Fw: Welcome Back! {IMSAI}

From: Richard Erlacher <edick_at_idcomm.com>
Date: Sat Mar 20 11:58:32 1999

I wrote Tom Fischer a few lines this morning, about the niche his "products of yesteryear" could fill in today's world. It's quoted below in his reply.

-----Original Message-----
From: Thomas Fischer <TRF_at_imsai.net>
To: Richard Erlacher <edick_at_idcomm.com>
Date: Saturday, March 20, 1999 10:51 AM
Subject: Re: Welcome Back!

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Richard Erlacher
    To: mail_at_imsai.net
    Sent: Saturday, March 20, 1999 7:40 AM
    Subject: Welcome Back!
    It's good to see you back, offering to support these venerable and still thoroughly useful microcomputers. Many of the functions which were commonly used back in the 1970's and '80's, but which are no longer supported in current generation microcomputers, are still valuable and in demand.
    Today, however, it is necessary to build custom hardware, often requiring a larger investment than it did in the '70's, to provide a simple function. It's not unusual to have an entire PC devoted to the handling of a few bits of control and monitoring, which was straightforward to handle back in "the good old days" with a parallel or serial port board which could be used to handle much more without taxing the CPU.
    I still use the old Intel boards, which I admittedly bought at inflated prices back in those days, to provide simple control and communication functions not convenient to provide with an entire PC.
    You may be surprised to find how much of the interest in the old S-100 boards there is today, not for the many hobbyists interested in "retrocomputing," but from persons like me, whose primary interest is in exploiting the control and monitoring capabilities of these systems.
    Dick Erlacher
    Hi again, Dick-
    I started writing a "short reply" to your e-mail, but an hour later I have this. You brought out a few points that I've been meaning to articulate for a while, so here's a first draft. A modified form of this will appear on the imsai web page http://imsai.net as a call for comment from all interested parties. Thanks for your interest!
    I've been living "in a bubble" with respect to how current desires and requirements for the older machines are concerned, so forgive me for a bit of historical rambling and perspective. Your input is desperately needed in order for me to fulfill some, in not all, of the requirements to be implemented in the new embodiment of the IMSAI line. I'm going to experiment with the concept of letting the user-to-be provide input about the architecture and bus requirements, perhaps developing a second-generation evolution to the venerable S-100 standard.
    In the mid-70's we started to explore the capabilities of those early machines and were fascinated with the ability to achieve higher-level logic and control functions in an open-architecture environment. The tremendous appeal was demonstrated by the sudden explosion of hobbyist computing magazines, hitherto non-existent, save for Radio-Electronics and Popular Electronics as examples of general circulation.
    Those of us involved in serious electronic design subscribed to professional publications such as Electronics (with my favorite "Electronic Casebook" feature), Electronic Design, IEEE Computer, etc. Subsequently we were witness to the unravelling and experimentation with newer levels of logic and integration of both digital and analogue design. We went from the cumbersome multi-voltage logic families like DTL and RTL (hobbyists couldn't practically afford ECL logic with its superior speed and high power requirements), to the infant TTL and later CMOS variants which eventually would prove practical for most design requirements. As the first logic families began to stabilize in popularity and standardization we build the TV Typewriter, the MARK 8 computer (based on newcomer INTEL's 8008 traffic light controller chip), and the CYCLOPS video capture device. Then, MITS sprang the ALTAIR 8800 on us. A bit later came the ALTAIR 680 which used the Motorola 6800 processor.
    The S-100 bus was an expensive entry into this infant field, but it allowed anyone armed with just a bit of electrical and mechanical know-how to build a machine that could interface to a televison, perform mathmatical operations, monitor and control machinery and remote functions and limitless other possibilites, all at 1 or 2 Mhz clock speeds, and with as little as 1K of RAM! Anyone could conceive and build a real-time clock board, a sound board, expansion memory board, I/O board, video display or capture board, interface to mass storage devices, limited only by the imagination. Like Henry Ford's Model T offered in bare-bones dress to the populace, the S-100 machines like ALTAIR and IMSAI brought entrepreneurial opportunity to the kitchen table!
    The more "left-brained" of us became programmers; the High Priests, writing clever code that would tame the cumbersome process of hand-loading instructions into the machine's memory. They ported software like assemblers, compilers, interpreters, BASIC and other high-level languages down from University and Corporate mainframe systems down to the microcomputer. The simple "Kill The Lights" program offered free with the first IMSAIs was an example of perhaps 60 instructions that had to be toggled into memory by various manipulations of the address and data switches, stepped by the EXAMINE, DEPOSIT, and SINGLE STEP switches. It seems archaic today but back then the wonder of this machine doing something marvelous because YOU built it AND programmed it was joyous beyond belief. (we were easily amused :)
    This S-100 architecture became "The Peoples' Architecture" and it flourished like nothing before it for perhaps a dozen years until eclipsed by the PC which, although still open-architecture (and superbly documented by IBM), was a magnitude of order more complicated and structured. Now the experimenter or designer had to master a BIOS, a more complicated bus structure, and a more expensive platform on which to prototype or design on. The increase in "horsepower" necessitated significantly greater expense and resources.
    I feel that the same situation still exists. Witness the popularity of Parallax' BASIC STAMP and embedded controllers in all forms like the PIC series, INTEL and MOTOROLA families, etc. These architectures are removed from the increasingly complicated structure embodied in the AT class of PC. I would like to propose a return to the basics in purpose and stategy. To encourage a leaner, more focused and straight-forward compromise between hardware and software considerations. To once again provide a development platform that is classic and utilitarian in purpose.
    There are two IMSAI machines planned for later this year. The first is a limited editon Platinum Classic machine featuring the front panel design and function that made it so popular in 1976. Inside, it will house a powerful Pentium-class motherboard on par with the most advanced Dell or Gateway machines, and high-wattage switching power supply. The front panel will have an embedded controller and interface for the still-to-be-defined bus, which will allow expansion in the same manner as the original S-100 architecture. Included will be a three-channel programmable Infrared communications link to allow interface and communications with virtually any device within IR range. A video bus, perhaps S-video, is also planned as a feature. The bus structure is open to comment, and a preliminary specification will be offered on http://imsai.net within the next couple of weeks.
    The second IMSAI machine will be similar with respect to the above, but will not include the PC motherboard, although provision will be allowed for the user to install his/her own. The front panel capabilities will be the same, but perhaps with limited capabilities installed (but upgradeable). It will look very much like the original IMSAI 8080 in color and proportion, but will probably NOT include the OCTAL representation under the HEXADECIMAL switch lableing like the original. I think that only octal-notation advocate George "flat Earth" Morrow would miss that feature. Let me know if you disagree.
    As for putting the original S-100 machine back in production, I think it would have to sell for around $1200.00 and require guaranteed sales of at least 500 units to make it a reality. But with IMSAI's and ALTAIR's selling for $3000 to$4000 on the internet, maybe that's a bargain! With a warranty to boot! I think we can all do better by embracing the new proposed standard. Please e-mail me with your comments, and pass the word.
    Best regards,
    -Thomas Fischer
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