'Home' computer: Definition

From: Tony Duell <ard_at_p850ug1.demon.co.uk>
Date: Fri Jul 4 19:22:17 1997


> I guess I should have started out with my ulterior motives.

Aha... That makes a lot more sense, and I hope I can make some useful comments.

> For a computer to survive as anything more than a relic, it has to have
> a user community. Now, I suppose I could use my TI for "typical home
> computing tasks" with the software I already have whether there was
> anyone else in the world using a TI or not. And I suppose I would, too.
> But for other jobs I wanted done that my computer COULD do (even if
> being a Web browser is NOT one of them), I would either have to program
> it myself, or find someone else to do it. And if I did it myself, most
> of the fun is sharing it with other TI users. And part of the fun of
> having this old computer is that there are other people bucking the
> trend along with me. In other words, we have a TI computer user
> community, and that is a very hefty reason for sticking with the TI
> computer.
> In fact, the TI community is shrinking, and as the members of the
> community observe it shrinking, some are inclined to bail out ("rats
> abandoning a sinking ship"). Given that trend, the community will
> waste away to a few hardcores unless there is new life added, either in
> exciting new "modern applications" or attracting new people to adopt a
> simple machine that can perform "common everyday household computing
> tasks" that they DON'T need a Pentium to do.

I hate to say this here, but I would _not_ recomend a classic computer (any
classic computer) as the only system for a non-computer-literate user. IMHO
such a user will quickly become disapointed when they find that the things that
_they_ can do with the machine are somewhat limited, and that nothing from the
local computer store will be of any use to them.

I can have advanced video on one of my older machines because I am prepared to
write drivers, solder up interfaces, read technical manuals, patch existing
programs, etc. OK, I enjoy it. But to suggest that a PERQ 2 driving an I2S
image processor and a homebrew GPIB -SCSI interface would be a good machine
for the average home user to view his photo-CDs on would be nothing short of
insane. Yes, it _could_ be done, but for such a user, a normal, boring,
PC-clone would be much more suitable.

Even I don't use a classic machine (or at least, what _I_ consider classic) all
the time. Earlier this week I needed to write some letters. I could have used
a classic-PERQ and printed the results on a Versatec V80. I could have used the
paper tape editor on my PDP8/e to punch a tape containing the correct postscript
commands and then printed it to my laserprinter using a serial-interfaces paper
tape reader. In fact I used something non-classic - a much hacked PC/AT running
Linux. I used LaTeX to format the text, and then printed it on said (fairly
modern) laserprinter. There are plenty of other things that would have been just
as good, but that's the one I chose.

The people who (IMHO) we should be trying to attract to classic computers -- and
in fact the ones I've had some success in attracting -- are those who are
already computer literate to some extent. People who already can write simple
programs and want to understand exactly how a system operates. I think it's a
lot easier to understand many classic computers (minis and micros) than modern
PCs, and the educational value of such machines should not be overlooked.

There are (IMHO) at least 4 different types of tasks that can be done with
computers :

1) A standard application for which software (commercial, GPL'd, freeware,
shareware, whatever) already exists. In which case you pick whatever machine
the software runs on. If it runs on more than one system, you choose between
them using whatever criteria matter _to you_ (hence me picking a classic
computer for its better documentation over a modern PC since both can carry out
the tasks I want to do)

2) An existing embedded system. Although it's possible (and sometimes common) to
'modernise', say, a control system based on a minicomputer, there are still a
lot of PDP8's and PDP11's running machinery, etc. Provided the old machine works
reliably and support/spares are available, it's fine to keep on using it.

3) A new 'embedded' system. Although my example of the I2C chip tester was, I
agree, slightly contrived, I was simply pointing out that if you are making a
single-purpose machine _for youself (so you can maintain it)_ there's no reason
not to use a classic. There's probably no reason not to use something modern

4) Education. This includes 'writing programs for fun', understanding how
computers (hardware and software) works, etc. This is IMHO the main use of
classic computers to the average person these days, and the way we'll attract
more people into the hobby. I've said before that you can learn more about
processor operation by spending a couple of days with a minicomputer CPU, the
schematics for it and a 'scope than by sitting through most lecture courses on
the subject.

And, I can fully understand the joy that comes from getting a computer to do
something that is widely claimed to be 'impossible'. When the CoCo was current,
it was normally claimed that you couldn't have PMODE 4 graphics and Semigraphics
4 blocks on the screen at once. I did it, and totally amazed the staff in the
local Tandy store. Since it's easy to do most things on a fast PC (you don't
really have to save every last cycle, etc), it's more of a challenge to do them
on an old home micro. Again, we may be able to attract people because of that.

It may be worth looking at how (say) classic car clubs keep their membership.
They may well have similar problems - why would you drive (say) a pre-war car
when you could have a modern one. Rationally it probably makes very little

> My previous remarks about mainframes, which were interpreted as saying
> that they are not "home computers", were made from the point of view
> (and perhaps in ignorance) that, while C64s, Atari 8-bitters, TIs,
> CoCos, and other "home computers" that were sold FOR THAT PURPOSE in
> K-Mart and other department stores DO (or at least did) have a user
> community, sharing programs, encouraging other users, forming User
> Groups, publishing Newsletters, etc., other machines (such as the
> PDP class of mains, minis, etc. and maybe Altairs and S-100 bus
> computers) do NOT have this aspect to their existence. I guess I

I will have to disagree with you there. The larger machines that I am involved
with have very active user comunities who offer a lot of help and support to
newcomers. To give a couple of examples :

PERQ : When I was trying to add a printer to my PERQ, I had a few questions. The
result was that other owners dismantled their own machines, 'buzzed out' cables,
e-mailed me wirelists, and talked me through the whole thing. That's not an
isolated incident - a person who was having monitor problems got other owners
to pull the covers off their monitors and measure voltages, etc. This is just
about the only machine where this level of support still occurs over 10 years
after the entire line was discontinued.

PDP11. The user community here is split (IMHO) into the professional users who
need to keep the machine running, and who can afford DEC diagnostics,
replacement boards, etc, and the home hackers who debug everything with a logic
probe and printset, rebuild modules and even repair dead fans. I am certainly in
the latter category here. But again, questions get answered. People will dig out
manuals for obscure hardware and look up pinouts and jumper settings. Newcomers
will get answers to introductory questions.

BTW, I'm not flaming the support that other user communities give. I'm sure it's
excellent, but I've never experienced it, since I don't (in the main) use those

> do know about DECUS; don't know if something like that existed for
> PDP-11 owners or not, or even if professionally-oriented thing like
> DECUS would be applicable here. I certainly did not mean to imply that

The UK chapter of DECUS is pretty useless for home hackers. I am told that other
chapters are a lot better in this respect.

> * David Ormand *** Southwest 99ers *

Received on Fri Jul 04 1997 - 19:22:17 BST

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