Computer History





My computer history is long and varied, starting somewhere around 1985, my first experience with a computer was interestingly enough, and Apple IIE, I think? In those days there was no such luxury as an icon-based operating system (that's right, you had to type in every command manually. For somebody like myself who has challenges with typing, it was truly a slow mission!

Around the time that I was being introduced to this computer, I was beginning to think what the world would be like in the future when you didn't need to type so much. I was aware of the existence of the for Macintosh which had just been released about a year earlier; but financially it would have been well out of my league.

Around 1986 I was in a position to get a computer of my very own! It was difficult in those days trying to decide exactly which model and what memory to eventually go with, because there were so many in those days.

Let me try and recollect:

1. Apple computer

225px-Apple_512k
© Wikipedia image

2. Atari computer

320px-Atari_1040STf
© Bill Bertram, 2006

3. Commodore International Limited (with their C 64 and Amiga)
640px-Commodore-64-Computer
© Evan-Amos

618px-Amiga500_system
© Bill Bertram, 2006


4. IBM computers

571px-IBMPS1
© Wikipedia image

5. Compaq computers

6. BBC Micro


BBC_Micro_Front_Restored
© Stuart Brady

7. Amstrad

Amstrad_CPC464
© Bill Bertram, 2005

Plus many others; there are too many other manufacturers to name or even contemplate trying to remember–those mentioned above were most of the main players in their respective markets. The BBC was popular in Europe and places like Australia and New Zealand.

In the mid-1980s, the landscape for consumer computers and peripherals in New Zealand was a lot different then it is today. There were many companies competing with each other plus they had corresponding operating systems, trying to ideas gain the upper hand.

Around 1986 I had to decide what kind of computer I wanted to buy. In those days many retailers tried to get into the computing retailing game. Probably, they saw an opportunity to potentially make some money, and how successful they were at this only history can truly judge. From
all a person's point of view though the market seemed very crowded.



Anyway back to the story!

I went into the shop, asking particular questions about the ideal machine that would potentially suit my needs. Beer in mind please, that at this stage I was not very computer literate and I relied on what many other people would tell me.

These are the main things I wanted in a personal computer that time:

1. A colour screen

2. Fast loading (i.e. no tape drive)

3. A good variety of software

4. A system at a reasonable price

In those days I knew about the different manufacturers but very little about the advantages of one over the other. Because at the time the BBC Micro was a popular educational computer and it also came with a colour screen, after some debate with the retailer I opted for this. The BBC Micro by today's standards was really lacking in any of the modern computers advantages.

1. Memory was a puny 32 kB not megabytes or gigabytes.
2. The computer comes standard with a tape drive (which thankfully I opted out of) and purchased a floppy disk drive. Had I gone for the tape drive things would have been decidedly slower.

A cool $4000! This kind of cost was not uncommon in those days computers were still hideously expensive for what you got, memory cost was also extremely expensive!

So, once I decided on what I wanted! It was time to get this unit home. There was no carrying this to the car, it was decided that I needed some form of tuition
.
The BBC Micro BBC Micro did not use a mouse, or any other input device except fingers to type commands on the keyboard. Initially, computer ownership was not inspiring all fun for me because everything took far too long to accomplish.

My personal recollection is that the computer revolution didn't really start gaining traction in New Zealand until the middle part of the 1980s, primarily this was due to cost of the equipment, by this stage computers began (should I say home computers began to become affordable especially at the long end of the market). There was also a lot of hype regarding the performance and abilities of computers beginning to make its way into advertising; and of course there was always Star Trek which started in the 1960s and continued on which encouraged a lot of people into home computing when equipment become available.

The difference between fantasy and reality though was a vast chasm. When I got that first BBC Micro with 32 kB of Ram home, I wasn't really sure what to expect! What I got was that the first machine, was a lot of effort and not much output. Initially I bought this and it had to be delivered and set up. The guy that delivered it, and how to install the software–gave a very short demonstration lasting from memory about 25 or 35 min maximum. For people that really didn't know anything about computers you might as well been trying to teach us Arabic for the first time :-) well, that might be stretching it a little bit but it was a difficult learning curve. Mainly because of all the commands that you had to remember to switch from one mode' typing mode' to the' command mode' to do simple things like bolding a word. I think I would have been better served going initially for the Commodore Amiga, as this was mouse driven system for a lot less then the BBC; but this was to be four years away before I got that machine!



