A Personal History of Personal Computing, 2014 Update

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Back in 2003 on my “original” blog, and then in 2005 on Extended Phenotype, I started a serial essay called “A Personal History of Personal Computing.” My first blog is long gone in the transition away from Radio Userland to Typepad, but otherwise my output from 2004 onward is still intact (including a conversion to Wordpress from Typepad).

Moore’s law is one way to look at the history of personal computing. Another is the history of companies that have come and gone, making personal computers and software. This story is about my own personal computing history — the machines, what I did with them, what software I thought was important. I omit computers that I didn’t really have control over, such as University mainframes and Unix servers, and I also omit the vast array of servers and computers I administered or used for development at RealNetworks, Internap, Network Clarity, Microsoft, GridNetworks. I do include Emergent Media (later, AllRecipes.com), because until May of 2014, I was still carrying around a wadded post-it note with passwords in my wallet (no machine names, of course).

The story starts in the late 1970′s, shortly after personal computers came about and before IBM changed things forever….

TRS-80 Model I Level II 16K, cassette tape storage (1978-1980)

My first direct computer experience. The computer was owned by Kirkland Junior High school, and was the focus for a couple of years of a small group of enthusiasts after school under the direction of one of the math teachers (whose name, sadly, I’ve forgotten). We had the Level II upgrade but still only a tape drive (in the beginning — we later got a disk drive if I recall). I typed in the Star Trek game, and had a big box full of tapes of various programs. I had a copy of “101 Basic Computer Games” at the time (wish I’d kept it), and we played adventure, hunt the wumpus, all the classics. I did a bunch of simple Basic programming, and bought manuals for the Z-80 microprocessor and dreamed about doing assembly code. Since there was only one machine, most of the stuff we did was in a group, and it was tough to get time to hack around by myself in hex code, since it bored everybody else. I loved the TRS-80. It was my first.

Apple II+ (1980-1982)

I didn’t own an Apple II or II+ personally until much later. Lake Washington High School had one, though, in addition to an old HP card punch machine of some type. I never paid much attention to the HP, however, because of the Apple (although I did one punch card project, which even at the time felt quaint). Long before I owned one, I had all of the Applesoft and Integer Basic manuals, as well as Don Lancaster’s books on great things you could do with the Apple (I still own one of the old Don Lancaster books). In addition, I somehow managed to glom onto a copy of the original Apple II “red book” — still a treasured part of my library. Somewhere around this point, my family was taking a vacation in California — San Francisco, and then driving to visit family in Fresno. I convinced Mom and Dad to detour to Cupertino, and I made a pilgrimage to Apple and Atari.

Apple IIe (1983)

The first computer I personally owned was the Apple IIe, which came out in 1983. I had gotten a job at our local Albertson’s grocery store in 1981 to save money to buy a computer (and later, a car). I cleaned the bakery and meat department, and eventually became a bag-boy (or whatever they’re now called in politically correct terms). I was going to buy a II+, but somebody at the Byte Shop (where I dragged my parents as often as humanly possible) told me about the upcoming IIe, and I pre-ordered one. When they came out, I got the first one that the shop received. I was in heaven. Disk drive! 80 columns! 48K RAM! Applesoft Basic! Naturally I pirated every piece of software that I could glom onto.

Oddly, when I started college in 1984, I didn’t use the computer much for word processing, using my old typewriter instead. I didn’t own a printer! My interest in computers kind of waned for a few years as I plugged my way through college and a degree in anthropology (and nearly one in history).

Leading Edge XT clone (1988) [DOS]

Before I left for grad school and while I was doing my senior honors thesis, I bought a new IBM PC clone to make my life easier. I’d been approved for a credit card, and the first thing I bought at Ballard Computer was a Leading Edge PC clone, on which I used WordPerfect 5.1. The Leading Edge stayed with me (including a cranky dot-matrix printer) through graduate school in Wisconsin and into the early 90′s. It was last seen sometime in the early 1990′s in the Thermoluminescence Laboratory at the University of Washington, where I left it so Jim Feathers could do word processing while calculating TL dates. There wasn’t any fancy software here. It was all about word processing — not even spreadsheets. I had Lotus 1-2-3 and some of the add-ons, but rarely used them for anything.

