Guided by Ghosts of the Past

 

For those of a certain age you might remember back in 1984 or 85 when you stepped in front of a Macintosh for the first time. Moving the mouse... and watching the pointer follow. Staring at those marching ants in MacPaint. Dragging an icon of a disk... to the trash!!?

For a small-town kid like me, my first experience with the Mac felt a lot like listening to a good Nina Simone or Van Morrison song. It moved my soul in all the right places.

Lately, like a lot of people it seems, I’ve been collecting other things from my past that had that kind of effect on me. Now, in eyeshot of my desk while I work, I can get inspired again by things that rocked my view of what technology was at the time.

There is still a lot to learn from this thirty and forty year old technology. 

 
 

waking the imagination.

 

That first Macintosh definitely did something to me. But I really have to go back to 1979, playing Adventure on the Atari, for my first contact with technology (or more specifically, software) that woke something inside.

I was too young to get it at the time. I only knew I wanted to keep playing it over and over until I wore out the joystick... and my family’s nerves.

But the developer, Warren Robinett, and Atari somehow figured out how to turn clunky blocks of color into something that actually made you feel fear, and made you think you were seeking treasure and fighting dragons.

 

It wasn’t until later I understood how good Atari had been at marketing and packaging their games: simple, multicolor boxes with beautiful illustrations on the covers. They must have known that static screenshots of those blocky pixels wouldn’t cut it, so they created iconic artwork for us to imagine what we were playing. And boy did it work on my young, impressionable mind. I could stare at that ship blasting Asteroids for hours.

 

Atari, back then, understood the value of a good out-of-box experience, and got how important kids’ imagination would be to the success of their “video computer system programs.”

I still think of those game boxes and their instruction manuals today as I aspire to make the best first impressions for my own stuff.

 

speaking the machine’s language.

 
 

Before the Internet, a kid had to go out and find copies of magazines like Compute!’s Gazette to catch up on the latest for his Vic 20 or Commodore 64. Those magazines, to a kid learning computers, had as much soul as any issue of Life Magazine ever did. Like the Internet, each issue was packed with things you could learn—especially if you put in the hours (and hours) of typing in the thousands of lines of BASIC program listings in each issue.

You could learn a lot typing in those home budget programs and checkbook managers written in BASIC, but it was the Machine Language listings, I think, that blew our minds. 

How could entering in page after page of simple integers between 0 and 255 produce a high-speed, arcade-quality game like Spike, or a commercial-quality word processor like Speedscript—all free for the typing? It was one of those great mysteries of the universe that felt like real magic. Binary, 6502 CPU mnemonics, 2’s compliment, and video-chip registers in RAM all became as fascinating and elusive to me as gravity.

 
 

Machine Language also taught me my first real lesson in the importance of good developer tools. Entering in long streams of binary to get free games was one thing, but having a good Assembler was like having a set of professional-grade carpenter tools in your garage.

It was tools like these that made me start to see how I could actually make a living as a programmer.

It may also be why I love native development, today, more than cross-platform tools. It’s our modern version of Machine Language, letting us continue to speak directly with the machine.

 
 

that constant desire to evolve.

 

Today, we all look forward to the next great model of phone or a lighter and faster laptop, but can you ever remember wanting more columns? Hard to imagine that was ever a thing.

Take the Vic 20, for example. It only had 23 columns of text you could work with. What could you possibly do with that!? The Timex Sinclair had 32. A little better, I suppose? The Atari, Apple II, and Commodore 64 all had 40 columns. Now we’re talking. But still… “real” computers had 80 columns. (Didn’t they?)

 
 

Then Apple came along and turned our ideas of computers (and columns) completely upside down when they introduced their Macintosh.

The commercial was legendary, of course, but for me it was their brochure printed in December of 1983 that I remember the most. For a high school kid, from a working-class family who had no hope of owning such a computer, that brochure was the closest you could come to holding a Macintosh in your hands. I remember paging through it for weeks trying to understand anything and everything I could form those 12 glossy-printed pages. It was easy to see, even from that brochure, that the future of computers was going to be one heck of a ride.

Fortunately, my parents were the best of champions for me back then—despite how strange and utterly expensive my interests must have been for them. They were the reason I had an Atari 2600 to experience that fear and thrill of Adventure on, a Vic 20 to want more columns from, and a Commodore 64 to discover the magic of binary.

Then, before I graduated from high school, they surprised me once again with a Macintosh 512K (the Fat Mac), and that sealed my fate. I’ve been happily earning a living on one Mac or another ever since.

As the saying goes: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I think there may be some things worth repeating, though. Looking at all those relics, at the passion and thought developers squeezed into their 8 and 16 bits of technology, they all remind me of how much creativity, imagination, and pride you can put into developing and delivering something for others to use.

I certainly wouldn’t want to have to go back and relive any of those years again. (The anxiety, alone, of having to wait for the technology to evolve all over again would be too much.) But there are lots of ideas and examples of software from back then that continue to inspire and to keep me wanting to write better software of my own today.

 

 
bits-and-bytes, shawnShawn McKee