How much, would computer like this cost? With a colour monitor and external floppy disk drive?
I'm glad that I went for the colour monitor option, as a green screen would be unbearable. I'd had some previous experience as I alluded to earlier in the article with an Apple 2 (this was slightly easier as I did not have to deal with setting different colour settings as the Apple computer was a green screen, but this still involved a lot of manual typing just to get you to the point of writing or even playing a game. I don't think I can emphasise enough what a game changer the introduction of the mouse as a pointing device has been to the computing community!

With the BBC, from memory I got some games (and a reasonably entertaining start-up disk) highlighting the fun things you could do with a computer. For somebody that has fast typing speed and good coordination their experience with this computer could be completely different from mine (I suspect, it was only because of my inability to type easily that this computer was not a terribly good choice for me?

Looking back, I don't think I spend an awful lot of time on it (although initially I did) I spent hours trying to master it. After a time it just stayed on the shelf and didn't get used. After a couple of years we found out that some of the programs were defective. But unfortunately we had problems trying to get fixed or replaced. Another major problem was the printer driver was not working properly so it mean that every output we got from the dot metrics printer which I bought to go along with it was not good either.

So, time marched on! And before we knew it four years had passed it was 1990!

By this stage the BBC had (for me anyway fully outlived its usefulness) so I was in the hunt for another machine which was far easier to use at a reasonable price!


This time I did my research and made the decision that I wanted to get a Commodore Amiga 500. This was a machine which had a mouse and was fully menu-driven. Very similar in some respects to an Apple Macintosh but much cheaper! This time, we went to dedicated computer retailer, which was a much better experience. I'd heard of Commodore Amiga's before and people had told me how (from memory anyway there were easy to use). For me, anything that reduces the amount of keyboard input is great!

Anyway, I went to the shop (to be honest I can't remember much about the conversation) except, that I was amazed at the multitasking capability of the Commodore Amiga 500 given the price that I had to pay which was a much more reasonable $1800 NZ (I think this might have been for the base unit excluding monitor). At that point I wanted to get somebody's help to learn how to use this so someone contacted the volunteer centre. A person answered, and I meet with them and then invited them up to my place.

My experience with the BBC had really scared me in some respects, I was asked to put a floppy disk in the machine and was reluctant to do this at first because I thought I might break it! But eventually I got round to it and the rest is history!

The Commodore Amiga was amongst my favourite machines if not my favourite, because it offered everything that the BBC did not in terms of ease of use. You could even change the colour of the individual elements of the window which I always enjoyed immensely.

Around this time I started corresponding with a friend who had a talent for creating music. The Commodore Amiga had a program called Deluxe Music which allowed a person to make musical notations (like a music score), and have the machine play it back to you in real time. This friend of mine lived out of town about 400 km away, so what we used to do was send each other correspondence from the computer using a floppy disk! Remember this was 1990, about two or three years before the Internet wave hit New Zealand. Around this time I also got involved with (Electronic Bulletin Boards); you communicated with other computer users by ringing their computerised exchanges which consisted of individual modems hooked up to phone lines.

This period in time was incredibly fun, I felt like I was at the cutting edge of something very new :-) really, I was because not too many people were involved this intently with bulletin boards at this time. From memory it wasn't as for long as say the Internet is now (everybody has an Internet connection); because computer ownership was relatively expensive and it was not necessarily easy there were some technical problems and technical knowledge that you needed to acquire to use modems and set them up at this stage.A friend lent me a modem running at 300 bps (or bits per second)–this wasn't particularly fast but there was nothing like the thrills that for the first time you were communicating with another user over a phone line directly to their computer! I can't remember exactly whether modem first of all with the Commodore Amiga or or an Apple or an IBM compatible PC, I think possibly it was an Amiga I used a modem on first.



Dialling into bulletin boards was kind of similar to dial-up Internet expect you didn't have the world at your fingertips and of course while your online your phone line was engaged, so anybody wanting to contact you by voice was just plainly out of luck!

By the end of 1990 I decided that I needed to have a dedicated hard drive on my system. Up to this point I'd only been using a floppy drive (I had the Amiga 500 at this stage); this was not an expensive proposition! The A590 hard drive cost nearly $900 NZ (when you consider the computer itself cost $1800! This hard drive had a capacity of only 20 MB's but by the standards of the day that was considered a lot.