Macintosh SE (1988-1989), Macintosh II (various models, 1988-1989)

While I was in Wisconsin I went back to my Apple roots and became a Macintosh convert, mostly thanks to my friend Carl Lipo and the fact that UWisconsin had a ton of Macs all over the place, so it was the dominant platform in our department as well as the school computer labs. I still did most of my core writing on the Leading Edge, but all of the scientific and programming exploration Carl and I did was on Macintosh. It was around this time (1988) that I also started using email, on BITNET. I’d had computer accounts at UWashington on the CDC Cyber and some of the VAX machines, but mostly to do SPSS statistics runs. Email for the general populace even on campus was still in the future prior to 1988, except in some lucky pockets. The big thing on software here was various graphing and statistics packages. We were/are archaeologists, and we finally had analytical power comparable to the Unix and mainframe-based stuff we’d been using before. Things like Surfer, for topographic mapping, were still fairly specialized, so we were using stuff on the Mac at this point even more primitive but still powerful.

This was also my introduction to integrated programming environments, when we were lucky enough to get a version of Think C and Think Pascal for the Mac II’s on campus.

Various 286 and 386 clones [DOS]

Coming back to UWashington in 1990, our computer lab was mostly 286 and 386 clones, running DOS and WordPerfect. By 1991, we were switching over to Windows, which Carl and I were heavily involved with. We also drove the upgrade of Macintosh capabilities, and the installation of a single 486 powerful enough to run some of the scientific software we were working with (e.g., CAD stuff). At this point, Carl and I were into all sorts of software, but the big thing was still word processing, spreadsheets for data, and stats programs.

I mention these computers because we commandeered them (and especially their disk capacity) as much as possible while leaving them functional for everyone else. We also administered a Novell Netware server for the lab, and spent endless hours working with netbios “shims” and other crimes against humanity, in order to get Novell talking reliably to all the Windows 3.11 (“For Warehouses”) machines.

Macintosh Powerbook

The department also bought a Powerbook, which could theoretically be checked out by students for fieldwork. In practice, nobody did at this point, so Carl and I had this machine all the time, and I seemed to use it a lot, for working on my dissertation proposal either at Cafe Allegro, or at the Still Life in Fremont near our apartment. The best thing about this machine was the integrated rollerball, which I still think was a sweet design.

Macintosh SE II (1992-1993)

Carl and I were starting work on the PGT/PG&E pipeline project in 1992, and bought SE II’s in Eugene, Oregon (since there was no sales tax and that’s where the project office was). I carried this around for two years in a Mac soft carrying case through a zillion motels and offices along the pipeline route. I sold it to my friend Sarah Sterling in 1993 when I bought my Centris 660AV. I had an Apple Stylewriter with this, and still have the padded bag for the printer — it’s a perfect bag for wine tastings, holding a small box of glasses and miscellaneous whatnot.

This was the first of my machines which was reliably hooked up to “the Internet” via modem, often in motels in places like Klamath Falls, Redding, or Bonner’s Ferry.

486 clone (1992-1993) [Windows 3.11]

This was my office computer on the pipeline project at Woods Cultural Research. It did very little, except Microsoft Word and Excel, but it was hooked up to the laser printer so I did my reporting work on it. Nothing impressive here.

Macintosh Centris 660AV (1993-1995)

This was the dream machine I’d saved my per diem money for. I’d even given up my apartment in Bend, Oregon, and spent the last three months of my time on the pipeline project in a sleeping bag on the office floor and showering at the gym to save every last dime for this baby.

Onboard DSP chips which gave me full-motion video capture, audio input and output, a decent size hard drive and memory, and one of the Apple Audiovision screens with microphone and speakers. And it cost a friggin’ bundle, given Apple’s pricing model — between 3 and 4 thousand if I recall.

This machine is where applications blossomed. The web, programming, statistics, simulation modelling. Metroworks Codewarrior opened whole new worlds for us in terms of agent-based simulations (this was before the Swarm toolkit). Early web stuff — BBedit, MacWeb, early versions of Netscape Navigator. Sadly, the migration to PowerPC and software that would only run on PPC made this machine obsolete. But this machine was my primary machine around the time I transitioned from grad school to RealNetworks (then Progressive Networks) and became a fulltime systems and software engineer.

