True believers: The biggest cults in tech

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"The Commodore 8-bit crowd is the computer world's analogy to old-time Volkswagen bug fanciers in the car world," says Eric W. Brown, president of Saugus.net, whose ShellTown operation provides Net access via shell for old hardware like the C64 and C128. "Believe it or not people are still writing new software for the C64/128, and these days there are people who handle all their e-mail and even surf the Web via their old C128 boxes."

"It's hard to distinguish among retro-folks, but I do think [Commodore 8-bitters] stand out as a collective group," adds Brain. "They appreciate game play over glitzy graphics, appear to be more willing to tear into something that is broken rather than just pitch it and buy something new. They like to modify things, and they tend to come up with creative solutions to problems."

Their most sacred relic: the Commodore 65, an improved version of the C64 that never made it past the prototype stage. Yet many Commodorians reject the notion of being a part of a cult; they tend to see themselves more as keepers of the eternal C64/128 flame.

"The cult is the Amigans," says one closely placed source who requested his name not be revealed. "These are people who worship the Commodore Amiga operating system and expect that one day its superiority will cause it to rise again. Some of them are really annoyingly crazy."

Tech cult No. 5: The Order of the Lisp
Established:
1958
Gathering of the tribes: International Lisp Conference
Major deity: John McCarthy
Minor deities: Paul Graham, Peter Norvig
Holy Scripture: "Paradigms in Artificial Intelligence Programming"

Like warrior monks driven into hiding, the Order of the Lisp was once a powerful force that lived at the heart of next-generation computing. Closely allied with artificial intelligence and expert systems, the Lisp (or List Processing) language fell into disrepute as those concepts became allied with the dark side in the late 1970s.

A backlash against overhyped rule-based expert systems led to the so-called "AI winter," notes Dan Weinreb, chairman of the International Lisp Conference (ILC). "The phrase 'artificial intelligence' became almost a dirty word, and the Lisp language was dragged down with it."

The language splintered into dozens of dialects as its practitioners dispersed across the Net. But it remained a potent force in academic circles and on message boards. Slava Akhmechet, a doctoral student in computer science at Stony Brook University, encountered Lisp on a programming bulletin board at the age of 16; he's been a devoted practitioner ever since.

He describes his conversion from skeptic to Skywalker in his Defmacro blog: "It was a journey on an endless lake of frustration. I turned my mind inside out, rinsed it, and put it back in place. I went through seven rings of hell and came back. And then I got it. The enlightenment came instantaneously. One moment I understood nothing, and the next moment everything clicked into place. ... I've achieved an almost divine state of mind, an instantaneous enlightenment experience that turned my view of computer science on its head in less than a single second."

Despite its being more than 50 years old, interest in Lisp is on the rise, says Weinreb. The International Lisp conference at MIT last March drew more than 200 attendees -- nearly twice as many as ILC 2007. The language is still in commercial use, though Weinreb says "there are companies using Lisp now who keep that fact a secret, feeling that they would be discredited to some extent if their use of Lisp were known, which is pretty silly."

Akhmechet says you can identify true believers by their contrarian nature and their love for things of great beauty, regardless of age.

"Remember the part of 'Star Wars' where Luke is introduced to the light-saber?" he says. "Obi Wan says, 'It's an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.' That's how we feel about Lisp. It was designed in the 1960s by people who truly loved their craft and is an improvement not only on its predecessors, but also on most of its successors. It has certain elegance and beauty to it that mathematicians recognize in some of their formulas, poets in their poems, and physicists in their theories."

Tech cult No. 6: Monks of the Midrange
Established: 1960
Gathering of the tribes: Common 2009
Major deity: Dr. Frank Soltis
Holy scriptures: The IBM Redbook
Sacred relic: Original AS/400

Like their elder brethren devoted to IBM mainframes, the monks of IBM's midrange systems congregate to celebrate the IBM i, iSeries, i5/OS, AS/400 and related solutions, says Randy Dufault, president of the Common Users Group. Although the group traces its history back to the day vacuum tubes vanished from modern computers, it still boasts more than 4,000 members, who meet annually to keep the power systems flame alive.

Dufault says the cult's bizarre rituals include chanting "Market the 'i'!" whenever other IBMers are around, checking the Web site to see if IBM has changed the system's name again, and making regular pilgrimages to Rochester, Minn., birthplace of the Application System/400 family.

You can identify midrange monks by the way they're always collecting paper handouts from presentations, storing them for decades, and never looking at them until their spouse threatens to throw them all away, says Dufault. "Then they look through them and store them in another place until the spouse finds them again, usually in another five to seven years."

Although cultlike in their devotion, Commoners are both collaborative and flexible, says Dufault, and willing to incorporate newer technologies like AIX and Linux into their ancient beliefs.

Tech cult No. 7: The Tao of Newton
Established: 1993
Gathering of the tribes:
Worldwide Newton Conference
Major deity: John Sculley
Minor deities: Too many to name; many are listed in MSU's unofficial Newton Hall of Fame
Holy scripture: The Newton FAQ
The Antichrist: Steve Jobs

How is it that a thing can die and yet live on?

Ponder this paradox, grasshopper, as we tell of perhaps the most slavishly devoted tech cult of all: the Apple Newton MessagePad, aka God's PDA.

Debuting to lavish hype in 1993, the Newton was arguably the beginning of the larger Apple cult and its aura of impeccable coolness. From the Newton's loins sprang most of what we think of as Apple chic today; many Newtonians draw a direct line from the original PDA to today's iPhone.

[ Have or want tech icons from the early days, such as a Newton, Mac 128, or early IBM PC? See what it's worth in InfoWorld's vintage-tech gift guide. ]

So what happened? The original Newton was bulky and expensive, with a few glitches, most famously its less-than-letter-perfect handwriting recognition (ruthlessly parodied by Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau). The smaller, nimbler, cheaper PalmPilot soon dominated the market. A few months after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he killed the device, earning the permanent enmity of the Newton faithful, who would hold up their MessagePads in silent protest during Jobs' keynote speeches.

Bowed but unbeaten, Newtonians continued to develop software as open source projects. MessagePad hackers added support for MP3s, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth; the Einstein Project created Newton OS emulators for devices like the Sharp Zaurus and Nokia 770, as well as Apple Macs and Windows PCs. Each year the Newton faithful gather at the Worldwide Newton Conference.

Meditative rituals for the cult include "installing software, replacing backlights, endlessly discussing rumors of a new Apple tablet device, complaining that the PalmPilot stole our thunder, and correcting commoners' assumptions that non-Newton devices are true PDAs," notes Grant Hutchinson, who maintains the NewtonTalk mailing list (as well as a chronological list of every haircut he's had since 1998, if that tells you anything).

He says Newtonians can be spotted by the transcendental glow cast by their MessagePads' green backlights. And they live for the day the Newton will rise again -- perhaps in the form of that oft-rumored tablet, the existence of which Apple steadfastly denies.

"The echo of cult-likeness might be in the wish to stop time, to deny the reality of loss," notes psychologist Mike Jolkovski. "For a while, the Newtonians kept hope that the gizmo would rejoin the Apple product line -- much as people pined for the reunion of the Beatles. But no, the Beatles aren't getting back together, the Newton is gone and will stay that way, and we are all going to die."

But, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Wasn't it Steve Wozniak who said that?

This story, "True believers: The biggest cults in tech" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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