I'll never forget the thrill of going to the shop and purchasing this drive. This was not an internal drive but any external model which clipped onto the side of the Amiga 500 (it had its own Power supply). Really, this was a very reliable hard drive and very quiet for its day. Access to files was much quicker and it made using this computer great!

The next step in my computing evolution was a Macintosh!

The mists of time have made it difficult for me to remember exactly what the reason was I purchased a Mac but I'm sure it was to do with some correspondence course I was doing at the time. The difference with this machine was that unlike all of the previous computers which I'd owned this one was least from the Ministry of education I think around 1991 or 92, this machine was truly in a class of its own computer compared to the Amiga (much more refined) the basic principle was the same it was an icon-based operating system with windows that appeared on the screen!

I used a predictive text program called Screen Doors version 1.0, as far as I know this program is still being produced today. What this program enable me to do was to start typing a word and then, as the word appeared on the screen this program completed the spelling and also put the word onscreen for me. This was by no means voice recognition, but it was better than nothing and a timesaver most definitely.



Along with this Macintosh I had a track ball rather than a mouse, which was much easier to manage.

I ran with this system for a couple of years.

Around October 1994, I became very interested in the idea of speech recognition ever faster means of text input for me, because manually typing was slow and very inefficient. They were to voice recognition systems available one for IBM-Compatibles and the other for Apple Mackintoshes.

These programs were:

1. Dragon Dictate for Windows version 1.0
2. Power. Secretary

(Version 1.0 the PC clone a Compaq as I recall got to the start-up screen first and also the program was loaded faster! The Macintosh on the other hand because of its programs larger size to a rather to get ready.

The people that had bought the PC down for demonstration had really done their homework (trained the voice recognition file very accurately) so that when they started to demonstrate it, it worked flawlessly!

The Macintosh however, didn't work particularly well because power secretary had not been trained properly so that impacted on the end result. Personally because I was using a Macintosh at the time I was very disappointed that the Macintosh product didn't appear to be very good compared to its Microsoft Windows-based brethren.

So from that point I made the practical decision that I really needed to get a Windows-based PC at that time. Just out of interest the cost of that Macintosh at that time configured with 64 MB of RAM and 17 inch monitor not including the program was $13,000 (I kid you not) the cost of the voice recognition program on top of that for the Macintosh was about $1400!

The Windows-based PC plus its program was considerably cheaper:

$3300 for the computer and monitor
$1100 for the voice recognition program




Next on the agenda was to purchase a system, which luckily I was able to do, almost straight away in October 1994.

The computer needed 16 MB of RAM which was almost unheard of when a generous amount of RAM at the time was 8 MB; this put the price of the computer up considerably. I can always remember the surprise the salesperson had when I said I needed a computer with 16 MB of RAM (he said “why on earth do you need so much memory"). Since those days of course, memory requirements have skyrocketed we moved away from megabytes and gone to gigabytes.

This computers shipped with Windows 3.11 (this was just a few months before the release of the famous Windows 95)

Under Windows 3.11 my computer was extremely fast and relatively reliable, and I got used to using it quite quickly Dragon Dictate 1.0 was quite a good program especially for controlling the computer itself. Probably, it was better at commands then it was dictation. Well, I worked with this system for quite some time. I was swept away by all the hype regarding Windows 95 when it arrived in about April 1995 I think (I can research the exact date)!

This was just on the cusp of the window's 95 introduction (this was a big deal in computer circles–just because it marked a really huge uptake for many people in the purchase of personal computers! Of course there are always been the enthusiasts on other platforms and they had been Apple, but these machines had been relatively expensive. Computers were expensive and New Zealand anyway. But Windows 95 was finally easy enough for the average man or woman in the street to be able to afford.

I could say more precisely that, it was the best of the Internet in New Zealand around the end of 1992 to 1994 which spurred on the adoption of the computer, for really the first time people could see that you could do much more than just use a word processor or put numbers and/or spreadsheet, or play games. With the Internet going live, people although not fully understanding the technology it realised that this was the future and they better try to start harnessing this great energy.



Anyway, getting back to my narrative!

When Windows 95 finally did arrive, from memory around early to middle 1995, I was determined to get it straight away on my Windows-based PC because I believed that my voice recognition program would work much more fluidly with the new operating system? Well, initially I was quite disappointed! The first version of Windows 95 on my system which was a 486 66 MHz machine when my current software a little bit slower then the Windows 3.11. Also the version of windows that I bought was rather flaky. There were multiple floppy disks that I had to load and it took an incredibly long time to load the program. Of course it was a major advance on what had gone before, but what I failed truly realize was, that because the operating system was larger my computer had worked harder to operate it.