Felix.law.washington.edu 486/66 (1994-1995) [Linux 1.09]

Felix was the first Unix server I built. Bron Miller and I built Felix for the Law School at the University of Washington, to serve as a web server and email server. Given that the rest of the network was Novell Netware 3.11 with Windows 3.11 clients, we built Felix in order to add Internet capabilities for the department, since the University itself hadn’t yet centralized things like faculty web pages. Felix was retired sometime in the late 90′s when Bron got into the ASP environment and started working in NT. I learned a lot from Felix and owe a lot to that box, the law school, and Bron Miller, my partner in crime at that point.

Emergent Media’s servers (darwin, weismann, huxley) (1995-1997) [Linux/SunOS]

When we started Emergent Media, Inc. in the spring and summer of 1995, we had nothing in terms of web servers. Steve Patnode, who ran Outdoors Online at that point, was a consulting client of ours. He bought a Pentium box, and we ran both OOL and Emergentmedia.com on it for several years. That box was the original Darwin, now defunct. Weismann was our first “wholly owned” server, and we used it to serve hosted websites, and also did web and RealAudio streaming for Dan Savage’s website and radio show in 1996 and 1997.

Weismann was a Pentium Pro 200, and lives on today as a hardened firewall box for my home network (2008 update: after finally dying in early 2005, I replaced the original Weismann with a Netgear Pro VPN firewall, and Weismann’s hard drive with the Savage Love Live and original Toys in Babeland website is sitting in a box in my office, and in 2014 is lost to the ravages of time, which I regret).

Huxley was a Sun Sparc 5, formerly owned by POPCO/Point of Presence Company, with whom we were sharing space. Glenn Fleishmann had upgraded, and Huxley was basically worthless to him. We set it up for electronic commerce applications, and ran some of the OOL licensing sites from it for some period of time.

Pentium 120 clone (1996) [Linux]

I bought this P120 clone from Bear Computer in order to have a Linux box at home. I learned Java on this box, writing a pretty cool modular web server from scratch in the snowstorm over the holidays in 1996/1997. It served as my only home box for a long time — after I moved into Fremont with my friend and coworker Jon Miller, I didn’t bother with the Centris anymore. This box was finally retired in 2000 when I bought a house and replaced it. It became a highly useful source of bits for fixing my Mom and aunt’s computers.

Macintosh Powerbook Duo 120 (1996)

I don’t remember why I grabbed this, but Glenn Fleishmann sold me this for a pittance sometime in 1996, I think. At the time it was already old, slow, and didn’t really do anything. I think the keyboard was wonky or something, but it was fairly cheap. I don’t recall if I ever got it working much at all, and it long ago joined some junk pile.

IBM Thinkpad 560X 200MHz (1997) [Windows 95]

I bought this laptop to be my personal machine sometime in early 1997, after Emergent Media declared its first shareholder dividend based on our profits from doing MSN and Microsoft consulting (and the last time we saw any cash out until 2006, incidentally). We were buying laptops for Internap, and moving into IBM Thinkpads at the time instead of the old Toshiba laptops for oncall. The 560X was a good machine, and served me well.

Pentium 500MHz [personal]

I finally felt the need sometime in 2000 to get a Windows box to have at home alongside my Linux system, so this was another cheap Bear Computer special. It served the purpose of having Microsoft Office available (since I was managing people at that point and used Excel and Word a ton). I eventually gave this machine to one of my employees.

Dell Latitude CPx 600MHz (2000-current) [personal Linux]

This was my Internap laptop (bacchus.internap.com) for a long time. INAP gave me the machine when I left, and it’s variously been my early Network Clarity machine, a “loaner” machine for new Network Clarity employees when Dell is slow shipping, and now it’s become my Redhat 8.0 test box. I love the new Redhat 8.0 install and look. I’m using this box as a clean place to build a Ruby development environment, to learn Ruby. I’ll probably also use it as a personal test box for Network Clarity’s software product.

Pentium III 800MHz [home Linux] Pentium IV 1.4GHz [home windows]

Behind the firewall box, my home configuration from 2000 to 2005 was a Linux box with a ton of disk for music, a Windows box for doing word processing and presentations, a Turtle Beach Audiotron for playing the music, and Orinoco 802.11b gear for networking throughout the house.

