as the platform for creating a computerized electronic spreadsheet program. Dan Bricklin, a student at the Harvard Business School, teamed up with programmer Bob Frankston to create Visicalc, short for "visible calculator."

"Apple," according to Frankston, "had just started marketing a floppy disk drive. Now we had a machine that we could do something with. The Apple II didn't impress me, but, with the floppy disk drive, it looked sufficient." Frankston and Bricklin's decision to write Visicalc for the Apple II not only had a profound impact on the destiny of Apple Computer, but also on its two main micro competitors, Radio Shack Corp. and Commodore Business Machines Inc. With Visicalc, the Apple II suddenly became a tool for business.

Despite the fact that it was a micro, and therefore regarded by many as a toy, the Apple II began showing up on the desks of financial planners, managers and number crunchers in businesses large and small. Radio Shack later marketed its own version of Visicalc as did IBM, when it introduced its PC.

In 1983, Mitch Kapor, who had earlier worked for Bricklin and Frankston, helping create a Visicalc companion program, introduced Visicalc's first major competitor. Lotus Development Corp.'s 1-2-3 has topped the charts ever since and quickly replaced Visicalc as the No. 1 selling business program. Lotus eventually bought the rights to Visicalc then stopped selling it. Frankston works for Lotus, and Bricklin runs his own small software company, Software Garden.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, microcomputing was divided into two major and several minor camps. Most business users settled on machines based on the Intel 8080 or the compatible Zilog, Inc. Z-80 CPU. These machines ran the popular Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M) operating system, which played host to Wordstar, an omnipresent and still very successful word processing program. CP/M machines could also run Dbase II, a serious data base management system, and Supercalc, a worthy Visicalc imitation.

The rest of the world was using the Apple II, Radio Shack Model 1 or 2, and some relatively obscure machines such as the Commodore Pet. The Apple II, which could not display lower-case characters without a third-party modification, became popular among educators, game writers and hackers. CP/M was the province of business. CP/M had been around even longer than the commercial machines that could run it.

Gary Kildall, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., wrote the predecessor to CP/M under contract with Intel for that company's now ancient 4004 processor. With the 8008 and later 8080, Kildall refined his operating system and enabled it to read and write to floppy disks. For years, CP/M remained the dominant disk operating system, with virtually no competition, other than Apple Computer's proprietary DOS. Then came IBM, which decided to commission Microsoft to create MS-DOS, which would drive its line of personal computers.

MS-DOS dominance

MS-DOS still dominates the personal computer marketplace. IBM may have to compete with hundreds of clone makers, but Microsoft owns the operating system market.

One major personal computer company refuses to march in lockstep. Apple continues to market and expand its Apple II line. As recently as this fall, it announced a major enhancement with the Apple IIGS.

For the business community, Apple offers its Macintosh line. Introduced in 1984 as "the computer for the rest of us," the Macintosh was touted by its evangelistic inspirer, Steven Jobs, as an appliance that would bring computing power to the masses.

During the past two years, the Macintosh has found an important niche, at least for the time being, as the machine of choice for the exploding arena of desktop publishing. Desktop publishing may turn out to be the Visicalc of the 1980s. Page-composition programs such as Aldus Corp.'s Pagemaker can transform a few thousand dollars worth of equipment into a typesetting, drawing and page-layout system, capable of replacing expensive equipment and services.

Desktop competition

Apple will not dominate desktop publishing for long. Already, several companies are releasing desktop publishing programs for the PC while IBM readies its recently announced desktop publishing business unit. And there, as we contemplate the near future, lies one of the lessons of microcomputer history: Energetic, sometimes ragged, young people and companies lay the groundwork and tinker with the possibilities. The boys with the money and big production and distribution facilities wait in the wings, ready to popularize, capitalize or, if necessary, imitate whatever seems to rise to the top.

It is hard to say if any of them will come up with tomorrow's history, but rest assured someone will. Have you looked into your neighbor's garage lately?

Historical Postscript: If some of this account seems like ancient history, check your calendar. It's only just begun. Jimmy Carter was halfway through his term when Wozniak and Jobs introduced the Apple II. The "good old days" of personal computing are still with us. Those of you who missed out can take heart. Sometime in the late 21st century, when historians reflect on the early history of the microprocessor, 1986 will seem awfully early.

Magid is vice-president and senior analyst in the San Jose, Calif., office of The Seybold Group. He is a syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a former contributing editor of PC World as well as the former editor of PC Magazine. He is also founder and former chairman of Know How, a San Francisco-based microcomputer education company.

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