If my mind serves me correctly, I had to get a small update for Dragon Dictate version 1.0 so that it would run under Windows 95 (I could be wrong on this but I do realise that very shortly after there was an update) so I presumed that was to do with Windows 95 compatibility?

Around the time that I received my first voice recognition software was also the time that I first signed up to the Internet. This was around September or October 1994. I already had modems, having used these to do direct computer to computer linkups with friends. Just before I signed up with a local Internet provider I was told, that I do upgrade my current modem because possibly my speed would not be supported when I wanted to link up to the Internet. Really, I've always been a gadget guy I've always been into things that are shiny and new.

I first connected to the Internet using Windows 3.1. You had to be quite a bit more technical connecting to the Internet then you are today. Most of the providers today take some of the technical hardship away from you so that the process of doing online is made that much simpler and transparent. With Windows 3.1 you needed to load this program called “trumpet Winsock I think was the name. This was a blue screen which appeared on your system before it notified you that you had connected. Because connection speeds were relatively slow compared to today you had to wait. This was a noisy affair as the computer via the modem connected over your phone line, or tried to.



Initially I started using Netscape Navigator (as at the time, this was the only viable Internet browser around); Internet Explorer had not really come on the scene probably, besides which everybody was using Netscape. The intranet was quite a different place from what you see today. Very limited use of graphics, and much more writing based. Layout too was not particularly good and you spent the majority of your time reading what was on the screen so that you could identify what it was that you were interested in.

Very soon after Netscape Navigator, I migrated to Internet Explorer (this was only because Netscape become completely eclipsed by Microsoft Internet Explorer). The Internet in late 1994 was not the Internet of 2011, it was bereft of many visual elements that make the Internet a lot more usable. Mostly in 1994 were talking about text with a minimal amount of formatting and that is basically what you got! Occasionally there was it's a picture or two and perhaps a few animations. From memory there was no Google in 1994 (I could be wrong on this) the word very search engines from what I can remember. Really, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the infinite universe was much much smaller than it is today.

Very quickly I got onto what is known as' messaging' using a program called ICQ and from that day forward I haven't really looked back. Looking back I sometimes wonder whether it was a positive step. While you could easily meet many interesting and great people there is probably an even chance that that you might meet some people that you would have preferred not to have.

During the mid-too late 1990s I was running primarily Microsoft Windows-based operating systems, but I always thought they were clunky and prone to crashing most of the time. But, there were computers could run voice recognition so who was I to complain. I guess you could say, I've always been into gadgets (and by gadgets I mean anything electronic). It's a bit like an addiction one sure start it's very difficult to stop.

By 2003 I think I've set up my established pattern of working. Especially with voice recognition because by this stage I had become quite practiced at it. Being a person who is always looking to what's around the next corner, I decided to try the Macintosh again. The first iMac I bought was a runner-up model (it was Snow white in colour and heard the screen integrated into the bodywork–it look like a gumdrop design). This was a beautiful looking computer it ran at 600 MHz using a G3 processor, which by the way was pretty speedy.



During the time I've been on the Internet I've had the opportunity to be worth several Internet providers. I'm not exactly sure why I've changed so much but perhaps it was the same motivation which motivated me to change computers a lot. I was always looking for the next best thing!

We still haven't reached that magical time when computers or just react to our thought processes without any other intervention. There is no doubt that things have become a lot closer, but we're still not there yet. Personally, I'm impatient for things to improve. It would be nice to have Speaker independent voice recognition which didn't rely on any kind of training all currently, I would need to be running a server and have multiple microphone placements all around the room, and quite plainly that isn't particularly practical all cost-effective.

Rapping up this article finally in one cohesive sentence. My computing and Internet experience has certainly been an interesting one covering 25 years. Nothing we would have prepared me in those early years pre-1994 to the revolution that would be the Internet as far as freedom of expression is concerned. I think it can't be overstated how much of a change the Internet has made too many people's computing experience. In some regards the computer has become almost, secondary to surfing the web. Because there is so much that you can find out on the inter-web :-).

I hope you've found this article interesting

Take care and have a great day.

Malcolm.