(2008 update: the P3 800 MHz has been running continuously since 2000, and still houses a couple of storage disks I haven’t yet migrated old stuff from. This box is the most ancient computer I have functioning on a daily basis on the network. I’m quite sure its cost is now below a nickel per day).

2014 update: The dusty hulk of this box lurks in the corner of the garage, given the difficulty of getting rid of things on the island. It’s time to tow the hull to the graveyard…

Sony Vaio Picturebook (Transmeta Crusoe) (2001) [travel]

I bought the Vaio when it came out because it’s tiny (regular laptop width but only 4 inches across, less than 2 pounds). I also bought it because it runs the Transmeta chip, and I wanted to check that out. Also, my business partner Sam Long (Pinpoint Venture Group) bought one, and I had gear envy. The Vaio is great for traveling, but right now it’s honked up and won’t stay running without compulsively crashing. It’s a good enough travel computer that I do intend to have it serviced and XP installed.

Dell Inspiron 8200 1.6GHz (2002-current) [work/personal Windows XP]

The Dell 8200 was a superb personal and engineering laptop, which I bought when we started Network Clarity using the proceeds from selling my old Toyota pickup truck to Marc Olsen for use on Stuart Island (where it still is, even in 2008). It ran XP, which frankly is pretty damn great (2008 note – huh, WTF? I must have been under the influence). For the time, this laptop was performance-packed: 1.6GHz processor, 1GB RAM, big HD, DVD/CDRW, wireless, 100MB ethernet, firewire, and an ultra-bright 15" display. Eats the new 90w batteries for breakfast, but with two batteries I also get nearly 5 hours of life. If I’m willing to drag 8-9 pounds around on my shoulder. This machine has a ton of development environments, multimedia, UML diagramming tools, databases, competitor products, and whatnot.

Dell Inspiron 8500

Well, since I first posted this story, the 8200 stopped charging batteries, which became something of a problem if you travel. So I bought an 8500 from eBay (brand-new, never been used). This became my standard Windows laptop, and it’s pretty nice. Thinner, lighter, and with a wide aspect screen, it’s also faster than the 8200. As of July 2005, this remained my Windows laptop, although not my primary machine given my new Powerbook (2008 note – again, dead as a door nail. Dell is good for business laptops, but the lifetime ain’t great)

Fry’s Special PC for $199

When the “home windows box” mentioned above died early in 2005, I went to Fry’s and bought one of their $199 specials, a Chinese-built Sempron box with 128MB of RAM (which I upgraded) and a 40GB drive. The thing ran Lindows when I first got it, but was soon replaced with Ubuntu Linux, and now serves as an “up to date” Linux box in my home network. The older 800MHz box is still the major file server, but the fans are starting to sound bad and the disks almost full, and it needs work soon.

(2008 update: this machine still serves as a Subversion repository on my home network on San Juan — an incredible value, running about 23 cents per day now and falling….)

Apple Powerbook 12" 1.0GHz/768MB RAM/60GB/Tiger OS X 10.4

I bought this off eBay. I loved this machine. Prices are finally getting into the zone where it’s rational to buy their hardware, and OS X is finally maturing into a very sweet operating system, with a Unix core which makes long-time Unix/Linux people happy while still providing an amazing GUI experience. I believe I’ll be staying on Apple for personal machines for the foreseeable future, using Windows when needed and having Linux servers at home for storage and playing around.

(2008 note – this machine still is in use, but I gave it to dear friends up on Saltspring Island when I bought my MBP)

Macbook Pro 17inch “Number One”

This was bought in the Spring of 2006, right after the “glossy screen” option came out along with Core Duo processors, and it instantly became my only personal machine. This machine only runs with 2GB RAM, so it’s a bit tight given everything I run, including virtual machines with Parallels. I gutted the optical drive out of it within a year and installed a second hard drive for extra storage, which got me into trouble with Apple when I needed repairs for the “magical expanding battery” problem. The upshot is that this became my “backup” laptop, and I keep it updated and ready to Target Disk Mode as my backup should the next machine crap out….

2014 update: still have this around as an “emergency backup” option should some other piece of hardware fail.

Macbook Pro 17inch “Number Two”

This was bought when the guy at the Apple Store pissed me off by getting righteous about my optical/disk modifications of “Number One” and wouldn’t give me a repair estimate and was going to leave me without a computer for days or weeks. So I bit the bullet and bought backup/new primary hardware. This one has the 3GB RAM limit, but the Core 2 Duo, and the matte screen (since I found the glossy screen difficult to use sitting in sunlight outside, on the deck or sitting on the beach — life’s rough, huh?). This is currently my daily machine both at GridNetworks and for academic use, and it’s pushed to the hilt. Disk is nearly full, RAM is almost always short, but it works well and I’d be lost without it (hence the “backup” laptop).

2014 update: This became Nicole’s laptop for awhile, until I swapped it out for my first 15" MBP, at which point I sold it on eBay.

Macbook Air

I bought the Macbook Air simply because I couldn’t stop myself. Steve Jobs was still on stage during the keynote, and I found myself filling out the form on the Apple Store. It was hypnotic, and I still am not sure how it happened. The Air is my “couch” laptop, so I can leave the 17inch on the desk playing music, etc, and have something portable and small on my lap for “light” work, Wikipedia reading, writing, email, etc. Plus it’s fun to take to meetings. For the first 10 days I really did carry it in a manila envelope because they hadn’t shipped anything that fit it yet.

2014 update: I sold this to my friend Glenna, whose husband is still using it.

Mac Mini

The Mini was my stereo, under the kitchen island at the house, connected to the monitor that swivels over the island. I keep zero files or software on it, it’s pretty much a stock Leopard load, and its job is to pull iTunes off the Infrant NAS storage server and let me read email and browse the web while downstairs. And keep friends entertained with YouTube and FunnyOrDie while we’re cooking.

2014 update: Gone, replaced by AppleTV and a Sonos network.

Dell Dimension 9200

And I nearly forgot the simulation workhorse. I bought a fairly cheap Dell desktop, the Dimension 9200 with decent graphics card, 2GB RAM, and the Core 2 Duo, in fall of 2006 or so. I think. I use it as a Linux box in the office at home, on which I do development, and run simulations in batch mode for research purposes. A good deal, all things considered.

2014: finally started cracking up and was retired in favor of the AMD box.

Mac Pro, Early 2009, 8GB RAM, 2.66GHz Quad-core Xeon

This was a media server and office desktop, and is still in use and is my primary iTunes library. It has RAID 1 mirrored drives for iTunes, and does Time Machine backup internally to another set of drives. Still in daily use in 2014.

Macbook Pro 15″ Unibody, Core i5, 8GB RAM and SSD

This is the best laptop I’ve ever had (in 2011 or so). I’m holding essentially a 4 processor, 8GB RAM machine with ultrafast disk in my hand, and if you measure the curve from here back to the beginning, it’s exponential. When I became an NSF Graduate Fellow in 1989, part of the award in addition to tuition and stipend was a few minutes of supercomputer time on one of the NCSA supercomputers. I’m pretty sure nothing I could have done with those minutes would be out of reach with this laptop, and more.

2014 update: This is now Nicole’s laptop.

Macbook Pro Retina, Mid 2012 15“, Core i7 2.6GHz, 16GB RAM, SSD and Jetdrive

No, this is the best laptop I’ve ever had. Stuffed to the gills, it continues to crank away and give me about 13K performance on Geekbench. If I need more power than this, I start a cluster on EC2.

2014: this is still my current laptop, because Apple hasn’t released anything more powerful (except tiny tweaks).

Thinkpad X230, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD

I bought this because I got tired of not being able to use a computer on an Airplane, and wanted to diversify my development between OS X and Linux, to ensure that it was easier to move my stuff back and forth without “porting” anything. Plus, I’d read one of Cory Doctorow’s blurbs about his setup, and didn’t think that the then-current Airs were enough for the money.

2014: still in active use.

Avatar AMD FX-8350, 16GB RAM

I bought this dirt cheap from Newegg with overnight shipping when I was fighting a deadline for a conference paper and needed a bunch of cores, fast. And moving giant blobs of data back and forth to EC2 wasn’t an option given my home internet connection.

2014: Still in active use.

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